May 5, 2003
Use of undercover missionaries getting new scrutiny
___By John Pierce
___ATLANTA (ABP)--Is it ethical to send missionaries into a closed country under cover of some other employment?
___Some mission strategists are having second thoughts about the practice, common among evangelical groups. Since at least the 1980s, some Christian organizations have sent mission workers into countries that don't accept missionaries.
___Some go with other "platforms"--skills, trades or services that are acceptable to the host country. These missionaries, who live in the target country, are often called "tentmakers," after the Apostle Paul's adopted occupation. Others, called non-resident missionaries, live outside the target country and enter on short-term visas.
___In both cases, their work of evangelism or church starting is kept secret from authorities. And back home, their identities and assignments are not revealed by the mission organizations to protect their safety.
___Anonymous missionaries are used by both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship but not by the American Baptist Churches USA.
___Recent missionary murders and the war in Iraq have heightened concern about the presence and safety of missionaries, particularly in Islamic countries. Three Southern Baptist hospital workers--missionaries but not secretive--were killed in December in Muslim-dominated Yemen. In April, word that Time magazine is considering an in-depth article revealing the work of anonymous missionaries sparked protests from some Christians.
___The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is one organization rethinking the strategy. Gary Baldridge, co-coordinator of CBF global missions with his wife, Barbara, said recent concerns about the ethical and missiological implications justify a second look.
___"We're in the middle of reflecting on the deployment of field personnel to restrictive-access countries," Baldridge said. "We're really struggling with it administratively."
___Baldridge had hoped to invite a group of ethicists and missiologists to discuss the issue in a forum prior to the CBF general assembly in June, but that may not be logistically possible, he said.
___The issues, he explained, are more about the long-term effectiveness of the "non-resident missionary" than about public relations. He acknowledged, however, that why some missionaries remain anonymous requires ongoing explanation. Baldridge said CBF repeatedly tells those who support its mission efforts, "Please be aware that this (missionary) directory is incomplete."
___"Many CBF missionaries live in areas of the world that are openly hostile to the gospel," he added. "Their identities are kept confidential in order to protect their lives and ministries and the lives and livelihoods of new Christians in these highly sensitive areas."
___The Southern Baptist International Mission Board declined to comment for this story.
___Keith Parks, now retired in Richardson, served both as president of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (now IMB) and as the first CBF global missions coordinator. Under his leadership, Southern Baptists began the efforts that developed into the non-resident missionary approach.
___"It really started in the '80s when we were talking with people from China," Parks recalled. "They said: 'We can't receive missionaries, but we need help.'"
___As a result, Parks said, the FMB created Cooperative Services International as a non-profit organization separate from the FMB. Parks served as CSI president as well, and the organization used the same address and phone number as the FMB.
___"It wasn't some James Bond approach," Parks said. "Governments know what you're doing. If you play according to their rules, they'll let you do it."
___Through hiring arrangements with universities and other institutions, Parks said, personnel could gain access where otherwise missionaries would be rejected.
___However, the original CSI effort evolved into a non-resident missions program that allowed access to other countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa that were hostile to the Christian gospel.
___"You can't live in a country, but you're assigned to find ways to serve," Parks explained. "At the FMB, we would set up (non-profit service organizations) and then the funding for the individual and their work would go through that organization."
___"They could literally say their support came from Organization XYZ, but that support came to the organization from the FMB," he added.
___Parks said he understands how some could pose ethical questions about a strategy that does not use full disclosure of one's identity or intent. However, he asked: "Is it ethical to leave millions of people to suffer?"
___Parks said he welcomes the discussion about this and other approaches to missions in difficult settings. However, he sees some increased risks as well. "I think it needs to be more fully aired, but you're alerting people all over the world to what you are doing."
___"I don't agree with breaking the law or smuggling," Parks said. Yet he recognizes that "some of the greatest needs are in the poorest countries" where governments are hostile toward a Christian witness.
___In those settings, he said, non-resident missionaries have been able to assist with water purification, agriculture, medical and educational needs--and they were public about that assistance. These workers, Parks added, "did what they said they were doing--just more. I don't have an ethical problem with that.
___"Most American Christians are so insulated from the world and don't realize that day-to-day people are being slaughtered because they are Christians," he continued. "You can lay that alongside, 'Gee, I can't call them missionaries,' and you see the concept."
___Parks said he doesn't fault either the IMB or CBF for what they've done to try to serve people groups not reached with the gospel. But the "ideal got blurred along the way," he said.
___Parks recommends focusing more heavily on "tentmakers"--or "envoys" as CBF calls them--who hold legitimate employment in mission settings that give opportunity for witness. "The greater need is to have business organizations set up to find ways for local Christians to make a living and present the gospel."
___Bill O'Brien of Birmingham, Ala., is a former FMB vice president who worked closely with Parks in developing mission strategies like the non-resident approach.
___"You can live in a neutral city where it was legal to live and travel in and out (of a restricted access setting) as you try to find out if there are other Christians there and to share the gospel any way you can," O'Brien said. "The term used is 'find a platform.'"
___However, O'Brien said he has "an opinion that borders on a conviction" now about what has evolved from this mission strategy.
___O'Brien, who also served as founding director of the Global Center at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, said he began to "have real questions about this" when trying to establish a mission partnership for Samford in an undisclosed country. A Southern Baptist missionary there told O'Brien that when the missionary publicly identified himself as an "agricultural and humanitarian specialist," locals would often ask: "What do you really do?"
___"Local people are not dumb," O'Brien said. "And we are kidding ourselves if we think governments don't know what we're doing."
___O'Brien said he is especially concerned for the risk placed on local Christians. Missionaries can leave quickly if persecution arises, he said, "but I'm worried about locals who can't leave quickly."
___The IMB missionary O'Brien visited returned to the United States and became an employee of a multi-national company. In doing so, he was able to "put people in difficult parts of the world, but in legitimate businesses."
___"You are unashamedly creating a Christian witness, but you don't have to remember what you told the last person," he said.
___O'Brien described the "marketplace" as a great mission field and urged strategists to focus on planting legitimate businesses that provide opportunities for witness.
___O'Brien admits he is "still struggling" with the issue. He said he gets "a little turned off to coded language" used by mission personnel to conceal their identities and purposes, "but I'm sensitive to security."
___Baldridge said he and other CBF leaders struggle as well. In China, however, CBF is completely "above board" by registering missionaries with the China Christian Council, he added. In other parts of world where that is not an option, CBF's focus might shift more to the tentmaker approach where workers can actually reside in the areas they serve, he said.
___With additional reporting by Greg Warner of ABP
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