By Dick Brogden
God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). It is impossible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18). Jesus is truth (John 14:6). God incarnated as Word (John 1:1). Jesus was anointed to preach and proclaim (Luke 4:18–19). We have been sent in the same manner that Jesus was sent (John 20:21). Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. (Rom. 10:17). There is nothing false or deceptive about God, and as His children there should be nothing false or deceptive about us. The Bible is clear over and again that God is a revealer of Himself, not a disguiser, and in these last days has revealed Himself to man through Jesus (Heb. 1:2). The missionary task is at its pragmatic core both verbal (preaching/teaching) and relational (make disciples). We are to preach to all peoples (Matt. 24:14) and all the creation (Mark 16:15), to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2) in season and out, and to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) that make disciples (2 Tim. 2:2).
No Bible based missionaries quibble over our role being centered on teaching, preaching, and making disciples that make disciples in integrity. All Bible based missionaries agree that we must identify with Christ and boldly open our mouths to point to Jesus. How, when, and where that is done, and through what identity, is where discussion (and sometimes heated debate) take place.
The missionary community, especially in countries where missionary or church related visas are unlikely and missionary activity is not always welcome, has a broad range of praxis as regards their identity. Some are very cautious, never use the word missionary (not even around their children), while some are more open. The prevailing wisdom leans towards a careful use of nomenclature, social media, and identity. Without criticizing that position (I do affirm all should be led by the Spirit, their conscience, and their context), I would like to make a case that a more open identity is a viable option and may be preferable for some.
I have worked in the Muslim world for 27 years, in places that are considered challenging. Mauritania, northern Sudan, Egypt, and now Saudi Arabia. I have not been in Saudi long, so while I have begun to implement the principles below here as well, I do not yet have length of experience in Saudi. When I started in missions, I was much more careful/cautious about my spiritual identity but quickly realized the problematic nature of a veiled identity (for me, my calling, my personality, and my own emotional health) and so migrated to an openly declared church/pastor (and sometimes even missionary) identity. What follows are a list of convictions and realizations that have played a part in forming my position.
Convictions and Realizations:
Biblically we are proclaimers, not concealers.
Ezekiel 3 and 33 make it clear that the prophetic and missionary people of God have the duty to warn others of approaching death and destruction. Our primary assignment is open our mouths and tell the good news (Isa. 61:1), but logically good news only makes sense in the context of bad news. We must warn the nations that all men are under the wrath of God (Jonah 1:2: “Arise, go, and cry out…”) and must repent and seek mercy. Even if the message is difficult or causes us trouble, we must speak it, for it is a fire shut up in our bones (Jer. 20:19). Whoever our biblical examples are, Old or New Testament, they all open their mouths and point to the Savior. John the Baptist quoted Isaiah to identify as a voice in the wilderness (John 1:23), layman Stephen would not stop speaking (Acts 6:13), Paul declared woe upon himself if he did not preach (1 Cor. 9:16), and the end does not come until more are slain because they proclaim the word of God as faithful testifiers (Rev. 6:9).
In order for me to be faithful to my commission as a watchman, town crier, voice in the wilderness, messenger, preacher of the gospel, I have to open my mouth and talk about Jesus constantly and consistently. My whole orientation must be towards revealing not hiding. My posture, passion, and focus must pulsate with the desire to disseminate news, to announce, to speak, to spread what I know of Jesus to everyone I can, everywhere. I need an external identity that propels me to this inward conviction, that holds me accountable to my assignment, and that orients me to proclaiming Christ constantly. I need to develop habits and disciplines that spread news, not restrain it.
It is absolutely critical—non-negotiable in my view—that missionaries have a public identity that clearly and early reveals that we are Jesus and Bible, light of the world people (Matt. 5:14–16). There are many ways to do this, and to me the easiest one is to state that I am a pastor, a spiritual leader of Christians, an elder in the Church, a minister who has studied and prepared to all people follow Jesus. I am not saying it is the only way to get there. I am saying it is the easiest and clearest in my case and that these past (almost three) decades have debunked the myth that this church-related identity is problematic (in an unresolvable way) to Muslim ears and hearts. In fact, it seems to have incredibly ed and protected.
To be direct, I am not saying that every missionary should (or can) call themselves a pastor. I am saying two things: First, every missionary should have a clear, open Jesus/Bible identity and second, identifying as a pastor is an incredibly easy, understood, and accepted way to get there. For the many who cannot call themselves a pastor, there are still ways to identify with the church as an elder, a member, a representative, as someone gladly connected to the visible body of Christ. My experience of identifying as a church representative in northern Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Oman, and (recently) Saudi Arabia and being understood and even welcomed in these places has shown me it is possible and can be positive.
Truth brokers must live truthfully.
John 18:20 reminds us that Jesus spoke openly to the world, even when it brought danger and opposition. Paul told the Corinthians that he had spoken freely to them with a wide-open heart (2 Cor. 6:11). He told the Ephesians that he kept back nothing ful and taught publicly (Acts 20:20). He told the Thessalonians that he cared so deeply with them that he shared not only the gospel, but his very life (1 Thess. 2:8). Both Christological and Pauline models are transparent. Indeed, the texts above refer to teaching (which necessitates a more public spiritual identity) while not excluding basic honesty and a life that does not have secrets.
Representing the Truth, we must speak truth and we must live it. There should be nothing deceptive about me, especially as I live in contexts well versed in deception. I cannot be a faithful minister of gospel truth if there is deception or duplicity in my life. I understand fully that we don’t have to speak ALL the truth ALL the time, that there is a need for situational discretion, but there is a fine line between withholding truth and misleading. I would rather err on the side of living free and far from all deception and bear the consequences.
The problem (and solution) is not really in the words but in the behavior.
John 8:43–47 reveals that Jesus used words of truth that were misunderstood because His hearers did not want to understand. The problem was not in the words that Jesus used but in the hearts of the hearers. Jesus did not soften His language or dilute the forcefulness (even when inflammatory) of His message to please His hearers. The implication of the John 8 text is that intentionally misleading language is a tool of the devil, and not the nature of Christ. By contrast Jesus grants understanding of truth even to difficult concepts (1 John 5:20). Paul did not incessantly coin new terms; rather he explained and clarified what was meant by common expressions (Rom. 9:6). He retained the title “Israel” but explained what it meant to be the “Israel of God.” When terms were inflammatory or shameful or misunderstood (like cross), Paul did not back away from the term but rather he explained the theology behind the term (1 Cor. 1:23–30).
An intriguing lesson in clarification can be learned from Muslims in how they handled the public reaction to the 9/11 bombings. What is most intriguing is what they did not do. They did not abandon any of their terms: Islam, Muslim, jihad. They just carefully and repeatedly defined what it meant and what it did not mean. “No, Islam does not mean this; it means this.” “No, Muslim does not mean this; it means this.” “No, jihad does not mean this; it means this.” “No, extremists will not be allowed to define for us what Islam, Muslim, or jihad means.” The Muslim community retained all the terms that extremists had sullied and won the war of definition.
If we keep changing our terms because history, nominalism, or even the behavior of some of our own have sullied them, we set up ourselves for the problem of having to change those very terms again at some point. Because the problem is not in the terms, it is in the people or the praxis of those who use those terms. The behavior our words explain (for good or for bad) is the real issue.
The knee jerk reaction of missionaries to the (understood and very real) objection that Muslims have to words like missionary, church, Christian, pastor, evangelism and so on has been to change our terms. The problem with this approach is that biblically and morally we cannot change the behavior that those terms define, and the objection is not really towards the term but the behavior (the activity). Evangelism is offensive to the Muslim, the humanist, and others, but if we change the name, we must still evangelize, and so whatever we call that behavior (sowing, sharing, shining), the name will ultimately become offensive too. The huge danger then is that in avoiding inflammatory titles and names we actually change the praxis along with the name. Bluntly, because evangelism (word and function) is offensive, what usually happens is we abandon both the word and the activity. Which is sin.
Rather than changing our titles and words, I think a better option is to keep them and work hard at defining them. Definition should correct misunderstandings (which abound) without removing the conflict the term demands (which is unavoidably biblical). Let us take a lesson from our Muslim friends: “No, missionary does not mean a cultural exploiter or a predator of children; it means that God has sent us to tell all people the good news about how to have sins forgiven and eternal life assured.” “No, Christian does not mean crusader, invader, philanderer, drunkard, or life-taker; a Christian does what Christ did: we love you so much that we will lay down our lives so that you can go to heaven.” “No, evangelism does not mean we want to force you to be American. God by intention created all the languages and cultures of the world and He therefore rejoices in yours. Evangelism actually means good news and we want to talk with you about the good news of how our sins are forgiven because we love you so much and we want to see you in heaven.”
If we change our terms now, we will have to change them again in ten years. They are intrinsically offensive (in part), and we have to navigate that tension. They are misunderstood (in part) and we must explain what we mean and don’t mean by them. The words are simply titles and summaries of our behavior, and as gospel behavior will always be a stumbling block it doesn’t really to change the titles. A better way is to make sure our behavior is biblical and Christlike, deal with the tension, and explain what we mean and don’t mean by the titles.
When we backpedal, stutter, or equivocate when asked if we are a missionary (Christian, pastor, evangelist, etc.), we either look guilty, confused, or ashamed. We must have a way to boldly say: “YES! But not in this way, but in this way. Isn’t that grand!?!?” Muslims have taught us this: They are not ashamed of their titles and names. They simply dismiss the misconceptions and concentrate on the positives (to them) of what those titles mean. I believe we should do the same.
Transparency is appreciated.
Paul found a way to be transparent even in challenging circumstances. Before Felix Paul spoke directly about faith in Jesus, righteousness, self-control, and judgment (Acts 24:24–25). These were not easy topics to unpack before a corrupt ruler and Felix in fact became frightened (v. 28), but the point is, Paul stayed true to his assignment. Earlier Paul had recognized the crowd and called out his Pharisee credentials to gain some public support in a hostile context (Acts 23:6). In both situations Paul had a choice to make: He could have equivocated and tried to cloak either his theology or his identity. Instead, he chose to find a way to use his identity towards his advantage and to broadcast his theology, and the implication is that (for some) it was appreciated. Even when others disagreed with him, they seemed at least to be thankful they did not have to guess at who he was or what he really passionately believed in.
Whenever I am open with my Muslim friends that I am a pastor or missionary and that I am supported by churches to be in their country doing what I do, I have almost always been thanked for my honesty. My friends may not always agree, but they have always been appreciative and have often given me counsel. Some years ago, I invited a Sudanese friend who is an influential leader to the prayer breakfast in Washington D.C. He has been very kind to us through the years and is the leader of a very devout, well-known Muslim family. I openly shared with him how much I loved the Sudanese people, that I was a missionary with the Assembly of God church, and that I felt God had called me to be in his country so that I could share the gospel with Muslims. I mentioned we believe that believing in Jesus as God and Savior is the only way to have sins forgiven and to gain eternal life. He thanked me for my honesty, acknowledged that what I felt led to do in Sudan was difficult, and then gave me advice on how to go about my calling respectfully. We remain friends to this day and I hide nothing from him.
Disagreements are not deal breakers when there is respect and love.
King Agrippa was no angel, yet he tipped his cap to Paul in Acts 26:28–32. Paul found a way to respectfully articulate the gospel in a potentially hostile setting, Festus thought him crazy and Agrippa was intellectually intrigued even if unrepentant and unconvinced. These officials conferred, and though they did not agree with Paul, his forthright explanation of the gospel revealed to them that he was not worthy of death and the text even indicates they would have ed him if they could. The point from this narrative is simple: the Holy Spirit can us communicate the gospel clearly, lovingly, and respectfully to authorities and others who strongly disagree with us.
In our interaction with Muslims, I have found that it is more important (for evangelism) to talk about our dissimilarities than our similarities. This is directly tied to my theology and my understanding of the lostness of all peoples outside of biblical faith. I do not spend much time agreeing with Muslims; rather, I concentrate on where we disagree, namely on Christology. I do this in Arabic, I do this with wit and grace, I listen, I use stories, I affirm where I can and object where I need to. What I have found is that when my Muslim friend sees and feels that I love them, they have no problem with me disagreeing with them theologically, even when the disagreement is profound. In this regard, culture and language skill matter. I do not advocate a young missionary getting off the plane and in cultural ignorance with no language capacity lambasting local people or thinking publicly. I am a fierce proponent of learning language and culture and sitting at the feet of our host community to learn of their wisdom and culture. I am also not saying we wait until we are fluent to evangelize. I believe in a both/and approach and have seen how language learning gives constant evangelism opportunities. I am saying that when we love, respect, listen, are humble, and use wit and wisdom, we can strongly disagree about critical, eternal issues.
Credible services to the communities we live among empower church/missionary identity.
Both Jesus and Paul had credible identities in the context of their day. Jesus took up the legitimate role and identity of a rabbi, which was not only accepted but respected. He added value both through teaching and through miracles (healings, deliverances, and provisions) and so the common people heard Him gladly (Mark 12:37). Jesus was able to say difficult, new, and provocative truth BECAUSE He operated from an identity that was understood, contributed, and won popular support. Paul too was a scholar and started out in the synagogues for scholarly and/or religious debate (Acts 17:2) or used public educational halls and means as the center for his teaching and preaching (Acts 19:19) or seasonally worked in the marketplace in a viable trade (Acts 18:3). At other times he started in the agora (Roman marketplace) as in Acts 17:17.
The point being, both Jesus and Paul had identities that were both understood and respected in context which propelled them into verbal witness about spiritual matters, as should we.
When we add tangible value to society through legitimate business, employing locals, paying taxes, providing services, physically improving our natural surroundings, and integrating into culture, it empowers a church-based identity. Men and women globally appreciate work done professionally and value added to their community. In advocating for a public identity that is church based, missionary in name and function, I insist that this orientation is placed on the foundation of real service at the highest quality that serves the broad community. For example, in Sudan I had a church visa and an identity as a pastor. I started a Bible school and an open church. In that church I preached without reserve on missions and evangelism. I talked about unreached people groups and we organized mission trips, all completely out in the open. We also started an adult education center that at its peak had 1,200 students a day, a ladies community center, an international school, and a local development agency. We had 150 employees, we made money, and we were model citizens. Our upfront identity as church and missionary people was buttressed by undeniable and appreciated service in and to the community.
I saw no need to downplay my pastor/church identity in order to not jeopardize my business. I saw that it actually worked the other way around. Doing business and service well allowed me to be even bolder and clearer about being church sent and church aligned. I used the fact that my donors were churches to further witness. I used the fact that I was supported by churches openly and positively to express love. If I am asked if I am paid to tell people about Jesus, rather than backfooting it (nervous denial), I front-foot it enthusiastically: “YES! Absolutely! Isn’t God amazing! He loves you so much that He not only sent me here so we can talk right now about Jesus, but He also blessed all these people in America to pray and to give sacrificially so that we can talk right now, right here about heaven and how sins can be forgiven! My beloved friend, not only does God love you, not only do I love you, but there are dozens of churches and thousands of Christians in America who love you. They have made it possible for us to meet and to talk about Jesus. Isn’t that marvelous!”
It is my experience that church connections (as identity) is an advantage not a disadvantage. It clarifies right away that we are not CIA, military, or embassy, and it does so with a category (institution) that every person in the world has some familiarity with and almost always positively. Thanks to those that have gone before us (including Catholics, thank God for them!), the church is known as the institution that brought education and health to most of our countries. At worst the church is a neutral entity that is known. For me, open church connections have allowed my friends and associates to immediately place me in a non-threatening category in their mind, and often it is a positive starting place. At least they know what I am not (a spy). My identity as a pastor, sent by the church and connected to the body of Christ, is not incompatible with being a businessman. An official international church pastor identity (or chaplain) is certainly possible, but it is also possible to be a businessman who is a pastor, a pastor who is a businessman. Here in Saudi Arabia I am both without tension. I explain I am a pastor, sent by the church, connected to the body of Christ locally (expatriate Christians) and globally, who loves this country and her people and who serves them (without prejudice or bias) through a credible business that does intercultural training and coaching.
Security forces are smart and know everything we do (and probably say).
I don’t think it is a matter of keeping secrets from the men and women trained in surveillance and tasked with the responsibility of protecting their citizens. Obviously, we are no threat to commit acts of violence, but we all understand civic unrest, and in the mind of officials anything that causes agitation must be monitored. It is my conviction that security police know exactly who I am, that I am church based, church sent, and a missionary. I have no desire (nor capacity) to hide that from them. I further believe that if I am doing my job, that if I am seeking to make disciples by preaching repentance and faith in Jesus, the God who became man to die on the cross for the sins of the world, if I am doing that, then security police better know I am a missionary. If they don’t know, then I am not being faithful.
The point is not to hide from the authorities who we are. It is more about respect and not embarrassing them, and it is about not causing public unrest. The vast majority of the time (if we are respectful, relational, culturally astute, professionally serving, linguistically capable, and led by the Spirit) we can have a very public church/pastor/missionary identity without causing civil strife. Not all the time, but most of the time, at least for a season. Security either knows that you are a missionary, knows who you are meeting, and knows your activities, OR you are not a very good missionary. That sounds harsh and I don’t mean it to be condemning, but it is connected to my conviction that we are sent to proclaim and announce, and if we proclaim/announce, it is impossible to not be known (by those whose job it is to know) who we are and what we do. So we don’t hide what we do; we just work to do it respectfully.
In some Muslim contexts it is possible to have pastor or missionary as the reason for your visa, and the above point has less grey area to navigate. In other places to get a visa as a church related worker is more difficult, and in these cases I would argue you can be church connected without that word/concept being stamped in your passport. In Saudi, for example, I have been explaining to business friends that I own a business that does intercultural training, that I am a pastor sent by the church, that the church has funded the business, and that we are training Christians how to live and work in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, loving Muslims and living out their faith respectfully. My visa does not say church, but my explanation does.
In 2011, we voluntarily left Sudan to work in Egypt. In 2012, there was a general purge of all missionaries in Sudan. Every single missionary agency was affected. Those that were open, those that were super cautious. Those that would not meet with other missionaries, those that hosted the partnership events. Those that led Muslims to Jesus, those that had barely arrived in country. Security knew everyone, they knew everything, and they kicked everyone out. Let us give security police their due: They know. Let’s not spend energy on trying to hide things from them. Let’s focus on being respectful and not embarrassing them, not causing a public ruckus if at all it can be avoided (and sometimes it can’t.)
If we are not careful, digital security leads to self-censorship in verbal witness.
Related to the last point, I do find it humorous that we ask people to “[email protected] to G.d for us.” I find it humorous because I believe that security is smart and has the capacity to read all our communication if they want to. I find it humorous because a second grader can crack the “code.” I find it concerning because it makes us look sneaky. I find it troubling because I have observed that caution in our language and communication with one another OFTEN bleeds over to caution or code in evangelism. If we orient ourselves to be vague, we usually slip slowly to vagaries in witness (not addressing the real issues, looking for agreement, losing the shocking inflexibility of our message of repentance).
I often ask missionaries if they know of anyone kicked out because of a newsletter, email, or open text. It is very rare that any missionary actually knows someone personally. Missionaries have been drilled in caution regarding their communication from a fear-based possibility not a normal eventuality. I know examples of missionaries being called in for questioning and shown their correspondence. But as I dig into those case studies, it was never the email or the newsletter or the text that was problematic; it was the activity that communication detailed and security wanted the worker to know that they knew. They would have been kicked out regardless. This point I admit can be interpreted two ways (i.e. that the newsletter provided the fodder for security to kick the missionary out). In my experience, it is never is the communication, rather it is the activity. And we must continue the activity even if it jeopardizes the longevity. We cannot not be missionary (and be faithful) and we can’t allow our digital or communication caution to seep over into our evangelistic and discipleship praxis. We are to be bold and courageous. It’s part of the job description. Yes, there is a fine line between courage and folly. Agreed. The flip side of the coin is that there is a fine line between wisdom and fear. Today I think most missionaries err on the wisdom/fear balance than do on the courage/folly continuum.
One final consideration on vagaries in our communication to supporters back home. I am concerned about the injury to potency in prayer and mobilization. Informed prayers tend to be more powerful prayers. Information about specific places is often used by God to call new missionaries to those places. If we are too general, I think the result is less effective prayer and mobilization.
Of all the censorships, self-censorship can be the most damaging and shameful of all. The devil need not intimidate us if we have silenced ourselves.
The goal is not longevity; the goal is the glory of God and an indigenous church.
If Jesus or Paul are judged by the criteria we usually establish for what is wise and what is foolish (usually linked to longevity and not making anyone upset), neither of them pass the test. Jesus made it only three years and made enough powerful enemies to assure His death. It appears Paul never made it more than three years in any of his missionary assignments and in all of them he stirred up opposition. The Pauline model is clearly to evangelize, disciple local believers, identify and train elders, and move on, and he did so in astonishing rapidity. Jesus is unique in that His primary mission was to redeem all men by dying on the cross, but the point remains in that success was determined by whether or not Jesus and Paul glorified God through obedience to their assignment not by longevity. Jesus and Paul had short ministries (Paul never in one place long) but God received glory, for Jesus redeemed the world and Paul planted the church.
There is an interesting closed loop of logic that goes something like this:
- I am sent to be a witness and plant indigenous churches.
- In order to do so, I need to be in country long enough to make disciples.
- In order to make disciples, I must proclaim the gospel widely and boldly.
- If I proclaim the gospel widely and boldly, I will get kicked out of the country.
- If I get kicked out of the country, I can’t make disciples.
- In order to not get kicked out of the country, I won’t make disciples.
- Because if I make disciples, I won’t be able to make disciples.
- So I won’t do what I am sent to do, because if I am kicked out I won’t be able to do it.
Silly, yes, but all too common. The goal is not that we stay in a country for a certain amount of years so that our kids don’t have to transition again. The goal is to plant indigenous churches. And yes, to do that is going to draw attention, and to do that is probably going to get us kicked out at some point, and that is not a problem IF one of two things has happened: First, if the indigenous church was birthed and able to grow without us. Second, if we were obedient and God was glorified, and in that obedience a gospel contribution was made that will lead one day to the church being planted and multiplied. Our actions of obedience may lead to us being kicked out AND another step towards the indigenous church being planted at the same time. It is too simplistic to say that because we were kicked out our action was wrong, for if our obedience leads to dismissal, it gives God glory and He will use it somehow to build His church. On the other hand, if we are kicked out for foolish, stubborn, unteachable, proud disobedience, then we will do harm to the work of church planting and bring dishonor to God.
As an example, in Oman as I write, two missionary men sit in jail, for they have been connected to an evangelism drop where they saturated a remote area with gospel literature. The debate has already begun: Were they foolish? The easy answer is to say they were unwise and their actions have jeopardized others. Would we feel the same way if we knew that some local read that literature, got saved, became a Paul-like minister used of the Lord to bring tens of thousands to faith? I don’t know the answer, for only God knows their hearts (if they were obedient or if they were willful) and what fruit has or will come. The point is, we can indeed fall off the horse on both sides. We can leave too soon because we were injudicious, and we can stay too long, never fruitful because we were too cautious or our identity too clouded. But in either case, we must remember the goal is not longevity, the goal is God’s glory exemplified in our obedience to Him (and longevity in the biblical examples is rather elusive).
One qualifier would be perhaps ful to revisit at this point. I am not saying that any identity leads directly to bold witness or fruit or vice versa. I could have a church/missionary identity and be lazy and a discredit to King and gospel. I have some friends who have a very non-church identity who are incredible and bold witnesses all the time.
Trouble is inevitable.
It has been granted to us on behalf of Jesus not only to believe on His name but also to suffer for His name (Phil. 1:29). Everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will face persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). Matthew 10:22 tells us we WILL be hated BY ALL for Jesus’ sake. We have come so far from this biblical reality and now we have twisted trouble into an indicator that we have done something wrong. The shocking truth is that we are amiss (and woe to us) if all men speak well of us (Luke 6:26). The sober truth is, if we are not being persecuted, facing trouble, being hated, we are doing something wrong. This does not mean we foolishly make trouble our aim. It is the simple reality that faithful gospel witness will bring trouble; thus we should not jump to conclusions that trouble means missionaries have erred. It may very well indicate faithful obedience.
No identity removes all the obstacles or all the problems. The Bible is clear that suffering comes before glory, that we will be hated, that we will be resented, that persecution is a certainty, that it is by many tribulations we plant the church and enter the kingdom of God. Whoever our model—Jesus, Paul, the Apostles, the Church fathers, missionaries through the ages—the cross is still a stumbling block and the enemy will always attack.
Trouble then does not delegitimize an approach. If it did, then both Jesus and Paul were miserable failures in their mission. Neither does trouble endorse folly or bravado. The point is that we can’t make a one-to-one correlation between trouble and a public church/missionary identity when trouble is promised to everyone who bears the name of Christ. If we (eventually) do not get in trouble, we are either not fulfilling our mission or are so ineffective at it that the demonic powers are not in the least threatened and leave us be. Those that get in trouble in missions then (whether modest or martyrdom) should not automatically be considered either heroic or foolish. This is too simplistic when the biblical guarantee is that trouble will always find those who are faithful followers and proclaimers of the gospel.
In Morocco, one movement of churches has grown to 43. The leader of this movement has intentionally avoided incorporating believers who were discipled by missionaries to be super cautious. He is very specific that he only wanted to add new believers to the church and he has woven in a teaching on suffering as a part of the discipleship process. His philosophy is that boldness breeds boldness. They have just launched a media campaign that is videos of Moroccan MBBs who live in Morocco and identify with the Moroccan church. One of the unexpected results is that other MBBs in the churches after seeing people they know witness publicly are volunteering to be in a video sharing the gospel. Boldness breeds boldness.
There are times and seasons.
In John 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and then at the height of both His popularity and His danger (John 11:54), knowing the authorities wanted to kill Him, withdraws to a safe place. He would still march with a face like a flint to the cross (Luke 9:51), but all in good time. Paul went over the Damascus wall in a basket (Acts 9:25) and then set his face to Jerusalem as well (Acts 21:23), where he would be bound and set on a course for his execution. Clearly in the Bible there are times when we withdraw, reroute, stay silent, wait, or escape. We do not answer every person or every question the same way every time. There are times to be super direct, and there are times to hold our tongue.
I have been telling (almost) every Saudi I meet here in Jeddah that I am a pastor sent by the church, and it has led to amazing gospel opportunities. But I am not here (yet) on a pastor/church/missionary visa. I have a legitimate business visa and I explain that the church has funded the business and are my investors (donors). I have been able to explain what we do (intercultural training) and invariably have Jesus-centered conversations. BUT I did not say anything evangelistic at the airport. I just handed them my passport and wore my BAM (business as mission) shirt with the name of my company on it.
My usual, consistent identity is as a pastor and church connected Christian AND I selectively use it. Other times I just buy gas, get my groceries, and act like a normal expatriate in country.
When I am asked who I am and what I do, I then weave my pastoral identity and church donors immediately into the explanation, almost every time. It is the identity that gives me the most internal harmony and the most external opportunities to witness. Further, this identity is something I have grown into and become more and more comfortable doing as time has gone by and as I have learned more about myself and context. I started out very cautious. As the years, confidence, and opportunity have grown, I have become more and more open.
If we don’t identify with the church, we don’t model the body of Christ well.
God both created all the nations (ethne) and languages (hence cultures) of the world (Gen. 10–11) and initiated His mission plan to bless them all through Abraham’s seed (Gen. 12:1–3) which we know directly from Galatians 3:16 to be the Lord Jesus Christ. We see that the biblical meta-narrative is ever inclusive of all peoples and that one day (Rev. 5:9; 7:9) all peoples will gather around the throne. Our eternity is certainly multi-cultural as should be our collective present. The Antioch church was both multicultural and missionary from the beginning (Acts 13). I am not saying there cannot be homogeneous churches (if that means embedded in one culture using a heart language), but I am saying that the church is considered by God to be one body (Eph. 4:16) intended to be inclusive and out-reaching, and any healthy body must be self-connected. No healthy church makes isolation a goal, especially if the goal is self-preservation, for truly, the lost (all men) will know we are Christians by our love (John 13:35) for one another.
In full disclosure I am not a proponent of insider missiology when it is defined by encouraging Jesus followers to remain within Islam. My ecclesiology is that the church is “called out” of false religions. I believe Islam is a false religion. Islam must be defined by Muslims, and Muslims deny the deity of Jesus. Thus, it is impossible to be Muslim and follow Jesus in the biblical sense. This is what I mean by false religion: a religion antithetical to biblical religion. Therefore, I believe that followers of Jesus everywhere must be in fellowship with the wider body of Christ, with the church—this means the church historically (the church now at rest, that has been faithful down through the ages) and the church militant (the church now on mission, actively obeying Jesus and loving Him all around the globe). We must be the church both organically (with all its beauty) and organizationally (with all its flaws). We can’t have one without the other. If you have a house church, whose house? Who speaks? Who feeds? Who watches the kids? Who leads? Church is always both organic and organized.
The other reality is to ignore the existing church in any context whether expatriate (for example, in Saudi Arabia there are hundreds of house churches whether Filipino, Indian, African, Pakistani, Western, mixed, other, etc.) or a few indigenous Saudi house churches (MBB). To ignore either or both suggests an ecclesiology not expansive enough to recognize the incredible kingdom potential that overcomes liabilities.
Out of this conviction comes the understanding that I, as part of the historic and global church, am to make disciples who will be part of the historic and global church. Indigenous? By all means. But not orphans. Brothers and sisters who are welcomed in to complete us. Giving correction and receiving it. Adding value and benefiting. If our job is to be church planters and if part of that responsibility is the union of God’s global body, then there must be intentional identification with the church. We can’t plant what we don’t love, and if we are to be church planters, we must love the church for what it can be (and will be), not just be stumbled at what it is (or isn’t).
Having an upfront church identity s this process tremendously. It opens doors, it clarifies, and it s me set and hold the course. It lets the hounded, isolated believer know in those early and frail days of church planting that they are not alone, that a vast multitude loves and cherishes them. I need to be a part of the church myself, for my own good, for the good of my family, not just for the modeling but also for the experiencing.
The Sticking Point
Most missionaries would have no objection with most of what I have said above about a more direct church association and identity as long as it is personal to me. Where it becomes challenging is when my personal identity becomes problematic for their identity due to association. In other words, no one really objects to what I do as long as it does not jeopardize them or new believers. It is a fair question. Let me take the question in two parts: fellow missionaries and local believers.
If my identity is as a missionary/pastor/church man and other missionaries have chosen to go a different way identity wise, what are the implications on them if we are known to spend time together (socially, at a house church, at a training, etc.)? What are the implications on them if I am more direct in witness than they are, more open in communication than they are, and more visually connected to the church than they are? How do we in good conscience interact with other missionaries who feel that our approach is dangerous for them?
1) We honor the consensus in context and the individual preference in private.
In other words, in communication with them we adopt the language and security measures (VPN, secure email, secure communication apps, coded language) that they prefer. I may not agree with them and I may even think them wrong-headed, but if I want them to communicate or interact with me, I realize it must be on their terms. Partnership is worth this accommodation. There are sometimes missteps (and I have made them) when we do not realize what the comfort boundaries of others are, but we hope they are gracious enough to allow us to learn their “language.” Simplistically, we engage them on their terms.
2) We are not offended if they chose to disassociate or avoid us.
Before moving to Saudi Arabia, I discretely contacted the known leaders by email and explained who I was, provided links to our public profile, and said I would love to connect with them if they were willing. Some were willing, and some declined. I respect their choice. Our posture is to invite others freely to friendship and partnership but understand if they decline. We understand if they think our position/identity jeopardizes them. We always want to be clear with our identity and profile to other missionaries and then let them dictate the terms of their engagement with us.
3) We offer the protection and benefits of our position (for all positions have some benefits and some liabilities).
Our choice of identity can offer some sanctuary, and we want to be generous with extended covering. Essentially, a public church identity understood by the powers that be can be calming and empowering. If the authorities know exactly who we are (missionaries, pastors, church workers) and who we are not (CIA, spies, special forces, drug runners, money launderers, pimps, etc.), it often works in our favor and in the favor of all we associate with. Missionaries and church leaders are known entities and the challenges they bring are often the least of governmental worries.
Here in Saudi, I recently had this conversation with a house church pastor. We were meeting to get to know one another and I did not want to unduly jeopardize him or his underground church. I asked him to google my name and get back to me. He did, watched some online sermons, and came back graciously beaming. He said: “Wow! With your online profile and the fact they let you in the country and gave you a visa, it is a sign to us that you can offer us protection. Come and speak to our church and be free. We have no concerns, for you will bring protection with you wherever you go.” I know this is not always the case, but the point is, sometimes it is true: Sometimes, the thing we can do for others is to have a clearly articulated and public church/ pastor/missionary identity known by the authorities.
4) We are very careful not to use their names, images, or any information in communication.
This is simple professional courtesy and ethics. Pictures, references, data, info, etc. Nothing should be passed on without their explicit permission and guidelines.
All of the above also holds true regarding being open on the front end, allowing them to determine the rules of engagement, being honest and upfront on who we are, allowing them to distance themselves from or engage, honoring their comfort level in communication and verbiage, and especially not doing anything to jeopardize them through injudicious communication of their testimony, life, or circumstances. Any exploitation is heinous. In addition:
1) We want to model faith and courage.
The research of Nik Ripken (author of Insanity of God) haunts me, and it condemns us all. Nik related in a teaching time to our team in Cairo how he discovered that the number one thing disciples of Jesus learned from missionaries was how to fear. We won’t associate with one another, we are unwilling to baptize, we leave the country when things get rough, we ignore those being watched by security who are from our own teams, we care more about our own security than that of MBBs, and we protect our own visa more than we do those in danger.
In this regard, I want to always be willing to baptize (or be part of the celebration when the MBB invites me as I do think it better for other MBBs to baptize whenever possible). I want to always be willing to meet them on their terms, and I never want to hold my longevity or security as more important than their discipleship. If they want to meet me, I will bend over backwards to meet with them and pay any . If they do not want to meet me, I will honor their lead. I want to demonstrate to them they are more important than my visa or security. We must demonstrate that we die daily and that we would die for them if need be.
2) Honor their boundaries, dignity, and comfort levels.
As mentioned above, with pictures, newsletters, and all communications I must interact from a posture of respect for their personhood and security. The above is more obvious than the subtle viewing of the disciple as a trophy or endorsement of my ministry. Even if I never brag to supporters about my relationship with a disciple, but internally I view that person as a number, target, or an accomplishment, I have sinned against him. Certainly, we are sent to make disciples and we rejoice at souls saved and disciples made, but let us not depersonalize that wonder.
I must do no harm to their bodies, souls, or emotions if there is any possible way to avoid it. I must not be afraid of Christian discipleship and biblical teaching if the consequences of that obedience bring pain. If pain is to result, let it only be for the gospel and let it be shared. After all, compassion is to “suffer with.” If something I teach, preach, or ask is cross worthy, it will apply to me as well as to them.
3) Give them full liberty to say anything they want about you to others including to security.
On the one hand, we must model that we will not under duress reveal anything about them that would cause them harm. We must determine, assure, and live out a refusal to be an informant, even to our own hurt. In most cases the extreme cost to us is expulsion, but even if it means prison, torture, or death (however unlikely), we must never be the ones to give up others’ names or information. On the less dramatic side, we must be ready with good explanations for why that person visits our house, or why their name is in our phone, or why we gave them a Bible or some literature, or what our relationship is with them. Wisdom and respect lead us to have that agreement between us before it is required from authorities. As much as possible (when questioned about others), let us take all the responsibility on ourselves and protect the other in love to the highest degree possible.
On the other hand, because the likelihood of them facing much more physical pain when questioned about us, we must give them the full liberty to say anything and everything they know about us. I always tell MBBs and CBBs that I partner with in ministry that they have my full blessing (and even request) to say anything and everything about me to security. I believe we need to set them free to do what their conscience allows and to assure them that we have no secrets about being Jesus, Bible, evangelism, church planting people.
God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ and has commissioned us to preach Jesus, teach Jesus, and make disciples of Jesus. God revealed Himself in humble vulnerability, and it cost Him greatly. We are to do missions as Jesus and the Apostles did it, and their methods were vocal, transparent, public and private, and connected to the body of Christ. Jesus and the Apostles were revealers, proclaimers, announcers, and disseminators of information. They were people of truth, light, integrity, and honest, even if that was to their own hurt. They were wise and bold, winsome and articulate, credible and acceptable in their roles, even as their message was inflammatory. They had understandable identities that were spiritual in nature and propelled them into verbal witness. They were also very different from one another with a wide range of method, scope, and gifting.
I’m an extrovert. I love a challenge. I love sharing the gospel. I am Greek and enjoy a good, passionate back-and-forth discussion. My wife is a peacemaker and an introvert. She does not employ the pastor/church identity as robustly or often as I do, and I’m good with that. I can speak Arabic. I can joke around. I am comfortable with physical touch with Arabs. I love to affirm them and use proverbs, stories, and indirection. I have some intercultural skills after being born in Africa and living for 27 years in the Arab world that a 22-year-old Yankee off the plane does not have. Further, I have an online profile almost impossible to hide, and due to my journey referenced above, have no desire to hide, both out of conviction and efficacy. All these things factor into the equation. I am not trying to force everyone into this identity; I am merely making the case that it is a legitimate option for some.
However, we must ALL be openly and immediately Jesus-Bible persons whose behavior is biblical, who never stop evangelizing, making disciples, and planting churches. A great way to do this is to have an openly pastor/church/missionary identity. It is not the only way, but it is a viable, powerful way to present ourselves. This includes (in my experience) contexts that have been considered by popular opinion “closed” or “hostile.” The benefits can (when we live and present ourselves wisely) benefit other gospel workers and indigenous believers. I encourage missionaries to rethink their abandoning of historic terms; let’s retain them, explain them, and broker them to advance gospel clarity. I encourage many new missionaries to prayerfully consider a very clear pastor and church-based identity, even in contexts where contemporary thinking has written that approach off. It may very well be the way to go for many in these days, even as it was for many in the past.
*****This article also appears on Biblical Missiology, published on July 6, 2020.