I got a question from a friend named Bill in Fayetteville this morning that I thought deserves answering in public:
Do you ever fear that some of those 80 first-time visitors are going to turn on you? He asked concerning our recent report from 2012.
Here is my answer:
That’s a good question because how a missionary in a Muslim country responds to that question, in my experience, makes a lot of difference in both the longevity and effectiveness of his ministry. In fact it’s such a good question I started writing the answer and thought I’d put it on my blog. If you have follow up questions, please give them!
We wrestled with this question during our first two years in the country before developing a philosophy that we are still using today. To help you understand from our perspective let me give you our experience by way of five points:
The Result of Philosophy A: When I first visited I attended a house church that had been meeting for over ten years. They had less than 10 people and I had to go through a long vetting process to be able to attend. When we arrived long term there were two small house churches meeting in our city and neither would let us come for fear of the attention that would bring. They were both small groups with less than 10 people. The missionaries who were running the language school we attended had been in country more than 15 years and had seen a couple people come to Christ (which is worth it). They were connected with two nationals who were leading one of the tiny house churches but never attended. The missionary wife excitedly told us during a joint English speaking prayer meeting that she had gone to her first Arabic service that week after 15 years. I hired a young man in our business at six months in the country who I was introduced to by another Christian. He had been a believer for two years, had been meeting with the leader in one of the house churches for six months or more on a regular basis and had not yet been allowed to come to church until he had proven himself that he was a Christian. To say the least his growth and knowledge of the Word was seriously stunted.
Our purpose- I have one life to live. That fact has always been first and foremost in my mind since I was a kid. I don’t have time to waste. I don’t have time to hide because I won’t get another chance to live today. Read the stories of Joseph Tson and Richard Wurmbrand. Those men lived a life worth telling about while thousands of other Christians in Romania coward in fear. YouTube will come up with some awesome videos of their testimonies. So, since my life is so short, i don’t have time to spend 15 years and go to one church service in the native language of the people. I am not going to give the best years of my life (or any years for that matter) looking for the occasional opportunity to open the Word and preach to the lost. It is ok if not many accept Christ because I am not called to go make converts but I am called to go be a witness to the whole world. After our first month in the country I seriously considered leaving. I thought that I needed to go somewhere where I could live the life that I envisioned God had called me to OR live radically where God had brought me and ignore all of the patterns, to wipe the board clean and start over using the book of Acts more than the missionary training handbook.
The Level of Persecution in our country in North Africa– Missionaries are afraid here and everywhere else in the Muslim world. So to answer your question, fear of men is the number one enemy that missionaries deal with here. I was told by the lead missionary in our region that it is not safe for us to go to church with North Africans. He told me stories of how many were killed in one instance for meeting with the foreigner. I asked where this happened and he told me Eritrea. His wife told mine to not use the name of Jesus in public because you will get in trouble. We were told to not store names in our phones in case we are interrogated, to have an escape plan in case of a terrorist attack on our building, to not know anyone’s last name so that it can’t be extracted from you under torture, to not ask to many questions, to know how to do a police turn around in case we get in a high speed chase, and on and on the list goes. SO FEAR is huge here. But what is reality?
1. God is in control- Man has no power over us. In fact, fear has torment (I John 4:18) and I’ve met a lot of missionaries and national believers living in inward torment while no one is pursuing them. I could list you hundreds of verses where God tells us not to fear and the reasons we shouldn’t fear and how it’s even sin and praise to the Devil but I’ll let you do that study on your own. I will say, however, lest you think that I am a Pharisee (which I definitely have strong tendencies in that direction) that I fear all the time. I wrestle with my mind to put it into submission because it wants to remind me of all the reasons to fear. My wife has had a terrible even debilitating battle at times with fear. I take risks and move forward as a personality but she protects and so living here is NOT easy on her with the way we have decided to do ministry. I promise she will have mixed emotions of sadness to leave ones we love and relief for the pressure that is off of her mind the day the Lord moves us from here. It has been six years of a constant battle.
2. “The Facts, just give me the facts“- All of the warnings I was given by the missionaries that I have already listed came with a LOT of “don’ts” but not very many facts. For example, many WERE in fact killed in Eritrea many years ago but not in our country. In fact, there are no Christians in prison today for being Christians and preaching the Gospel in our country. There are no examples of any of the things they were warning me of when I began to ask questions. No one had ever been tortured to give up a name. No one had ever gotten in trouble for using the name Jesus or word missionary in public. No one had ever tested the limits. The people who had been here the longest were actually the most fearful and that is what kept them here the longest with little results. Advice I just gave a missionary going to Egypt was, “Ask questions about what facts the missionaries there know not about what opinions they hold.” Imagine that you were going to plant a church in Middletown, America and you went to every minister in the town and asked them what they advise that you shouldn’t do. You wouldn’t do anything if you took all of their advice and that’s what missionaries in “closed” countries of the world often do.
Biblical attitudes toward persecution- I read what Jesus said about fear and persecution and the first time he addressed it was in the first point of his first sermon on a hill. He said, “Rejoice when men revile you and do all manner of evil against you for my name’s sake.” This is counter intuitive. This is an unnatural response which is the reason Jesus said it. We need to learn God’s way of responding not what our feelings dictate. I read further and in the book of Acts that is just what the church did with persecution: rejoiced to be counted worthy to suffer for his name’s sake (Acts 4 and on and on). So, this truth from God’s Word has to override our own thoughts. I have had to override my desire to not invite someone to our church services literally hundreds of times. Pastor Austin Gardner from www.visionbaptist.org really helped me understand this.
What kind of disciples do I want to produce?– This is the biggest question for me as a missionary. Whatever I am is what I will create in the lives of those who learn from me. If we don’t have bold believers the country won’t hear the Gospel. If I am not a bold believer then I won’t produce bold believers. So included in that formula is inviting people to church. If I fear inviting people to Bible studies then so will they. On the other hand if I mix wisdom and courage then they will learn to do the same.
Two churches that gave us strength- When I first visited North Africa a friend of mine and I were able to go to two house churches. He went to a bold, open, growing exciting one. I went to the closed, fearful one. The open one had more than 15 believers and the Frenchman who started the church had been in the country for five years at the time. I wanted to be like that kind of church! A second church was one an hour from where we lived our first year. When the two other churches wouldn’t let us come I contacted them. They ran more than 15 people in total and sang loudly and prayed even louder. We went to that meeting every week for a year. People were saved there. People visited. It was exciting. Two years ago the national pastor got afraid when the foreign missionary was kicked out and he hid and the church disappeared. So we determined to be like that church but prepare the leaders for persecution when the authorities boot us from the country.
So we have developed a philosophy of church that includes the inviting of the lost to our church services. We don’t feel that it makes sense to invite someone to church meetings who is interested only in critisizing the Bible or causing problems so there has to be some interest there. We think this is the balance of wisdom and courage. We do not have a waiting period for someone to come to church and sometimes (though rare) invite someone to church on our first meeting if the Holy Spirit leads.
Having said that, we have had problems. Someday I will be kicked out of this country, I believe, but when that happens we hope that we have prepared the believers to continue on boldly and with ability to minister the Word effectively. We will also be in good company. Paul was kicked out one or two city states and Jesus, well, you know what happened there. At that time we will write you in our prayer letter and let you know that they day we expected has come and we’ll be moving somewhere else as the Holy Spirit directs. Also know that worse may happen to us and we pray for grace to be ready in that day.
So, in conclusion, we feel our supporting churches need to be aware that our philosophy was guided by the Word and the Holy Spirit. They also need to know that our philosophy is not one that will ensure OUR longevity but we hope and plan will ensure the growth and longevity of the national churches as they preach, gather, suffer, and continue on with joy. To do anything else would be a waste of your money as it would not cause the Gospel to grow and would actually cause more damage to the national church as we teach Christians to fear.
For references for what I am talking about check out how the Christians in Turkey thought it was worth it: Malatya
Also, a friend in China does a good job at describing the difference between wisdom and foolishness: China Ramblings.