There are many countries in the world that do not grant missionary visas. To be a missionary in these “creative access” countries, you must possess some other kind of visa – work, education, business, NGO, tourist, etc. This is our situation here in our corner of Central Asia. Cross-cultural workers like us end up with a complex identity – albeit one with a very long tradition in Christian history – where we are indeed teachers, NGO workers, or businesspeople, but we are these things in this place because they are our platform by which we gain access for ministry among unreached peoples and in unreached places. We have a multi-layered identity. And many of us work very hard to walk this tightrope well. Yet it is a tightrope.
We are followers of Jesus, and so we seek to be always truthful with our public identities. I must be able to have an identity that makes sense when the questions come – and to be able to lean into that public identity when necessary. And I need to be doing good work in that official role so that I’m not empowering the persecutor needlessly. There are real wolves out here in the mountains, seeking to devour us and our local friends. As an English teacher, having actual classes and flesh-and-blood students who are learning English from me is crucial. It provides them, me, and the local authorities more room to sidestep the attacks when the conversations about Jesus happen and the accusations come.
None of this has to be driven by fear. In fact, if it driven by fear, then that’s cause for reexamination. Instead, it should be driven by wisdom – shrewdness even – the kind that Jesus attributes to snakes of all things (Matt 10:16). This, right as he also calls us to be innocent as doves. Yes, that is quite the balance to try and strike. Pray for your missionary friends in creative-access countries.
Some leave the field after long years of struggling with the complexities of this kind of identity. They are tired of feeling schizophrenic, and from dealing with doubts about the integrity of their lifestyle. To be honest, we all feel like this sometimes. Others lean too far into making their public identity watertight. There seems to be an unspoken belief that “If I just can just strike the perfectly secure identity, then all our ministry dreams will come true and I won’t get kicked out of the country.” However, research has demonstrated that it’s actually the creative-access teams that are suspected by the local community of being missionaries are more likely to see churches planted. And then there’s also the new believers to take into account.
No matter how finely crafted your platform identity is, and how shrewdly you wear your different hats, your local friend who just came to faith can very easily blow it all up in one day – out of his love for Jesus, no less! Once those years of prayer are actually answered and locals come to faith, the unreached community around you is faced with some blunt facts. Their family or friends used to be Muslims (in my context anyway). Now they have apostatized. The channel for that was clearly their friendship with you, a foreigner. These blunt facts are present even if your newly believing friend strikes the perfect balance of boldness and wisdom as a new witness for Christ. But let’s be honest, what brand new believer doesn’t fall either too much on the side of fear or too much on the side of boldness? The bold ones in particular tend to provoke quite the blowback. They might lead dozens to faith! And in the process destroy years of careful visa and identity work.
Will we be OK with this bittersweet collateral damage that comes with a new creation? Is it worth it to get kicked out of a country because our evangelism has actually born fruit? When does access become an idol which we must protect at all costs? These are questions that are easy to answer from the clean categories of a training classroom. But they become a little bit harder to wrestle with once the costs of yet another transition has affected your family’s health, once you’ve finally gotten to a certain language level, and once you’ve spent blood, sweat, and tears in labyrinthine government offices setting up that business, institute, or NGO.
Sooner or later everyone in contexts like ours who shares the gospel faithfully will get into trouble for it. The local authorities may wink and turn a blind eye, wagering that the benefit you’re bringing to the community outweighs the cost of a few apostates. Or they may feel hoodwinked and in a supposed zeal for God kick out these “corrupters of the faithful.” The strange thing is that every prayer made for locals to come to faith and churches to be planted pushes workers like us closer to that day when our public identity is destroyed and a new narrative takes its place – a day closer to the reckoning of answered prayers. They were missionaries all along! If God answers our prayers, then this reckoning is, frankly, unavoidable.
As for my family, we’ve decided that if we indeed get kicked out someday, that will be God signalling us that it’s time to get a lot louder and lot more public in our proclamation of the gospel. Instead of being Christian professionals by day and missionary-church planters in the shadows, we’ll seize the chance to work openly among the diaspora and make YouTube videos in our target language entitled, “Here’s the message so dangerous your government kicked us out for sharing it.” As Nik Ripken helpfully points out, the goal of persecution is to stop the proclamation of the message. So, that means an appropriate response to persecution means a ramping up of the proclamation, not a quieting down.
If you asked us today if we could handle another transition, we would honestly have to say no. We have worked so hard to try and get traction in our new city over the past couple years and are just now seeing some (hopefully) promising developments. Yet we live at the mercy of our king. If it is his good pleasure to see us kicked out for sharing the gospel with the “wrong” person, then so be it. His plans will, in the end, lead to greater beauty and life. In the meantime they may feel like death. And those who have been kicked out and placed on blacklists testify to it very much being a kind of death.
Let’s not stop praying for breakthrough, even if it leads to a reckoning and the destruction of our laboriously-crafted identities. Let it all fall apart – if only we have the joy of seeing those from our people group with us in eternity.