By Dr. Jerry Rankin
When we came to Indonesia in 1970 our visa was granted by the Department of Religion, giving official status to our role as missionaries. Although our work permit designated that we were in the country to work with Christians, specifically the Baptist churches, we had relative freedom to witness openly. Being the only foreigners in an area of 5 1/2 million people, everyone was curious as to who we were and why we were there–questions that readily gave us an opportunity for witness.
Most were indifferent to our witness and many antagonistic, but we invariably found pockets of response, followed-up that interest and saw several village house churches planted. The situation has radically changed over the last forty years, as it is rare for a missionary visa to be granted. In fact, over the last 15 years, research has reported an average of three countries a year withdrawing visas for missionary work. This is somewhat due to stronger nationalistic policies, influential opposition exerted by the majority religion and feelings that local churches are strong enough without a need for foreign workers. There is also a negative perception that missionaries are interested only in proselytizing which will disrupt traditional culture and harmony in society.
This trend has forced God-called missionaries from the West to seek other channels for gaining access where people need to hear the good news of the gospel. Christians are going overseas through creative access assignments which means using professional skills to provide a needed service welcomed in another country. Work permits are readily granted for English teachers, business consultants, agriculturists, medical and humanitarian services, computer consultants and a plethora of other roles.
The trend is evident that the missionary today is not the stereotypical preacher and seminary graduate but people out of the marketplace who carry professional credentials and experience for “value-added” roles welcome in foreign countries. In gaining residence, they are then thrust into public exposure that results in personal relationships and opportunities to share their faith. These more “secular” roles do not preclude ministry experience and basic theological training to be equipped to be used by God cross-culturally.
Some think there is a violation of ethical integrity for a “missionary” to go under the guise of any other identity. However, this is a very narrow connotation of what a missionary is from the perspective of the sending church and country. It also denies the reality of every Christian being called to be a witness wherever they are; if Christian teachers, lawyers, doctors and businessmen in America should be conscientious to witness to the loss, should not those who fill similar roles overseas use them as a witness? If countries still in spiritual darkness welcome American teachers and consultants, should not Christians be willing to respond to those opportunities?
Objecting to creative access roles to fulfill the Great Commission is also to deny the tragedy of lostness as many would never hear the gospel if it were contingent on the traditional missionary since most of the unreached people groups in the world are in places restricted to a missionary presence. When the apostles were ordered by local religious and government authorities to cease preaching and teaching about Jesus Christ, they refused to comply, saying they could not refrain from sharing what they had seen and heard.
We are taught to respect secular authority and obey civil laws, but when it comes to sharing the gospel we must be obedient to a higher authority.
Dr. Jerry Rankin served as president of the International Mission Board from June 1993 to July 2010 and blogs at The Rankin File.