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17 July 2019

Book review – Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements by William Dyrness

Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements

By William A. Dyrness

Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. ISBN 9780830851553. 165 pp.

Reviewed by Walter McConnell

Head of Mission Research, OMF International

Mission Round Table Vol 13 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2018): 31

During the past century the church has grown around the world in directions and in ways that were frequently unexpected and unprecedented. In recent years, one of the most debated means of growth has been insider movements— movements of people to faith in Christ who remain within their original cultural and religious communities. A growing body of literature describes this phenomenon, with some writers simply trying to describe what they see, others promoting it as a new expression of God’s Spirit, and more decrying its various forms as syncretistic at best. As most of the published literature on the theme comes in the form of articles in journals or compilations, I was excited to discover a longer examination written by a well-known theologian of culture with experience working in Asian and African cultures. Would the book fulfil my expectations?

Insider Jesus was not written so much to describe or evaluate various insider movements as “to provide a theological perspective for thinking about them” (2). Dyrness sets the stage in chapter 1 by examining the development and collapse of contextualization in recent mission thinking. Some of the book’s most challenging cultural and procedural issues are found here and demand our attention. I believe that Dyrness rightly claims that “the event of Christ, and of Christ’s renewing work, is not indigenous to any culture” and that “it has to be received as a crosscultural—indeed a countercultural—reality” (21). If this is correct, we may need to rethink our whole understanding of contextualization and indigeneity.

Chapter 2 considers how God’s role as Creator and Redeemer has impacted human culture from the very beginning. Culture and religion are both human responses to God’s work. The author believes that where cultures and religions promote human flourishing God works through them to bring redemption. Messengers of Jesus Christ should therefore get to know the logic and structure of a local cultural in order to illuminate what God is already doing there.

The third chapter focuses on religion as understood in biblical narrative. Israelite religion is said to “reflect both the religious and the cultural environment that Israel inhabited and also what God was up to at a given time” (45). As people long for and search for God, he responds, not with indifference but with “a remarkable tolerance toward other religions” (48). To be sure, religion per se cannot save because God is the author of salvation. Even so, religion gives people space to search for God and may provide places where Christ is encountered.

Examples of spaces where Christ is said to be found are recorded in the case studies in chapter 4. Here insider movements from Africa, Latin America, India, Thailand, and the Philippines are recounted. These movements vary greatly in detail and connection to the historical church and will strike many readers as being, at best, on the fringe of Christianity. Even so, we are encouraged to “watch this space” to see how the Holy Spirit continues to work in the divergent groups and brings them along on their road to discipleship.

Chapter 5 addresses issues of how Christians should understand and engage the various religions around them and recognize the working of the Spirit of God among them. Of great importance is Dyrness’ understanding of religion as “the particular cultural practices that develop to express the inbuilt human longing for God” (101) that, for most people, is “often expressed in stories, legends, aesthetic artifacts, and rituals” (104). For the gospel to make progress in the world, it must be understandable in terms that the receptors recognize, and when it is thus understood it may produce forms of church that are not instantly recognizable to others.

The final chapter sums up the ideas brought out in the book that the Spirit of God is working through insider and emergent movements today. While different reactions to these movements are acknowledged (138–40), Dyrness believes that the most helpful model for understanding them is that of “dual belonging”—in which a follower of Jesus can accept a new identity without giving up their previous identity (140).

Though I found the book stimulating  and recommend it highly for those who want to better understand insider movements, I was not fully convinced by all the arguments given for a number of reasons. First, the book reveals an undo optimism toward culture and religion that I believe does not take sin’s impact on culture seriously enough. Certainly, God is at work in cultures and individuals before someone brings the gospel along, but walls have often been erected to hold the gospel and Spirit out. Second, this optimism carries over to the discussion of the biblical narrative’s attitude toward other religions. The destruction of the Canaanites shows that God finds their morals and religious practices to be an abomination as they are so intricately intertwined and warns Israel against both. Third, the book’s regular encouragement to patiently watch for what the Holy Spirit is doing through a particular movement—even if it looks far from orthodox—would seem overstated if applied to other sub-Christian cults. While a few groups—like the Worldwide Church of God—have come to denounce their founder’s teachings and align themselves with evangelical Christianity through their study of Scripture, what level of hope should we hold out that others which have retained unorthodox or heretical doctrines for many years will one day come to the truth? Fourth, I was surprised to find myself in agreement with many statements made throughout the book, only to see these ideas applied to insider movements in a way that did not follow logically. Read the book for the breadth of its examination of the study, but be sure to pay close attention to the details.