Mission in High-risk Situations

This paper seeks to draw out biblical teaching and the relevant principles on risk and the response of God’s servants to risk and make application for missions today. It discusses appropriate responses to the kinds of risk that a cross-cultural worker may face:  (1) physical risk and nationality/ethnicity (2) risks related to social/political unrest (3) risks when targeted by government or religious radicals and (4) risks to physical, emotional and spiritual health.

 

By Richard S.

Richard served in the Philippines for thirty years. During this time he served first among the open-access people and then among a restricted-access people. He has spent many years in leadership roles. He has also given much time in non-formal and informal training. Richard holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies. He is married with three daughters and seven grandchildren.

Mission in High-risk Situations

Mission Round Table

Vol. 12 No. 3 (Sep-Dec 2017): 13-17

Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. (Acts 19:30–31)

After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”
When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” (Acts 21:10–14)

Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:15–16)

Scripture is very rich in examples of risk and the response of God’s servants to risk. What the Bible does not give is a “Concise Guide to Ministry in High Risk Situations.” Even so, we find both relevant teaching and principles about these situations in Scripture. This paper seeks to draw out this teaching and the relevant principles, explore some writings on the subject, and make application for missions today.

There is a range of kinds of risk that a cross-cultural worker may face. Those listed below are the kinds which will be addressed in this paper.

  1. Physical risk because of being specifically targeted due to nationality or ethnicity.
  2. Being caught up in political or social unrest because of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
  3. Being targeted by a government or religious community that is unhappy with the discipleship aspect of our work and either intends physical harm or seeks to facilitate our departure from the country.
  4. Risk to physical, emotional, or spiritual health whether due to health conditions, medical standards, spiritual and moral climate, or the stresses of cross-cultural disciple making.

As a Fellowship, we serve under very meaningful Vision and Mission Statements.

Our Vision:

Through God’s grace, we aim to see an Indigenous Biblical Church Movement in each people group of East Asia evangelizing their own people, and reaching out in mission to other peoples.

Our Mission:

We share the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness with East Asia’s peoples to the glory of God.

1. God and mission

We believe that bringing glory to God is our highest calling. There are a number of ways that our lives, through words and actions, can bring glory to God. Our primary calling as a Fellowship is to bring glory to God through sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness with East Asia’s peoples. Much could be done to unpack that statement, but in brief, we are committed to speak words that give understanding to the good news of Jesus and to choose actions that further demonstrate the truth of this good news. Another way to put it is that we are to be disciples of Jesus whose faith has impacted all areas of our lives and who make similar disciples of Jesus. Being disciples of Jesus, we live out the teaching of Jesus in all areas of our lives, proclaiming his teachings, and calling others to become disciples who do the same.

Our vision and passion, as we live out and speak the good news of Jesus, is to see the development of Indigenous Biblical Church Movements (IBCMs). If the fruit of our work is IBCMs, our local disciples will, of necessity, carry on this work among their own people and others.

Making disciples of Christ, even in our home country and culture of origin, is by its very nature counter cultural. Following Christ always requires that we “do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world” (Rom 12:2). But, as cross-cultural missionaries, we have the added dimension of being called to take this counter-cultural message into nations not our own. These nations have their own sets of laws that we must recognize. They have religious belief systems that range from somewhat resistant to violently resistant to our message. They have cultural norms that range from some level of accommodation to complete and sometimes violent rejection of what is seen to be foreign and destructive to their way of life.

Our calling is to bring the good news of Jesus into these settings. This paper aims to delineate an appropriate response to the range of risks mentioned above.

2. Keeping the balance

We fulfill our calling by living in submission to the sovereign God who brought us into relationship with himself through the blood of Christ. The last commission of Jesus was to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19–20). This clear commission and the call to obedience to God have led some well-meaning Christians to fearlessly make gospel proclamations no matter what the consequences. These consider upholding God’s honour and dying for Jesus to be their highest calling.

But such fervency is tempered with another set of instructions. “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Rom 13:1). Does this mean that if the government says we should not evangelize, we won’t? That is a big subject, but the example of the Apostles indicates that when commanded not to speak in the name of Jesus, they felt God’s calling superseded the instruction of the authorities.[1] We thus read that “Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:18–20). The conclusion we draw is that we do need to submit to the laws of the land in such cases, and that living out our faith and making disciples may cause us at times to choose not to obey a specific law.

Within the question of balance is the question of how strongly we present our message in the face of local views. Peter gives a brief but essential answer to this question in 1 Peter 3:15–16.

But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

The communication of our message needs to be clear, which speaks to cultural relevance. It also needs to be gentle and respectful, spoken out of a life that reflects the message. The offence of our message needs to be the offence of the cross rather than our personal offensiveness.

3. Dealing with risk

While keeping the twin balances of God’s sovereignty with submission to governments and strong persuasion with gentleness and respect, we have to grapple with the issue that we are called to places where there are real risks. As Anthony Parker writes, “Given the inevitability of risk, would it not be futile—or even unfaithful—to seek to avoid it?”[2] We also see from biblical examples and recent history that God’s servants do sometimes suffer and even die in the line of duty. As an organization, we have to manage these risks and seek to respond appropriately. In today’s world when media coverage is often opposed to Christian mission and with many constituencies that are quick to pursue litigation, while managing risk wisely, we must guard against the temptation of being overly cautious and excessively risk averse.

Hudson Taylor is said to have written, “Unless there is an element of risk in our exploits for God, there is no need for faith.”[3] Although that is not Scripture, there is truth in the statement, and the Fellowship has at times become overly risk averse. Reflecting back into our history, a snippet is found in Emily Blatchley’s diary in which she records that Hudson Taylor asked, “Are we … prepared to stand firm in the cause we have undertaken at all risks?—thro’ suffering, slander, persecutions, forsakings, to characters blackened and believed to be black, even by those who have hitherto been friends?”[4] This is still a valid question to ask today.

 


Group of Shansi Christians, many of whom were massacred by Boxers. China’s Millions, North American edition. (Nov 1900): 131

 

During our history we have experienced persecution and martyrdom. We recall the sad event of the Boxer rebellion and the loss of fifty-eight workers and twenty-one children. When writing about the hymn “Facing a Task Unfinished” in the recent Canadian OMF Heart for Asia, Jon Fuller records, “During the civil war, missionaries had been withdrawn from their stations in 1927. Twelve CIM workers and five associates had been martyred.”[5] David Garrison, working with a group of researchers, makes the uncomfortable observation that places where God is working and the church is growing rapidly are often places where missionaries experience suffering.[6] Nick Ripken, in his workshop entitled “The Missiology of Suffering,” states, “Expatriate workers need to embrace a lifestyle that includes suffering, persecution and martyrdom.”[7] Can we cope with that today?

4. Understanding our risks

I do not believe God is honored by unreasoned risk taking. There is a concept of “reasonable risk,” which is calculated through the use of an assessment tool. Parker writes, “Missionaries and their agencies should … adopt security protocols that limit their exposure to risk.”[8] I also believe there is Spirit-guided risk taking that sometimes calls us to take risks that go beyond human reasonableness. I use the term “Spirit-guided” very carefully. For some, taking risk is the adrenalin thrill of adventure and may not be God honoring at all.

In Acts 18:9, when Paul was feeling quite insecure and fearful, the Lord spoke to him in the night and told him not to fear but to speak, and assured him he would not be harmed. In Acts 21:4, fellow believers, “through the Spirit,” urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Acts 21:10–14 makes it clear that the prophesied events were a message from the Spirit, so Paul actually knew the risks involved. In Acts 20:23 he speaks of being warned in every city that prison and hardship were facing him. To state the obvious, Spirit-guided risk taking requires walking very closely with the Spirit.

There is a simple tool that helps us to assess risk. To use this tool, a list of potential risks can be identified. A grid can then be created wherein the group doing the risk assessment plots the probability of certain risks becoming a reality in one of four quadrants. The crisis impact is similarly estimated and plotted on the grid. Crisis impact measures the impact on an individual, team, or the whole organization should the event take place. For example, if there were a potential risk that a government would cancel visas for foreigners, the crisis impact, should the event takes place, would be very high.  Affected workers would need to relocate. The work would be greatly impacted.

By charting the potential risks and impacts on a grid on a scale of one to ten, it can be seen which potential risks have both a high probability and a high crisis impact. The purpose of going through this exercise is to take action to reduce either the probability or the crisis impact or both.

 

A risk assessment is only as valuable as the quality of the information the assessors are using. How can an individual or a group of workers credibly assess a risk? Multiple sources of information are available, and each one provides a key component. International news allows us to read about political climates. Local news gives another important source and dimension. It is usually important to have multiple sources of international and local news. In many situations, good relations with local government officials is a key source of information. Building relationships with key officials can be a worthy undertaking. If there are local officials who also share our faith, they often feel a duty, as a members of the family of God, to pass on important insights. Another very important source of information is local friendships. Friendships with believers are great but, even if the local friend is not a believer, friends are friends and care for each other. By bringing together a small group of workers, each with their network of sources, a reasonable risk assessment can be undertaken. We also have the Spirit of God working in our midst, prompting information to come to us at the appropriate time. With the risk assessment in hand, well-reasoned decisions can be made.

4.1. Physical risk and nationality/ethnicity

We often hear it said that, “missions today is from everywhere to everywhere,” and I agree. In this context we have to recognize that the world we live in is filled with prejudice and very long memories about the actions of our forefathers. Even the current actions of our nation of origin can create problems. The only time I knew for certain that there was a group actively looking to kill me was immediately following a US bombing mission on a Muslim state. The fact that I am not an American was irrelevant. To the locals, I looked like an American. The only time I blocked a ministry team from visiting our region was when an ethnically Chinese team was coming from Canada and Chinese were being randomly picked up in this ministry location and held hostage for the purpose of extorting a ransom. In both of these cases we either took ourselves out of immediate danger or kept the target persons out of the danger zone while the situation was critical. These were not seen as good reasons to die or be taken hostage. In both cases a return to location was possible when the immediate threat was reduced. This is an example of how risk assessment plays an important role.

As we build relationships in our ministry context, those we relate to come to see us separately from the generally held view of our nationality or ethnicity. Frequently, friends will defend us before the general public who still associate us with the prevailing view regarding our nationality or ethnicity. There are times when the prevailing view is too strong and the only acceptable action, often with the encouragement of close local friends, is withdrawal.

4.2. Risk and political/social unrest

We are not called just to the safe places. We need to recognize that God is often working very powerfully to call people to himself when situations are unstable. Political and social unrest are means the Lord uses to cause people to look for new answers to the meaning of life and God’s people need to be there to provide the biblical answers. Being in such places has an element of risk. Foreign governments are very quick to call their citizens out. There are many reasons for their quick action and some of their purposes are not at all in line with ours. If we lived only by these governmental calls, we would not be able to get our work done. We would be safer, but ineffective.

There is also the matter of the local people, and in particular the local church. There are two issues we must consider with regard to the local people. First, what does it look like to them if we are always running scared? Recognizing that we teach more by our actions than our words, we need to ask an important question: what are we teaching the young church when we pull our people out of these risks? Example after example could be given of local Christians who expressed appreciation for cross-cultural workers who stayed through perilous times. There are more examples of bewildered, disappointed local believers who watched those committed to their discipleship leave. Phil Parshall relates his own experience of remaining through the 1971 civil war between East and West Pakistan. He writes, “the national Christians simply could not believe their spiritual leaders would so quickly leave them to face the crucible alone.”[9] Again, risk assessments are important, but I believe we are in greater danger of leaving too soon than of staying too long.

The second consideration with regard to local believers is when our presence as foreigners could endanger them. While this paper was being written, a conference, which included teaching by foreigners, in a Creative Access Nation was cancelled because the context was coming under increased scrutiny by government officials. If the event went ahead and the officials shut it down, it would not have been the foreigners who would have suffered the consequences. It would have been the local believers and it is not wise for foreigners to put local believers at risk of imprisonment or worse.

4.3. Targeted by government or religious radicals

There are some work situations where aspects of our faith are seen as blasphemous and extremely dangerous by either the government or religious leaders or both. This is most strongly seen in Muslim settings where our belief in the deity of Christ is the ultimate blasphemy and the community must be guarded from this belief at all costs. Much has been written about the best approaches and the avoidance of unnecessary offence and I am in full support of that. The fact remains that there are people in these contexts who would kill the messengers of Christ with the same understanding the Jews had when they killed Jesus. Jesus warned us that the servant is not above his master. As he was persecuted, so will we be. Are we prepared for that? Again, I am concerned about our risk aversion. I do not write this lightly, having been sought out for execution, suffering the pain of burying two co-workers, and dealing with the loss of more colleagues after both events because they chose not to continue for fear that they would be next to die for their faith.

Following such events, a ministry review is essential. Should we have pulled out sooner? In both cases we did a thorough review. In the case of the first murder, there were no particular warning signs. Although the context was very opposed to our faith, the murder may have been a lawless group just experiencing the thrill of killing a foreigner. The local community and the officials grieved with us. Some offered to arrange an extrajudicial execution but we believed we needed to seek justice within the legal system, even though we knew the system might not produce results, which proved to be the case. In the case of the second murder, the warning signs were there and were taken seriously. The risk assessment was done. The appropriate actions were taken. But in human terms, a significant factor had changed which was unknown even to our local advisors in the community and among the law enforcers. These local people were as shaken as we were when the murder took place.

Under conditions like these we did not belittle those who chose to leave the ministry context for fear that they might be next. But we did applaud the courageous group that went back after a period of debriefing and emotional healing. New and stringent guidelines and procedures were put in place based on new information and we praise God there has been no further incident.

 

4.4. Risk to physical, emotional and spiritual health

There are contexts in which we work that we know are unhealthy.

  • When you cannot see across the street in Beijing because of the pollution.
  • Where health systems are known to be far behind world standards and potential workers have health conditions that, if they flare up, need quick and highly skilled care.
  • Where those who have the role of keeping law and order are in some way involved in the majority of crime, making the context very unsafe.
  • When the moral decadence in the setting can provide a strong draw towards moral sin.

These are very different kinds of risk, but real all the same.

Risk assessments are still a valuable first tool. When the risks are known, what are the probabilities of sickness, failure, or harm? What is the crisis impact? What can be done to reduce the probability, impact, or both? Can we operate within acceptable risk?

Space does not allow for a full exploration of the range of risks clustered in the physical, emotional, and spiritual realms. A few overriding guidelines will have to suffice. Physical health needs to be guarded. The Fellowship does well in implementing two-yearly health reviews. Indicators of chronic sickness need to be responded to. But we accept that many of us will have shortened our life expectancy by the health risks we face. I believe this is an acceptable risk.

When workers with health conditions are called to areas where the medical system cannot respond adequately, the risks should be assessed. If the worker believes God has called them to live with known risks, Fellowship leaders should prayerfully consider allowing risks that go beyond conventional medical wisdom, while putting in place adequate responses that recognize the possibilities.

When law and order is known to be inadequate, cross-cultural workers should follow practices of personal safety, at least to the level of the local people. Beyond that, prayerful risk taking may be appropriate.

Where moral decadence provides continual temptation, safeguards should be put in place. Paul thus gave the following exhortation, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Gal 5:16). Part of living by the Spirit is putting ourselves out of temptation’s way. Nurturing our spiritual lives both individually and in community is essential. Having adequate accountability is also necessary. Accountability partners need to have the right to confront or propose the withdrawal of a worker when there are signs of probable failure.

Conclusion:

Our highest calling is to bring glory to God.  Our primary task is to share the good news of Jesus in all its fullness with East Asia’s peoples.  The greatest risk we face is that we do not fulfill our calling and do not carry out our task.

Cross-cultural workers need to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Risk in all the areas stated above is a part of the mission enterprise. It is right to manage risk with quality information. Appropriate precautions need to be put in place. Our workers need to be prepared spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally for the challenges they will face. We need to work within the boundaries of reasonable risk and Spirit-guided risk taking.  Above all, we must bring this life-giving message to those who live in the dark and difficult places, empowered by the Spirit of God, and guided his wisdom.

[1] Though much more could be said, this big subject has been broached in a recent article by David Koyzis, “Is it time for American Christians to Disobey the Government?” Christianity Today (April 2016), http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/april/why-all-christians-should-consider-civil-disobedience.html?start=4 (accessed 6 November 2017).

[2] Anthony Parker, “In Harm’s Way: Reflections on Missionaries and Risk,” EMQ 52, no. 1 (2016): 19, https://emqonline.com/node/3433 (accessed 6 November 2017).

[3] OMF International, “Voices of the Past,” https://omf.org/us/about/our-story/quotes/ (accessed 6 November 2017).

[4] A. J. Broomhall, Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century, Book Four: Survivors’ Pact (London: Hodder and Stoughton and Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1984), 291. Note: Blatchley was the governess of the Taylor children.

[5] Jon Fuller, Canadian OMF Heart for Asia 57 (April 2016).

[6] David Garrison, Church Planting Movements (Richmond, VA: Office of Overseas Operations International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1999), 16.

[7] Nick Ripken, “The Missiology of Suffering,” Manila Workshop, 3 February 2005.

[8] Parker, “In Harm’s Way,” 20. Italics his.

[9] Phil Parshall, “Missionaries: Safe or Expendable,” EMQ 30, no. 2 (April 1994): 166, https://www.emqonline.com/node/745 (accessed 6 November 2017).

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