by Anthony B. Parker
Recent world events have raised the sensitivity of many members of sending churches to the risks which missionaries expose themselves and their families. These missionaries’ examples inspire some to take greater risks for God in their own lives.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly.
“Certainly not! …Aslan is a lion—
the Lion, the Great Lion!”
“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man.
Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather
nervous about meeting a lion.” …
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what
Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe?
‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.
He’s the King, I tell you.”
(Lewis 2000, 79-80)
RECENT WORLD EVENTS have raised the sensitivity of many members of sending churches to the risks which missionaries expose themselves and their families. These missionaries’ examples inspire some to take greater risks for God in their own lives. Others admire these servants, but see them as belonging to a special class of disciple and readily admit, “I’m glad they do it—but I could never take that kind of risk.” Still others judge these missionaries harshly for what they see as irresponsibly exposing themselves and their families to risk.
My purpose in this article is to provide a foundation for discussions of missionary risk among those who partner with and send cross-cultural missionaries.
Petitions to God for safety are common in both our personal and corporate prayers. Of course, these are legitimate requests to put before our Father. Yet we must always offer such prayers with the understanding that personal safety can never be the disciple’s highest priority. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Bonhoeffer 1963, 99). When Peter protested Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering, Jesus challenged Peter and all subsequent disciples by saying, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
Discipleship inevitably means offering one’s life for the kingdom. “Risk-taking mission and service” (Schnase 2007, 79-101) are inherent aspects of following Jesus, and are not reserved for cross-cultural missionaries. The question is not whether disciples will take risks for the kingdom, but rather what kinds of risk they will encounter. The answer to that question depends on their gifts and calling, as well as on their level of faith.
Kinds of Risk
It is helpful for those who partner with cross-cultural missionaries to understand the kinds of risk that they encounter.
The risks of living. A dear friend and colleague who suffered from osteoporosis was killed when she was accidentally struck by a motorcycle in an African village. Her disease was not caused by being in Africa, and a similar accident could have happened anywhere. Yet the difficulty of dealing with such a tragedy was particularly challenging because of where it took place.
All of us encounter risks every time we get out of bed in the morning. In reality, we would encounter risks if we remained in bed all day. Risk is unavoidable and those serving cross-culturally deal with many of the same risks as those who remain in their home cultures. Cancer may arise regardless of where one lives. Transportation always involves risk. Relationships are risky. Everyone lives with risk.
These ordinary “risks of living,” however, are intensified for cross-cultural workers. Medical facilities may be inadequate, transportation may be more dangerous, relationships more complex, and the kingdom consequences are even greater when a missionary team, or a missionary marriage, collapses. People who have developed healthy means of coping with risk in their home culture may find that their familiar habits no longer work in the cross-cultural settings where language, institutions, social conventions, and all the rules they previously operated by are different.
Personal security risks. In a complex set of circumstances, one of my teammates was struck by a taxi that she ran in front of as she chased after a thief. Despite being flown to another country in the region with more modern medical facilities, she did not survive. I knew a family from another mission who was traumatized when thieves broke into their somewhat isolated village home and held the family at gunpoint while the father was forced to open the safe where the family kept their valuables.
Like “the risks of living,” people everywhere are exposed to risks to their personal security. Christians living in North America often install alarm systems or avoid certain areas, especially at night. For those who are new to cross-cultural living, dealing with these risks—including knowing what kinds of reasonable precautions to take and interacting with local law enforcement—adds even greater stress.
Global security risks. Despite their efforts to avoid political involvement, missionaries and those among whom they minister are exposed to risks when war breaks out or when political protests—and the government’s response—turns violent. As violence grew closer to our African hometown following controversial elections, we chose to wait out the situation in a neighboring country. After a few weeks, we were able to return home.
Others may wait in “exile,” separated from their ministries, for months or even years. Some friends were forced to flee their ministry among a North African people as bombing approached their town. They later returned and began ministering among the same people who were living in refugee camps in another country—only to have to flee again when civil war broke out. That same family’s sense of security was again threatened when a Western-style shopping mall they had visited for respite came under terrorist attack.
Health risks. Missionaries may face health risks due to exposure to diseases that are endemic to the regions in which they serve, inadequate medical care, unsanitary conditions, or natural disasters. Missionary health risks have justifiably received a great deal of attention due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Other diseases, such as malaria, however, are far more common. Malaria and hepatitis threaten the health of many more missionaries and global Christians, though the mortality rate is much lower than for Ebola (CBC News 2014). Although relatively few missionaries die from malaria (though some still do), this disease also impacts the mission through lost productivity and in the emotional and spiritual, as well as physical, toll it takes on cross-cultural workers.
External opposition. The categories of risk examined so far are not intentionally targeted at missionaries. They come because of the situations into which missionaries enter. External opposition, however, is intentionally targeted at missionaries, whether because they represent a foreign presence or because others oppose the work they are doing or the message they are proclaiming. Opposition may come because individuals or institutions feel threatened by the possibility of others following Jesus. It may come because the Christian message has been misunderstood—or it may come precisely because the message has been well-understood. Those who gain by oppressing others will be threatened by missionaries’ attempts to promote justice in society.
Opposition does not only—or even primarily—come from “flesh and blood.” Missionaries find themselves wrestling “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). When our team left the U .S. to serve among a highly animistic people group in West Africa, we thought that we understood and were prepared to wage spiritual warfare. Honestly, we had no idea how intense the battle or how severe the casualties would be. Missionaries need to consecrate themselves, prepare for spiritual battle, and be supported by an army of prayer warriors who care for them and who minister to their spiritual and emotional lives.
Minimizing and Managing Missionary Risk
Given the inevitability of risk, would it not be futile—or even unfaithful—to seek to avoid it? The New Testament, however, gives multiple examples of God’s messengers, even the Lord Jesus, avoiding dangerous situations—sometimes miraculously, but at other times by legal means or by fleeing the threat (e.g., Luke 4:28-30; John 10:39; Acts 9:23-25; 12:6-19; 22:24-29). Of course, there are even more examples of God’s servants accepting imprisonment, beatings, and death.
Who decides? In what circumstances are believers called to stand and suffer for the gospel? When is it wise to flee? When should missionaries stay and suffer alongside the local people? The decision must be led by God’s Spirit. Missionaries must consider the cost of going, and the cost of staying. They must consider how their decision will affect others.
When does accepting personal risk expose others to perhaps even greater risk? A missionary in a closed-access country may choose to publicly proclaim his or her faith, knowing that the worst he or she could suffer would be deportation. His national colleagues, however, might suffer imprisonment, beating, or death. What effect would their loss have on their local churches or on their families? Should not they, rather than a foreigner, be the ones making decisions about their own level of risk?
Ways to manage risk. There are practical steps that missionaries, mission agencies, and partnering churches can choose to manage risk. It begins with spiritual preparation and prayer. Do missionaries truly desire to follow Jesus wherever he leads? Do they have an intimate walk with God that enables them to hear God’s voice through scripture, the counsel of others, or the still, small voice of God in their hearts? Are they leading holy lives and putting on the spiritual armor that will protect them (Eph. 6:13-17)? Along with personal spiritual preparation, missionaries should seek to be adequately supported by a community of faith who will pray for and minister to them.
Missionaries and their agencies should also adopt security protocols that limit their exposure to risk. How much do they reveal concerning their work in email, on church websites, or on social media? Do they refer directly to the country, people group, fellow missionaries, or national colleagues with whom they serve? These questions need to be carefully considered—answers will vary among different fields. In our agency, we speak openly concerning our works in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, but are much more guarded in our references to North Africa or West Asia.
Missionaries should also assess the risk to which they will be exposed and receive a level of risk training appropriate to their field of service.1 Such training should result in contingency plans that anticipate, as much as possible, actions to be taken in crisis situations, including under what conditions missionaries should leave their place of service for a safer location. In our agency, the decision to evacuate can be made on any of three levels—the missionary family unit, the national mission leadership, or the international leadership. Should any of these three determine that evacuation is the wisest option, all others will respect and support that decision. Contingency planning also involves purchasing adequate medical and emergency medical evacuation insurance so that sick or injured missionaries can access adequate medical care.
Another, and perhaps the most effective, way that missionaries can manage risk is by developing strong, positive relationships with neighbors and local officials. Neighbors keep watch over one another’s property. They are often better informed than official news sources as to the level of tension in local politics, and can offer wise counsel to missionaries as to whether they should stay or go. Positive relationships with local officials can also benefit missionaries in times of tension and crisis.
What You Should Know about Your Missionaries
If you are supporting well-trained, spiritually-prepared missionaries, you should know that they have counted the cost and have totally entrusted their lives to the Lord. They have made a decision to lay it all on the line for him. They have decided that their lives are not their own—that they belong to God.
They made that decision not on the day they decided to become missionaries, but on the day they decided to take up their cross and follow Jesus. They announced this decision when they were baptized into union with him and they are reminded of the call to sacrificial service each time they eat the bread and drink the cup.
Yes, missionaries make remarkable commitments and sacrifices. They are not, however, called to a greater level of commitment than any other disciple of Jesus. The context to which they are called may put them at greater risk, but every disciple of Jesus is called to the same level of unconditional obedience.
What You Can Do for Your Missionaries
If you are partnering with one or more missionaries, God can use you to empower them to serve faithfully in the face of risk. You can pray for them. Take the time to read their reports and pray for the specific needs they present. As you have opportunity, whether before the missionaries depart for the field, while they are on home assignment, or when you visit them on the field, take time to listen to them. Find out where they feel most vulnerable. What you might think would be the greatest difficulties, may not be.
They may not be as troubled by the dust and the heat or as afraid of getting sick as you are. They may, however, be struggling in their own spiritual lives, in their relationships with teammates, national colleagues, spouses, or children. For me, the most difficult aspect of living in West Africa was not the malaria, the heat, or even separation from family and friends—it was being a comparatively rich person in a poor society. I experienced much more anxiety over the daily choices demanded by this disparity than from any of the physical dangers that were present. Listen to your missionaries to learn where they really feel at risk.
Finally, support your missionaries in the risks they have accepted, whether you feel that God has called you to assume those same risks or not. Do not think that they do not understand the seriousness of the situations into which they and, often, their families are entering.
It is because they understand the gravity of the situation of people who do not know God, it is because they are responding to people who are at risk of living outside of Christ and without knowing his love, that they have answered to the call to go. Do not try to dissuade them by pointing out the needs that are closer to home—God has called you, not them, to meet those needs. Do not inflict guilt because they are taking their children into these circumstances. They will do everything possible to keep their children safe, and those children will have opportunities to experience both the world and God’s grace in ways their passport culture could never provide.
Missionary risk is best understood as part of the call to discipleship. Jesus taught, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master” (Matt. 10:24-25). Disciples of Jesus accept risk because our master did and, like him, we long for our sacrifices to be purposeful and redemptive. Of course, it isn’t safe. But it is good.
1. Crisis Consulting International (CCI; www.cricon.org) provides resources used by many mission agencies.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1963. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Collier.
CBC News. 2014. “Guinea’s Ebola Outbreak: Disease Poses Little Threat to Travelers, Experts Say.” Accessed July 30, 2015, from www.cbc.ca/news/health/guinea-s-ebola-outbreak-disease-poses-little-threat-to-travellers-expert-says-1.2585797.
Lewis, C.S. 2000. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Chronicles of Narnia series. New York: Harper Trophy.
Schnase, Robert. 2007. Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press.
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Anthony Parker (DMin) serves in missionary training and formation with Pioneer Bible Translators. He has over sixteen years cross-cultural ministry experience and collaborated with Gailyn Van Rheenen on the second edition of his introductory Missions (Zondervan, 2014) textbook.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 1 pp. 16-22. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.