One phrase in the Bible describes Israel’s desire for a King: Make us like the other nations. By the 20th century, the desire of the nations could be expressed in the statement: Make us like America. By the 21st century things had changed. Now the mantra is: Make America like us.
The term Mission Field can stir up feelings of admiration or fear, depending upon the hearer. For some, anyone who determines to leave the familiarity or comforts of their own culture to spend significant years, or even a lifetime, in an alien land stirs others to self-examination. Those who make such a commitment are an example to others.
Missionaries are often perceived as humanitarian workers, when in fact a large number of missionaries are not involved in humanitarian work at all. Their chief aim is to introduce the people in their host culture to the person of Jesus Christ–for which they use a wide variety of tools and strategies. As mentioned earlier in these articles, that is where the difficulty lies for the authorities in those countries. The missionary’s task is to introduce a self-propagating cultural change agent. Why should an Islamic country, Buddhist country, Hindu country, or others allow such change-agents to work in their land? (Put aside for the moment that most religions introduce change-agents to other countries anyway.) The central issue is one of control. It is the nature of governments to control or manage their populations. Some cultures are also highly resistant to ideas that could fundamentally change their social order. Islamic culture is one example. Most of the Arabic speaking world is predicated squarely upon Islam. Islam is a strict system that forbids social change not facilitated by Islamic concepts. Introduce ideas that are perceived as incompatible and you have the potential for social disaster.
The United States is largely perceived as a Christian nation. Andrew Sandlin says, “There are arguably more professing Christians per capita in the world today than ever before in history, yet the world is more secular than at any time in history.”1 (Does Christianity facilitate secularization?) Most evangelical Christians would probably argue that the United States is no longer a true Christian country; rather it is pluralistic and postmodern. Many of the legal trends, popular entertainment, and common practices don’t square with what we might regard as Christian values. This also offers the missionary a defense in his host culture when he encounters charges about the “immorality” of “Christian America.” Many missionaries do encounter this protest often. But is America Christian anymore, or is it postmodern–or something else?
How do you define what a culture is? For the Islamic world it is rather simple. When Islam is dominant, the land is regarded as Islamic. If Islamic law is put into place, the land is technically Islamic. Islamic theology holds that everyone (regardless of country or culture) is naturally born Islamic, and must simply be reminded of his true nature. If you follow that line of reasoning, then the whole world is Islamic, and the purpose of Islam is to reclaim the world for Allah. Biblically expressed Christianity makes no such claim. In fact, the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament flatly deny such a concept, though the history of Christianity encompassed in Catholicism and Christendom, sometimes applied a different assessment. The world may be God’s personal property, but that doesn’t mean everyone is naturally Christian. The reality is that we are born sinful, separated from God because of our sin, and under His judgment from birth. Only acknowledging the identity of Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, resurrection from the dead and receiving Him as Savior brings us into God’s kingdom.
Islamic culture is not the only one that offers difficulty for missionaries as change-agents. Many governments perceive, some rightly, and some wrongly, the threat that Christianity is to their native philosophies. Although they may sometimes blow their perceptions or policies out of proportion, they also tie the work of the missionary with the country that has been his primary benefactor, the United States–especially during times when the leader of that nation is a professing Christian. In its inaugural issue of January 30, 2004, the Indian weekly newspaper, Tehelka accused the administration of George W. Bush of having a “conversion agenda. The 11-page expose accused mission organizations like the International Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention of preparing reports for the CIA.
In March 2005, the Turkish government issued a public warning about missionary activity within their borders.
“The goal of those activities is harming the cultural, religious, national and historical unity of the people of Turkey,” Anatolia news agency quoted [Mehmet] Aydın as saying. “These are not merely religious activities and they are not only carried out by Christian clerics. We have observed doctors, nurses, engineers, Red Cross officials, human rights defenders, peace activists and language tutors conducting missionary activities”2
(It should not escape our notice that this foreign government also recognizes the entrepreneurial aspect of missionaries).
According to Dana Robert of Boston University’s School of Theology, missionaries are inevitably seen as “representatives of Western political and economic power.”3 Yet they’re not the only ones: Because most Islamic countries lack a truly independent civil society, the same suspicion that greets Christian aid workers extends equally to Western non-governmental organizations.4
Notice that missionaries are also referred to as “Christian-aid workers.”
These perceptions can make the fieldwork of the missionary rather difficult. He is the “imperialist” come to change their country, or make it like America. For the missionary, nothing could be farther from the truth. He has one agenda, to present and discuss God’s love with as many people as possible. So what we have is a giant chasm between the reality of missions (telling people about the person of Jesus) and the perception of missions (humanitarian work, agent for America, etc).
Missionary Survey Results
Part of the research for these articles included surveying missionaries around the world about their politics, mission, and experiences as American missionaries in foreign cultures. Thousands of missionaries represent a host of nations, but American missionaries stand alone in that they are from a superpower nation with a unique historical mix of evangelicalism and lasting political liberty.
My initial research consisted of questionnaires I sent to missionaries of almost every persuasion: Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, nondenominational, and others. Included were missionaries sent out individually by their home church, denomination, or organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ, Navigators, Wycliffe, and many others. Many of these missionaries have served in multiple countries, with extremely divergent cultures. My plan was to collect as broad a range of experiences as possible.
I’ve selected a sampling of answers that I felt best represented the particular points of view. In some cases I asked more articulate individuals to expand upon their explanations through a series of follow-up questions. Each answer to a question is presented in context, and without edits or alteration.
No matter who you are, from whatever side of the political spectrum you hail, you are going to have major disagreements with some of the answers provided. You may even become angry over what you will perceive as political stupidity, or spiritual ignorance. You may read some of these and wonder, “Didn’t anyone screen this clown before sending him out to screw up someone else’s country?” (You may already be asking that question about me, having read these articles this far.)
It’s important that we look at this topic soberly. Christian history is filled with 2,000 years of life-changing, nation-impacting errors and arrogance. I am convinced this is one reason why God told us through the Apostle Paul to, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Trying to figure out how to rightly apply Christian principles in our personal lives can be daunting. The political and even international political arena is much worse. Missionary work is fraught with risks that can free nations, or end up in the wide and systematic persecution of people of faith–as Christian history will attest. I’m convinced that Christians in politics face greater challenges of conscience than most lay-people realize–and are underappreciated for it.
Bruce Shelley has brilliantly stated,
Time has a way of sifting and testing human achievements. Men design their social and political systems, and for centuries people regard their own order as the best that can be imagined. They go to war to defend it because they believe deeply that if that particular organization of the world collapsed there would be nothing left to make life worth living in their own time or in the future. Yet the river of time is littered with the ruins of social and political systems—city-states, empires, dictatorships, monarchies—and we wonder why those who lived under them should ever have defended them or valued them so highly.5
Keep an open mind when considering what these missionaries have to say. Many will not share your view. We must remember that many of these people have dual perspectives–as citizens of the United States, but also as men and women who have committed themselves to living in, and adapting to foreign cultures to which many, inevitably, become sympathetic. It’s not treason; it’s missions–a higher calling, superior to all political allegiance. Some have surrendered most of their lives to be where they are, in cultures and nations where sharing their faith, or revealing their role as missionaries would be life-threatening. The people to whom they minister, and the cultures they work in are often so far removed from the evangelicalism of the United States, that perspectives cannot help but be changed by the constant hammering away of alien values on the well-intentioned missionary. More than anything, missionaries need your prayers, and active support.
For reasons of security, missionaries’ names and sponsoring organizations are not revealed.
QUESTION: Do you think American principles of freedom and democracy, are compatible with your mission to make disciples?
“I think there are a lot of countries that are free without democracy, and democracy and Christianity are not synonymous. I also strongly believe that democracy is not right for every country, but Christianity is. Please don’t mix up the two or combine them. God’s idea of the perfect government is a theocracy–read the Old Testament. So the answer to your question is that it is a bad question–my mission has nothing to do with democracy and freedom and everything to do with making Disciples of Christ.”
“We do think that the American principles of freedom and democracy are compatible to our mission because they give people the freedom to worship and express their religious beliefs even though being a democracy doesn’t guarantee this. In many countries their constitutions guarantee freedom of expression, but in reality this is not true.”
“One of the most basic freedoms is that of faith and conscience. To freely choose to believe, in an informed fashion, what you want to live for is certainly an inalienable and self-evident right! In terms of democracy, as I understand it, there must be room for dissention and diversity. Though the majority may comprise one faith that does not necessitate conformity of the entire population. Though the majority rules through free and fair elections, all constituent’s [and] citizen’s rights must be equally protected by the rule of law. In fact it is not unprecedented to, in some ways, favor the dissenting minority given that they are generally at a disadvantage in society (e.g., affirmative action in the U.S.).”
“No. I believe that American freedom and democracy were born in Christian principles and prospered under God’s blessings, but both have been terribly abused in America and we have no business exporting them. Those who would worship God must worship Him in spirit and in truth, in whatever political situation.”
– Former missionary to Vietnam, Sudan, and Kenya.
“The responsibility to make disciples exists regardless of the political situation. When people trust the Lord, they are liberated from sin and its eternal consequences. As they grow in grace, they experience additional freedom from sin’s power. That American principles of freedom and democracy are based on a Biblical foundation is a plus for those who happen to be privileged to live under those principles–but our mission is to make disciples, not Americans.”
“Yes, 100%. However, as America itself moves away from our founding documents, tenets and beliefs, to a more egalitarian, man-centered big-tent idea where all are ideas are equally welcomed, I find myself talking about a bygone era where Love of God and Love for County went hand in hand.”
– Serving the Middle East and Asia.
“Democracy is not a Biblical position, as many Americans try to make it! Freedom is certainly compatible with my position and my mission: freedom in Messiah.”
“Yes, but not necessary in all circumstances. I lived for 6 years under the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. During that time the mission of the church in Chile grew by leaps and bounds. All doors at all levels of society were open to us. We had religious freedom, but we did not have democracy or political freedom.”
– Chile, Costa Rica.
“Yes, freedom and democracy are Biblical principles for today.”
“I believe that these principles are not necessarily incompatible with discipleship. However, certainly the ultimate goal, in the final analysis, even in my present work, is not to evangelize people (my disciples) for the cause of American principles of freedom and democracy. Freedom and democracy really are handmaidens of Christian evangelism and faith. They flow out of the lives that are formed by Biblical belief. Democracy, though, is not a Biblical value. A theocracy is much nearer to what we, as New Testament Christians would pursue. However, the freedoms associated with democracy are much closer to Biblical values when they are guided by moral imperatives, which recognize the truth of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, ‘are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.’ When that Creator is recognized as the source of the freedoms granted, democracy is Christ’s handmaiden; the rights and freedoms of democracy come from Him, not from the democracy.”
– Portugal and Mongolia.
“Compatible? Yes. Required? No. Turkish believers can make disciples in other countries where tyranny reigns. I believe that stability, freedom, and human rights, can exist outside of democracy.”
“The principles of freedom and democracy (a constitutional monarchy) are not American in Spain. I don’t see their relevance to my mission to promote the Kingdom of God.”
This missionary later sent an addendum to his survey. “I very much appreciate the benefits of carrying an American passport. But my primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, not the USA. Man has to cobble together some system to deal with the spirit of Cain, the Philistines, traffic congestion, and bad checks. American democracy is one such system. It came largely from the concepts of French rationalists of the 18th century. With some checks and balances, it is based on the concept of majority rule, which makes sense only if you believe that man is inherently good; we, as evangelical Christians, do not. We believe that man is inherently evil apart from Christ. Christ’s second coming will not be a democratic event. I find nothing in scripture that would support the concepts of American Democracy as a righteous or preferred system of government.”
QUESTION: Do you think that America’s ideals of Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, and Freedom of Press found in the First Amendment are compatible with Evangelical Christianity?
“I think the way they originally were written and intended as they were. But now they have been corrupted.”
“I am probably naive, but I believe that the ideals are compatible with Evangelical Christianity in America. (Emphasis added.) I don’t believe that the American practice is compatible and I would not feel justified in teaching the ideals or the practice to people of other countries and cultures.”
“Evangelical Christianity has little or nothing to fear in the open pursuit of spiritual understanding.”
– Morocco, Poland.
“God has not set up a dictatorship where He commands us to love and obey Him. He made us creatures free to choose between right and wrong. I think in this way, our First Amendment freedoms can be compatible with Christianity. Our mission is to lead people to make the right choices.”
“I do not believe that they are incompatible. However, they are not necessarily–in my understanding of the Scriptures–enshrined in the New Testament. They are in fact not really addressed. Evangelical Christianity–especially of the Baptist or Free variety would see them as essential to allow for a Biblical community in the society. However, the basic value of humanness found in Genesis 1 would certainly allow and (require) that these freedoms exist in a Christian society.”
– Portugal and Mongolia.
“Some of it is, some of it not. The application of these, at times restricts unnecessarily my God given rights, and at other times flaunts that which is evil just because it demonstrates the extent of these freedoms.”
– Islamic country.
“Yes, if rightly interpreted. Christianity tolerates unbelievers. To us it is obvious that you cannot grant the protection of freedom of religion to a religion that kills non-adherents. Liberals seem to have difficulty figuring that out.”
“I believe that they are, as originally intended by the Founding Fathers. Such freedoms are crucial in really getting the Gospel out. It’s the re-interpretation by modern liberals and their handpicked judges that I have a problem with. When the Anti Church Litigation Union6 hammers on the first clause of ‘establishment of religion’ and totally ignores the ‘free practice thereof’ in an attempt to remove God everywhere from public view, it is a travesty of what the Amendment actually says.”
Many of the missionaries surveyed felt compelled to address these issues more fully during the follow-up. In the process, they offered a variety of perspectives about avoiding certain political ideas in order, from their view, to have an effective ministry. Others felt differently. These responses fell under a variety of questions. Some of the comments demonstrate an attitude of living according to freedoms their host country may not actually grant. You will definitely see an attitude of freedom in some of these responses. Some see this as arrogant, and proof that Americans force their ideology upon others. The comments are presented below as stand-alone. You be the judge.
“Of course we must obey the duly elected officials. But when they over-step their bounds of what it means to rule–to ensure order, prosperity, peace and justice–and begin to actively oppose the spread of the gospel, then I think it’s time for a little respectful civil disobedience.”
“If I would ask a pastor or evangelical, ‘What is your political party,’ they would always make it very clear that they were, apolitical, and refuse to be labeled with any particular party. In many ways they are still like that.”
“I would suggest that the disciples were compelled to share because of their desire to obey God in His instruction as found in passages like Matthew 28:18-20. They clearly did not wish to rebel against the governmental leaders but were willing to pay any price when conformity to governmental instruction was being disobedient to God’s clear command. Yet, they realized that the governing authorities had authority to make them pay a legal price for disobedience to the law. That aspect is very, very important. They offered no special pleading as a way to avoid the cost of the disobedience.”
“There is widespread anti-American feeling in my people group (Muslim). Some of it is founded on political realities, some on lies and hysteria. In either case the sentiment is an obstacle to, and a distraction from, effective ministry. If I am to be effective among a relational people, I must be perceived as outside of their stereotype of an American and as embracing them and their culture. Current missiology advocates contextualizing the Gospel to the host culture while avoiding syncretism. It cannot penetrate the host culture encumbered by American forms and attitudes.”
“The most important thing is seeing people come to Christ, and if my differing political views get in the way of that, then I should keep them to myself. I mentioned above that people here tend to ignore the fact that leftist candidates tend to support immoral behavior. My approach is that of dealing with the moral issues directly in the life of the believer, and in general Brazilian believers are personally opposed to such things as homosexuality, abortion, etc. Beyond that, it’s none of my business to tell them how to run their country.”
- Why Secularization, P. Andrew Sandlin. ©April 1, 2000, WorldNetDaily.
- Comments made by Mehmet Aydin, Turkey’s minister responsible for the Religious Affairs Directorate. Published in Turkish Daily News,March 28, 2005.
- It should not escape notice that such claims are usually made by government representatives or media organizations as part of anti-Christian or anti-Western propaganda. While it is true missionaries do encounter this opinion from time to time in their daily work, the reality is that most missionaries are successful in building relationships of trust. In fact, most people in host countries do not express the “Western-Spy” theory of missions, and for a good reason: most people with common sense recognize it for the silliness it is.
- Mission Possible, Joseph, Loconte, March 19, 2003. Heritage Foundation.
- Shelley, B. L. 1995. Church History in Plain Language (Updated 2nd ed.) . Word Pub.: Dallas, Texas.
- In case you missed it, this missionary is criticizing the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).