Highly Contextualized Missions: Surveying the Global Conversation

A special feature of Cape Town 2010 was the opportunity for people around the world to witness the live events via the 650 GlobaLink sites and afterwards to participate in the online Lausanne Global Conversation. Through the Global Conversation, tens of thousands of people regularly dialogue with each other about key issues in missions, evangelism, theology, and a variety of other topics, providing insights and continuing the work begun at Cape Town. The purpose of these conversations is to keep the increasingly fragmented global church engaged with one another to discuss issues pertinent to world evangelization. It is impossible to peruse the most popular conversations without coming across articles about contextualization, Christianity and other world religions, syncretism, identity, and ethnicity. Thousands of people are discussing highly contextualized missions among people of other world religions, especially Muslims, but also among Hindus and Buddhists.


Joseph Cumming wrote an insightful article entitled “Muslim Followers of Jesus?” that opens by comparing the relatively new (beginning in the 1980’s) movement of “Messianic Muslims” to the (also recent, but comparatively older) Messianic Jewish movement.[1] Messianic Judaism has largely been accepted by mainstream Christianity as a legitimate form of faith in Jesus Christ in spite of the fact that Jewish religious leaders deny that Jesus is the Messiah or divine, whereas the same has not uniformly been extended to Muslims who have faith in Christ but choose to remain within their Islamic identity. Cumming addresses key concerns from advocates of C4 Christ-centered communities (see explanation below) in this debate by providing sound C5 responses to them, such as the supposed link between contextualization and syncretism, the “deceitfulness” of C5, reception of Jesus-followers by the Muslim community, sloppy Christology, and the definition of “Muslim” itself. The issue is one of identity; who does the Muslim “convert” choose to identify with, Western Christianity or the Muslim ummah (religious community) he was born into?

Identity is an important issue in the Global Conversation. It is a complicated matter when one tries to unite Christian and ethnic identity, a concern at the heart of highly contextualized ministries. Contributor Songram Basumatary writes, “my ethnic blood is stronger than the blood of Jesus Christ. The water of baptism is too thin to clean my thickly stained ethnic blood.”[2] Basumatary details his struggles as a northeast Indian Christian trying to reconcile two opposing worldviews and identities, further complicated by violence and hostility from his native culture. Responses in the global conversation express desire for Basumatary to overcome “superficial spirituality” and to find balance between “valuing one’s ethnic heritage and idolatrizing it.” This issue falls in line with another: ethnicity. Concerning both, what does one choose, and how does one choose it? Perhaps a more biblical question is, does God consider ethnicity a stain that must be eschewed to follow Jesus or does He free us from sin within our ethnic complexities?

Syncretism is a related topic in the global conversation. Some feel that the Lausanne Theology Working Group is unfair in suggesting a tenuous connection between contextualization and syncretism, as if there is a causal relationship between the two.[3] Syncretism is a problem where ever there are new believers, regardless of the degree of contextualization. It is a false dichotomy to imply that less contextualization leads to less syncretism. The Cape Town Commitment also warns of syncretism when addressing contextualization under the heading “love respects diversity of discipleship.” Cody C. Lorance, an active Global Conversation contributor involved in both church planting and insider movements among Hindus, rejects the notion that such a link exists.[4] He and many others desire a scale that indicates movement towards Christlikeness, which is necessary in all new fellowships, rather than unhelpfully contrasting contextualization and/or syncretism. Comments on similar articles by other users, however, indicate that many feel there is a greater danger of syncretism in this kind of ministry.

Contextualization, identity, ethnicity, and syncretism are important concerns when ministering among Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. In light of the reality that, globally, 86% of these religionists do not personally know a Christian,[5] it is more crucial than ever for the global church to discuss these matters. Our analysis will examine both insider movements and church planting movements in light of these concerns.

Scale of Christ-centered communities

The discussion of church planting versus insider movements begins with the C1–C6 scale that describes the spectrum of Christ-centered communities, developed by John Travis in 1988.[6] Below is the scale as it pertains to Muslims (though this scale has been reinterpreted for other contexts[7]):

Scale – Definition

C1 – Traditional church using non-indigenous language; essentially a foreign church within the culture

C2 – Traditional church using indigenous language; cultural forms still mostly foreign

C3 – Contextualized Christ-centered communities  using indigenous language  and non-religious aspects of the culture; believers typically meet in a church and call themselves Christians

C4 – Contextualized Christ-centered communities  using indigenous language  and biblically permissible cultural and religious forms; believers call themselves followers of Isa Al-Masih (Jesus the Messiah) and are typically rejected by the Muslim community

C5 – Christ-centered communities  of Muslim followers of Christ that remain within the Muslim community and are often still active in the mosque

C6 – Christ-centered communities  of secret/underground believers

Source: Adapted from Travis, 1988

Travis has stressed that the scale is not about the methods missionaries use to live among and share the gospel with Muslims (that is to say, the scale does not promote any radical contextualization on the part of missionaries, such as the idea that one becomes a Muslim or a Hindu to minister to a Muslim or a Hindu).[8] The scale is about how Christ-centered communities of new believers view their new identity in Jesus Christ, and their own decision as to how to live within that new identity. In 2007, the Global Trends and Fruitful Practices Consultation found that among missionaries serving in Muslim contexts, hundreds of fellowships had been formed along the entire C1–C6 scale (see graphic on next page).[9]

Church planting movements

David Garrison defines “church planting movements” as “rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment.”[10] According to the International Mission Board’s Global Research Department, an estimated 201 such groups currently have growing church planting movements within them.[11] Church planting movements typically fall between C2 and C4 on the scale. These are churches often founded by foreign missionaries with varying levels of adaptation to the culture around them.

As the least contextualized, C1 and C2 churches are often isolated from local customs and therefore generally do little to reach nationals with the gospel. These churches are typically unsuccessful in making new converts and disciples, or starting church planting movements. By contrast, C3 and C4 churches are more culturally appropriate and are therefore more inviting to Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, as well as more likely to become movements. There are two main differences between the two: C3 believers use only neutral cultural forms (such as folk music) and call themselves “Christians;” C4 believers adapt what they believe to be biblically permissible religious forms (such as certain feasts or styles of worship) and call themselves “followers of Jesus” (therefore separating themselves from the term “Christian,” which often has a connotation of Western or foreign influence).[12] The majority of churches planted in Muslim contexts fall between C3 and C4. It is generally agreed that these are legitimate and effective ways of reaching Muslims (and by extension, Hindus and Buddhists) with the gospel and creating communities of genuine Christ-followers.

There are numerous church planting movements worldwide that fall within the C3–C4 range. The Fruitful Practices network is a group of missiologists who study effective practitioners of mission—particularly in Muslim areas, but applicable around the world—and how God is working through them. Throughout 2009 and 2010 the International Journal of Frontier Missions published a series titled “Fruitful Practices: What Does the Research Suggest?” that was dedicated to their work. One study suggested that social networks are at the heart of missiological paradigms and that contextualization is key in transforming those social networks, no matter where they fall on the scale.

Figure: Percentage of new fellowships formaed along the C1-C6 scale

In 2009 members of this group developed a “descriptive list” of practices relating to society, believers, God, teams, seekers, leaders, communication, and faith communities to describe fruitful practices that promote “the emergence, vitality, and multiplication of fellowships of Jesus followers in a Muslim context,” though not limited to that context alone.[13]

Insider movements

The Cape Town Commitment defines “insider movements” as “groups of people [from other religions] who are now following Jesus as their God and Saviour. They meet together in small groups for fellowship, teaching, worship and prayer centered around Jesus and the Bible while continuing to live socially and culturally within their birth communities, including some elements of its religious observance.” According to the scale outlined above, these are C5 communities where individuals remain rooted in the identity and religious culture of their birth, even after coming to faith in Jesus Christ. They often continue to worship in the mosque and are identified by the Muslim community as Muslims. When the faith of these believers begins to spread rapidly along relational lines, it becomes an indigenous “insider” movement.

There has been much discussion—and disagreement—among scholars and missionaries in response to these types of movements. Many excellent articles have been written that address these issues in detail.[14] There are two primary points relevant to our assessment, based on voices from the Lausanne Global Conversations: syncretism and identity. Many feel that the theology of Muslims becoming sincere followers of Jesus while continuing to identify with their Muslim community is too complex and messy to be biblical, especially in light of contradictions between the Qur’an and the Bible. In these communities, parts of Islam that do not fit with the Bible are rejected, or if possible, reinterpreted.[15] Some see these believers as maintaining their birth or earthly identity (as Paul maintained both his Jewish identity and Roman citizenship) while adding a new spiritual identity in Christ. Others have concerns that the dual identities of these believers are incompatible and will cause them to have split loyalties between the two religious communities. In the 1970’s Phil Parshall was the leading advocate of C4 contextualization that, at the time, caused almost identical concerns in the Evangelical community. Joshua Massey has argued that Parshall’s groundbreaking work in advocating for C4 contextualization (which is now the most commonly prescribed) laid the groundwork for C5, the only difference being one of identity.[16] Parshall has subsequently been particularly vocal about his support for contextualization but rejection of the C5 approach.[17] Other advocates, most notably John Travis and Joshua Massey, claim that insider movements are simply one of God’s diverse ways of drawing Muslims (and other religionists) into faith in Jesus Christ, and that throughout history God has been asking his followers to do unexpected things.[18]

Several have suggested that C5 contextualization can serve as a springboard for more orthodox Christian faith within C3 or C4 communities, not be an end in itself.[19] However, there are many who firmly believe in highly contextualized missions among Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as effective and biblical ways of making disciples, where discipleship consists of obedience to Christ’s commands, not conformity to religious forms. It has also been argued that in many Muslim (for example) cultures, it is not actually legally permissible to have C4 fellowships; fellowships of Muslim believers in Christ are “more feasible and more effective,” as well as more apt to multiply.[20] A few organizations exist to help communities of faith in Christ that are developing within other religions to be fully biblical while remaining in context. Born out of the Institute of Hindu Studies at the U.S. Center for World Mission, the Rethinking Forum strives to promote Christ-centered communities within Hindu contexts. The name recalls its desire to “re-think Indian cultural and religious issues.”[21] SEANET is a similar group with a passion for Buddhist peoples and equipping ministers in research, resources, training, and strategy.[22]


There might never be a consensus among missiologists and active practitioners of mission whether or not indigenous movements to Christ that retain their former religious identity, on the one hand, or highly contextualized outreach ministries, on the other hand, represent sound, biblical practice. Despite the controversy, many are authentically coming to Christ through these movements. There has yet to be enough long-term investigation of these communities to decide exactly how successful they are in discipleship and multiplication. The fact remains that less than 1% of the world’s Christians ever share their faith with a Muslim, a serious concern for all involved in this debate.[23] The focus of our analysis has been contextualization, but perhaps a more significant issue is that of discipleship. Alan R. Johnson has commented that in the Buddhist context,

the most significant reason for slow church planting and growth…comes from the modes of evangelism, ministry, church structure, and church life that are employed. I want to suggest that it is less of a case of us not making sense to people from Buddhist backgrounds than it is one of perpetuating philosophies and models of ministry and ways of “doing church” that hinder our ability to plant and grow churches capable of multiplying rapidly and over long periods of time.[24]

The apprehensiveness illustrated by many regarding these indigenous “insider” movements may be needed to keep the global church accountable to each other and to God. As the body of Christ, however, the global church should show support for any circumstance where bona fide believers are being added to the fold, especially in the numbers indicated by those providing resources for highly contextualized, Christ-centered communities.

This article is a part of a pilot version of the Lausanne Global Analysis. A planning team has begun working on the production of the new Lausanne Global Analysis.  The Analysiswill provide multi-lingual analysis of issues facing the church and wordwide evangelization from a global network of regional leaders, researchers and writers.  The launch as a monthly publication is tentatively scheduled for April 2012. (Learn more)

[1].  Joseph Cumming, “Muslim Followers of Jesus?” (Cape Town 2010 advanced paper), October 18, 2010, accessed May 14, 2011, http://conversation.lausanne.org/en/conversations/detail/11298.

[2].  Songram Basumatary, “Christian Identity vs Ethnic Identity,” July 19, 2010, accessed May 14, 2011, http://conversation.lausanne.org/en/resources/detail/10593.

[3]. “The dangers of syncretism are worldwide, and so are the complexities of careful, biblically faithful contextualization.” Lausanne Theology Working Group, “The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World,” accessed May 14, 2011, http://www.lausanne.org/participant-information/twg-paper.html.

[4].  Cody C. Lorance, “The Mythical Link between Contextualization & Syncretism: Lausanne Theology Discussion (7 of 7),” October 7, 2010, accessed May 14, 2011,  http://conversation.lausanne.org/en/resources/detail/11128.

[5].  Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, Atlas of Global Christianity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 316.

[6]. John Travis, “The C-1 to C-6 Spectrum,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 34:4 (October 1988), 408. For the most recently published outline of the C1–C6 scale, see Rick Brown, Bob Fish, John Travis, Eric Adams, and Don Allen, “Movements and Contextualization: Is There Really a Correlation?” IJFM 26:1 (Spring 2009).

[7].  The scale has been adapted for Hindu Christ-centered communities. H1: Traditional Christians separate from anything “Hindu”; H2: Traditional Christians renounce Hinduism but accept some non-religious Hindu practices; H3: Hindu Christian renounce Hinduism for Christianity, but adapt some Hindu and cultural practices: H4: Hindu disciples of Christ do not develop contextual expressions of discipleship; H5: Hindu disciples of Christ seek to develop contextual expressions of discipleship; H6: Hindu disciples of Christ recognized by other Hindus but remain unassociated with other disciples of Christ; and H7: Hindu disciples of Christ keep their faith completely private. See H. L. Richard, “H-Scale for Hindu Contextualization,” Voice of Bhakti: Text and Context in Dialogue Vol 4 No 4, accessed May 14, 2011, http://bhaktivani.com/volume3/number4/scale.html.

[8].  John Travis, “Messianic Muslim Followers of Jesus,” International Journal of Frontier Missions, 17:1 (Spring 2000).

[9].  John and Anna Travis, with contributions by Phil Parshall, “Factors Affecting the Identity That Jesus-Followers Choose,” in From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices, and Emerging Issues among Muslims, ed. J. Dudley Woodberry (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2008), 195­–6.

[10].  David Garrison, “10 Church Planting Movement FAQs,” Mission Frontiers (March–April 2011), accessed May 14, 2011, http://www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/article/10-church-planting-movement-faqs.

[11].  Ibid. Three criteria to be registered as a legitimate house church movement are (1) a 25% annual growth rate in total churches for the past two years; (2) a 50% annual growth rate in new churches for the past two years; and (3) field-based affirmation that a church planting movement is growing.

[12].  Timothy C. Tennent, “Followers of Jesus (Isa) in Islamic Mosques: A Closer Examination of C-5 ‘High Spectrum’ Contextualization,” IJFM 22:3 (Fall 2006), 101–15.

[13].  Don Allen, et al., “Fruitful Practices: A Descriptive List,” IJFM 26:3 (Fall 2009), 111.

[14].  See Timothy C. Tennent, “Followers of Jesus (Isa) in Islamic Mosques: A Closer Examination of C-5 ‘High Spectrum’ Contextualization,” IJFM 22:3 (Fall 2006); Kevin Higgins, “Discipling the Nations and the Insider Movement Conversation,” Mission Frontiers (January­–February 2011); Rick Brown, “Contextualization without Syncretism,” IJFM 23:3 (Fall 2006).

[15]. Brown, et al., “Movements and Contextualization,” 22.

[16].  Joshua Massey, “God’s Amazing Diversity in Drawing Muslims to Christ,” IJFM 17:1 (Spring 2000).

[17].  Phil Parshall, “Danger! New Direc­tions in Contextualization,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 34:4 (October 1998).

[18].  See Joshua Massey, “His Ways Are Not Our Ways,” Mission Frontiers (April 1999).

[19].  See Tennent, “Followers of Jesus (Isa)” and Bill Nikides “Evaluating ‘Insider Movements’: C5 (Messianic Muslims),” St Francis Magazine 4 (March 2006).

[20].  Rick Brown, “Contextualization without Syncretism,” IJFM 23:3 (Fall 2006), 133.

[21].  See http://www.rethinkingforum.com/.

[22].  See http://www.globalprayerdigest.org/index.php/issue/day/SEANET.

[23].  David Garrison and Seneca Garrison, “Factors that Facilitate Fellowships Becoming Movements,” in From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices, and Emerging Issues among Muslims, ed. J. Dudley Woodberry (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library), 207.

[24].  Alan R. Johnson, “Structural and Ministry Philosophy Issues in Church Planting among Buddhist Peoples,” in Sharing Jesus Effectively in the Buddhist World, ed. David Lim et al. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2005), 263­–4.

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