On Missionary Identity Where It Is Not Allowed

Photo by Liam Sims on Unsplash

We’re not supposed to be the best-kept secret around.

Greg Livingstone, founder of Frontiers

A landmark study was conducted in 2008, collecting and interpreting the global data of those seeking to plant churches in Muslim contexts. The study was published in a book by J. Dudley Woodberry called, From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices, and Emerging Issues Among Muslims. One of the surprising results of the research showed that church-planting teams that are suspected by the locals of being missionaries are actually better at church planting than those teams whose tent-making identity is so seamless they’re never suspected. It makes sense. Someone wrestling with spiritual questions is more likely to approach the English teacher with a reputation for talking about Jesus than the business consultant who just seems busy with business like everyone else. Being suspected by locals of being a missionary also likely means that the church planting team has been sowing the gospel seed more broadly. If you sow generously, you reap the same.

The identity issues of church planters in Muslim contexts where proselytization is illegal are complex. I don’t intend to get into too much detail on these issues in this post. I’ll merely mention two points, one theological and the other historical. First, we simply must find a way to obey God rather than men any time that a government makes a law that disagrees with God’s higher law (Acts 5:29). Christ has commanded us to make disciples to the ends of the earth, so that law supersedes the human law of my host country that prohibits missionary activity among Muslims. Second, the global church has a long tradition of leveraging trade and business in order to make it through difficult political barriers to the gospel. Cristoph Baumer writes about the first and century spread of the gospel beyond the Roman Empire and into enemy Parthian territory, “Although the Roman-Parthian border was generally tightly maintained, traders or missionaries disguised as traders could cross it unhindered. In fact, the missionizing of Mesopotamia, which moved from Edessa to Nisibis, Arbil, Seleucia-Ctesiphon and Maishan, followed the land routes of the Silk Road” (The Church of the East, p. 25).

The political barriers to doing church planting among most Muslim people groups are intense. To obey God we will need to use business and other avenues to gain sustained access, just like the early church did. But as we do this, we must be careful not to be the best-kept secret around.

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