by Ken Wade
As technology has advanced, the age of being able to have separate identities at home and on the field has ended. Missionaries now need to know how to serve with one life story.
Electronic communication tools and technologies have developed over the last fifteen years to the point where we trust the technologies with our banking and most important confidential information. As missionaries, we know how to communicate well, but we still don’t seem to agree on what to say.
Electronic Communications in Rural North India
We arrived in rural north India in 1996 as email was starting to replace international post as the main method of conducting mission business. It was routine for letters and packages to be delivered opened and pilfered. Internet and email were difficult and expensive. As an experiment, our family tested an Inmarsat satellite phone. We had a chalk outline marked on the roof of our house to aim the antenna. We climbed onto the roof and wrapped a huge shawl around ourselves, the laptop, the satellite phone, and all the wires. We then attempted to send small text emails without any attachments. It looked like a National Geographic moment.
There was no doubt authorities were monitoring communications; nothing sent was considered private. We worked hard to implement PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption systems, but there was little automation and we made a lot of mistakes. Things are very different today as we routinely send and receive securely encrypted email and other Internet-based communications using tools that are built into our systems. Private and secure communications are the expectation of nearly everyone, everywhere.
The Real Concern
There is a valid concern that indiscriminate Christian mission communications will put missionaries and national believers in harm’s way, or jeopardize one’s freedom to share the gospel. There is a real belief that missionary communications are being specifically targeted and the resulting information used by governments and radical elements to oppose the gospel.
Therefore, keeping information confidential is wise. We call this privacy and it is why we teach our kids how to interact with Facebook, why we have unique passwords on our Internet banking accounts, and why we seal letters in envelopes.
The Real Problem
Looking back, we have come to understand that at the same time new electronic communication technologies were enabling practical, private communications between home and the field, a popular missiology developed that encouraged missionaries to separate our lives into public and private identities. Perhaps if we could encrypt our communications, then we could be missionaries when looked at from home and members of the community on the field. Then, we believed, the authorities would not bother us and we would be accepted by those in our communities.
Unfortunately, the ethical considerations of living two often contradictory and conflicting lives soon became apparent. We thought the solution was to further perfect our communication mythologies to keep everyone, everywhere, all the time, from sharing too much information. That seemed an easier task than dealing with the thorny ethics that resulted in charges of dishonesty, duplicity, and fraud against the gospel and its messengers.
Thankfully, wise people like Rick Love have articulated a solution (Love 2008, 31) and the bottom line is that today most enlightened missionaries believe that a holistic, integrated, and unified identity is a better model for blessing the nations with the gospel. Equally important, the openness of the Internet has made the entire debate meaningless since it is no longer possible to keep home and field lives separated.
The drive toward a single unified identity has changed the climate of vigilance and even fear for many missionaries. Some teammates still work in places where there is potential persecution and harassment, but the goal is to increasingly integrate our public and private lives—to be both legitimate messengers of the gospel and legitimate members of the community. Unfortunately, this transition is often difficult.
Spy vs. spy
The mission world rightly continues to take the time and energy to think about how electronic communications are happening at a technical level. Together we have learned communication and security techniques from passionate privacy advocates, political dissidents, businesses, and governments.
The early days of email were a very dynamic time and no one could differentiate real threat from fiction. Much of what we had to do and think about when sending each email manually is now completely automated and taken for granted. At the same time, the battle lines were being drawn in the global war on terror. Public opinion couldn’t distinguish between the mafia, terrorists, political dissidents, missionaries, and regular citizens who wanted to send private messages.
Communication security continues to be an interesting mix of good guys and bad guys and it’s not quite as simple as George Galloway quipped in defense of Hezbollah: “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” However, the point is that all the work done by many people to create safe and secure communication techniques is used in many contexts. Our context is sharing the gospel.
Task, Not Tools
Thankfully, we seem to have reached a logical and technically satisfying conclusion for an answer to the question of communication security—use the readily available tools. As Nike says, “Just do it!” It is significant that we are using the same technical tools as others searching for truth—be they freedom fighters standing against a totalitarian regime, a government fighting those who want to do harm, or a journalist reporting a story officials don’t want to hear.
But now that we have the tools, our honest evaluation tells us we’re not where we wanted to be in regards to sharing the gospel with the nations; specifically, in the lingering ambiguity of missionary identity. This means we need to refocus our attention on what we want to say, not on what tools to use to say it. Some missionaries are still feeling an overwhelming pressure to live with multiple identities and dealing with the practical impossibilities and ethical consequences. Some of this pressure is coming from home mission offices and churches.
Can the Mission World Start Over?
There is no daily cleansing tide to erase cyber footprints. We leave little bits of meaning all over the place, a trail of bread crumbs for others to follow if they want to take the time and energy. The Internet is a big place, and little fragments of our identity are logged on countless hard disks waiting to be integrated by some automated system. We can’t hide our true selves. Google CEO Eric Schmidt once said, “Show us fourteen photos of yourself and we can identify who you are” (Schmidt 2010).
The accumulation of our identity on the Internet means that the age of being able to have separate identities at home and on the field has ended. Perhaps this makes the debate with its ethical considerations irrelevant. Missionaries now need to know how to serve with one life story.
How does the mission and home church help? Communicate clearly with meaning, not just with words. Words are important and some words carry emotional baggage. However, gone are the days when Christian code words kept missionaries safe from adversarial governments (Danielson 2009). It is folly to believe that automated communications monitoring computers can find “church” and “prayer” but not “ch*rch” or “pr*yer.” Anyway, it’s irrelevant as the communication monitoring computers of today are searching for significant meaning. If a human can understand a message, then computers can (or soon will) identify it, as well. There is little use for messages without meaning.
Simply stepping away from the spy vs. spy game and treating missionaries as if they are where they are supposed to be (while respecting the people and cultures they serve) would go a long way toward better, clearer, and safer communication than what many currently experience. The most meaningful of messages will not be a problem for the missionary with one story.
I offer no roadmap for us veteran missionaries who have served believing having multiple identities was the better way to do ministry. Our family was highly invested in this missiology and building one holistic identity requires eating some humble pie. New missionaries should not start down the two-story road. Home offices and churches can help by communicating to those on the field as though the missionaries were normal people with integrated lives and let the missionaries do the same as they communicate home. Eventually, I am certain we will all get both the method and messages right.
Danielson, Kay. 2009. “Escaping the Security Bubble China 20/20.” ChinaSource. February: 69.
Love, Rick. 2008. “Blessing the Nations in the 21st Century: A 3D Approach to Apostolic Ministry.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 25(1): 31.
Schmidt, Eric. 2010. “No Anonymity on Future Web Says Google CEO.” August 5. Accessed August 12, 2011 from www.thinq.co.uk/2010/8/5/no-anonymity-future-web-says-google-ceo.
Ken Wade and his family serve with SIM and spent nine years in India before moving to Thailand. His background is in engineering. Ken helps teammates build good ministries in difficult locations.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 356-360. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.