Missionaries adjust to risks in Arab lands

Brandon Bayne wants to win souls for Jesus Christ in the Arab world. That's why he steers clear of Muslim nations and instead trains Latinos from the Americas to be missionaries on the ground there.

"There has to be someone at some point who crosses a border," says Mr. Bayne, a third-year ministry student here at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. But in light of escalating anti-Americanism and resentment spawning violence against missionaries, he says, that missionary "doesn't have to be a Westerner."

In fact, according to Bayne and other mission theorists, Latinos have better success rates in winning Arab converts because their dark skin and modest economic backgrounds help build relationships with indigenous Muslims. Latinos, Filipinos, and other non-Western Christians are thus increasingly staffing the front lines of the world's most dangerous mission fields, where spreading Christianity can be punishable by death.

In the wake of missionary murders in Yemen in December and in Lebanon in November, evangelical Christians are debating how best to spread their faith in regions hostile to Christianity, America, and Western culture. At issue is not whether to preach "the good news" to Muslims abroad, but whom should be sent to do it.

"Somebody is going to have to risk their life to bring the Gospel to the Yemenites," says Timothy Tennent, director of missions programs at Gordon-Conwell. "The question is, who should it be?"

Answering that question seems to be a process of elimination. For whom is the job too risky? And which groups are destined to fail at planting churches or winning converts, because of wide cultural disparities? Evangelicals are tiptoeing through answers, finding that many adventurous young Americans might not be suited to the calling.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., stopped sending student interns to mission fields in Pakistan, Lebanon, and Muslim-majority areas of India. Recent murders mean that policy will stay in place indefinitely, according to Don Fanning, director of the university's Center for Global Ministry.

"That's kind of a practical response concerning the liability of the university," Dr. Fanning says. "To push gullible kids into harm's way isn't a good idea, anyway."

At Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., students continue to train for mission work in the "10/40 window," a reference to latitudes north of the equator where Islam dominates and Christianity is largely unpracticed. In class, they learn personal security tactics, from carrying a cellular phone to notifying several people whenever they leave a village.

Yet as violence against missionaries has escalated in recent months, instructors have been reemphasizing that no one with small children should embark on missions to certain dangerous regions. "We're trying to prepare people more biblically to accept suffering as a component of any mission outreach," says J. Dudley Woodberry, professor of Islamic Studies and dean emeritus of the School of World Mission at Fuller. "But children should not have to undergo that type of situation."

Because the risks are so great, the number of missionaries committed to planting churches in Arab nations is probably fewer than 1,000, according to the Rev. Douglas Birdsall, a researcher for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. As many as 10,000 Christians may be working at secular jobs in the Arab world while spreading faith privately, he says, but the hazards of being exposed make precise counts impossible to secure.

Limits on evangelical work

Due to checkered pasts and historical links with European imperialism, missionaries are banned from some countries and restricted to humanitarian (rather than church-planting) ministries in others. In Yemen, for instance, Christian hospital workers can discuss their faith only when asked a direct question about it. Under Islamic law, conversion to another religion is a crime punishable by death. Missionaries accused of encouraging Muslims to convert are often required to leave their host country.

The idea of suffering for the sake of the Gospel has deep roots in Christianity, tracing back through colonial periods to the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul. From a prison cell in Rome, Paul told how his chains advanced the cause.

Yet even though some may wish to follow Paul's example, concerns about effectiveness are leading some evangelicals to say American missionaries don't belong in certain Arab settings. Anti-American sentiments are too strong, they say, to allow for a genuine hearing on the faith. "After 9/11, it makes it very unlikely a Muslim is going to be able to hear the Gospel from an American," Dr. Tennent says. "If we can send a Brazilian or a Russian to do it more effectively, that's all the better."

A job for Brazilians?

Brazilians make great missionaries to Muslims, Tennent says, because the two groups have in common dark skin, dark eyes, modest means overall, and a knack for the Arabic language. What could be troublesome, though, is a perception of wealthy North Americans sending third-world Christians to do the most dangerous work.

When asked about this, Tennent explains that his credibility depends on taking risks of his own. This month, for instance, he undertakes a mission trip to Orissa, a Hindu region of India, despite numerous warnings that he'll be a target for violence as a Christian evangelist. He has canceled public appearances due to mounting risk, but will conduct underground training with local Christians nevertheless.

Inside a Gordon-Conwell lecture hall, students in a global missions class take notes on strategies to transmit the faith cross-culturally. An overhead projector elevates three words above all else in the room: "Indigenous Initiated Missions." One student in an otherwise empty hallway nods his head. Ministry from Christian natives to other natives is, in his view, the way to go.

"They'd probably be more open to their own people than to Westerners," says Walker Cosgrove, a church history student from Upland, Ind. "We tend to think if we're not the ones doing it, then they're not doing it right."

Yet according to Tennent, the answer is not so simple. A Yemeni preaching Christianity in his homeland runs a greater risk of being killed than anyone else, he says, because his government would deal more harshly with him as its own national and as an apostate of Islam.

As the pool of candidates to bring Christianity to Muslims abroad shrinks, those casting for today's fishers of men are tossing their net in new waters.

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