First published in THE TELEGRAPH MAGAZINE
Nearly half a million Christian missionaries are currently spreading God’s word among the world’s most hostile areas. Andrew Marshall meets young recruits in the “megachurches” where they are trained.
JENI throws an Afghan headscarf over her long brown hair, then struggles to wrap it around her face so that only her cornflower-blue eyes are showing. ‘You forget how to do this,’ she laughs. Back in Istalef, a dust-choked town an hour’s drive north of Kabul, it was second nature. Once famed for scenic vineyards and giant mulberry trees, Istalef was flattened by fanatical Taliban soldiers in 1999. The Taliban are gone now but Istalef women still wear the burka in public, and when Jeni was there in 2005, working as a trainee missionary, she wore her headscarf. ‘It wasn’t just out of respect for their religion,’ she explains, ‘but also because men stare.’
Today, Jeni is concealing her face for another reason. She is posing for photos in the Missions and Outreach Ministry of Southeast Christian Church near Louisville, Kentucky. Southeast is one of America’s wealthy and booming ‘mega-churches’. A 120-acre complex dominated by a seemingly unending car park, its cavernous main building resembles an airport departure hall. As a trainee missionary, Jeni, a bubbly 26-year-old from South Carolina, does not want her full identity revealed. Christian proselytising is illegal in strictly Islamic countries such as Afghanistan, and communist nations such as China, and missionaries risk arrest or violent recriminations. ‘I heard there were people searching the internet to find out who the missionaries are,’ she says.
A former secretary with a Christian financial service in Georgia, Jeni spent a year working in a church coffee shop in Poland, a favourite warm-up destination for young American missionaries since the Soviet Union collapsed. ‘It was basically the best job ever,’ she recalls. ‘I made friends and told them about God. I’ve had a heart for missions for years.’ Then came Afghanistan. Since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, Jeni has visited the country three times with the Southeast-funded relief agency Sozo International. ‘I fell in love with the people. God has given me a love for Muslims.’ But not for Islam. ‘The culture of Islam is one of fear. I believe in a God who is forgiving and loving.’
A heart for missions, a love for Muslims: for Jeni, a born-again Christian who believes that every word of the Bible is literally true, this qualifies her to take the gospel to the world’s most hostile corners. She is not alone. Jeni is part of the greatest missionary push since the 19th century. It is driven by America’s rich and influential evangelical community, now thought to number 50 million people, and by technologies such as the internet. There were 62,000 missionaries in 1900 and 420,000 a century later, the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity in Massachusetts estimates. The number of missionaries working among Muslims has almost doubled between 1982 and 2001, from about 15,000 to 27,000. About half of those are American, and a third are evangelical. Their ultimate goal is to share the gospel with every person on earth, and thereby complete the so-called ‘Great Commission’ set out by Jesus in Matthew 28:19: ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’
The chief target of this evangelical onslaught is the so-called ’10/40 window’. For missionaries, this is the final frontier. It refers to a vast area lying between 10 and 40 degrees northern latitudes, and which includes: Muslim North Africa and the Middle East; Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Islamic republics of Central Asia; Hindu-majority India; and the Buddhists and Taoists of Southeast Asia and China. These ‘unreached megapeoples’, as they are called, make up most of humanity.
A bellicose George W Bush made ‘crusade’ a dirty word after September 11, yet mission literature retains strong militaristic overtones. Missionaries are ‘Christ’s warriors’, non-Christian countries are ‘enemy-held territory’, God is the ‘commander-in-chief’, and Islam, inevitably, is a ‘weapon of mass destruction’. ‘Missiology’, or the study of missions, is a well-established academic discipline, generating jargon-choked papers with titles such as ‘Practical Contextualisation: A Case Study of Evangelising Contemporary Chinese’. Liberty University, a fundamentalist Baptist college in Lynchburg, Virginia, even has a ‘director of international crusades’.
Early missionaries packed their possessions in the coffins in which they fully expected to return.; today’s holy messengers carry satellite phones and global-positioning systems, and are better equipped than ever to serve on what they call ‘the frontlines of God’s war against sin’. But in our jittery, post-9/11 world, their work could be stoking anti-Western sentiment and exposing indigenous Christian communities to greater persecution. Increasingly, many evangelical groups take on the structure of aid agencies to obscure their primary objective of spreading the gospel. This strategy is routinely deployed in the ’10/40 window’, which happens to be home to hundreds of millions of sick, poor and uneducated people.
In Istalef, where Jeni’s group Sozo International is working, malaria is endemic, as is leishmaniasis, a horrific skin disease caused by parasites transmitted by sandflies in the rubble. Jeni is eager to work full-time in such challenging environments. ‘I’d be lying if said I wasn’t scared,’ she says, folding away her scarf. ‘But God didn’t promise we’d live a long or comfortable life.’
‘I have found that there are three stages in every great work of God,’ the celebrated British missionary James Hudson Taylor wrote. ‘First, it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.’
Taylor, a pioneering evangelist in 19th-century China, is one of the topics at an evening class called Perspectives, held in a windowless lecture hall in Southeast’s main building. This 15-week course for would-be missionaries is taught at 150 locations across North America, and has been attended by more than 60,000 people – Jeni among them. Tonight, about 60 men and women gather for a lecture on the history of the Protestant missions movement.
But first there’s something called a ‘Missions Moment’. An excitable local pastor called Todd outlines his campaign to evangelise Muslim Somali refugees living in Louisville. Then there’s a prayer to thank God for leading this Muslim community ‘out of slavery and out of Islam’.
Tonight’s main speaker is Bill Weber, a former missionary in apartheid-era South Africa. He begins by discussing the inspirational figures of the 19th century – what missionaries call the ‘Great Century’. The Great Century belonged to British missionaries who, like their American counterparts in Iraq in 2003, often advanced in the wake of imperial conquests. But the 20th-century missions movement was overwhelmingly American, and turned its evangelical gaze upon ‘unreached’ tribal peoples – and, later, upon the Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists of the ’10/40 window’. Spearheading this effort was a Californian missionary called Cameron Townsend, who began his career in Guatemala in 1917. There, he sold Spanish-language Bibles until one day a Cakchiquel Indian asked him, ‘Why, if your God is so smart, hasn’t He learned our language?’ Townsend set up Wycliffe Bible Translators and its secular-sounding sister agency, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and began the unfinished and possibly unfinishable task of translating the Bible into every known tongue. His Cakchiquel New Testament was completed in 1929.
‘Every person of every race has a part of them inside that only God can reach,’ the Perspectives student Lawrence Cook, 48, believes. A lawyer for 14 years, he made his first mission-trip to Russia in June. ‘Russians would just flock up to us,’ recalls Cook, a plump man whose eyes blaze with fervour. ‘We would pray with them right then and there. That trip was the second-most profound experience in my life.’ And the first? ‘Meeting Jesus,’ he says. Cook has since applied through the Global Missions Fellowship in Dallas to become a ‘church planter’, as missionaries are also called.
Does he have what it takes? A potential missionary is someone who ‘can live away from his mother’s cooking’, says Dr David Sills of the Billy Graham School of Missions at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. A long-standing passion for other cultures is key: a promising candidate will already have sought out opportunities to share his faith among US immigrant communities before heading overseas. ‘Nothing magic happens when they sit on the plane and buckle their seat-belt,’ Sills says.
Character largely determines which country a missionary will end up in. Many are attracted by the ‘adrenaline rush’ of working in turbulent places, Ron Barnes at Southeast’s Missions and Outreach Ministry admits. ‘It’s not unlike a journalist who works for CNN,’ he says. Missionary groups such as New Tribes Mission and Team Expansion reportedly provide the kind of hostile-environment training received by war reporters and aid workers, which includes a terrifying mock-kidnapping by unidentified gunmen. ‘If a person is naturally outgoing,’ David Sills says, ‘he does very well in Africa and South America. If a person is introverted, he would probably do better in an Asian setting.’ What kind are best suited to Muslim countries? ‘We talk about the burden you have for a people,’ Sills replies. ‘Some people hear about the needs in the Muslim world and they’re burdened by that.’
‘When I was growing up, missionaries were people who showed terrible slide-shows at church, then passed around a bucket for money,’ Vicki Rogers, 29, a missionary with Go Ministries in the Dominican Republic, recalls . ‘They weren’t inspiring. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a missionary.’ Her husband Jeff, 28, doesn’t even like the word. ‘It sets us apart,’ he says. ‘It gives us a sacred status we don’t deserve.’
For four years Vicki and Jeff have lived in the Dominican capital Santiago, ministering to impoverished sugar-cutters from neighbouring Haiti. They are college sweethearts who met while majoring in religion. Jeff wears a ponytail and serves Dominican coffee. Vicki has long blonde hair and keeps an eye on her premature twin daughters, Rena and Sophia. She’s worried Rena will be sick. ‘It’s kind of like The Exorcist after she’s eaten,’ she jokes.
The whole family will soon return to Santiago, a safe place compared to turbulent Haiti, where the Rogers make regular trips. ‘You have to be careful of beatings or kidnappings – for money, not for religious reasons,’ Vicky says. ‘You don’t talk about politics. That can get you killed very quickly.’ And you steer clear of voodoo priests. ‘They don’t have a lot of love for Protestant missionaries,’ Jeff smiles. ‘We’re bad for their business. The saying goes: Haiti is 90 per cent Catholic, and 100 per cent voodoo.’ Many Haitian workers depend upon the food and clean water the Rogers help provide. ‘Missionaries today are generally more concerned about people as a whole, rather than just a person’s soul,’ Vicki explains.
The Rogers also host hundreds of mainly young Americans on short-term mission trips, a trend which is also boosting evangelical activity worldwide. An Arkansas-based outfit called the Travelling Team recruits on US campuses with a multimedia blitz of slick videos and internet testimonials. The catchphrase of the Oklahoma-based youth group Real Impact Missions – ‘Go. It’s that simple’ – echoes not only Jesus’s exhortation in Matthew 28 (‘Go ye therefore, and make disciples . . .’) but also the jacket advice on Lonely Planet guidebooks: ‘Don’t worry about whether your trip will work out. Just go!’ A group with the same catch-em-young strategy is Youth With a Mission, or YWAM – pronounced ‘why wham’ – which runs short-term mission trips for children as young as eight.
These junior missionaries are encouraged to judge the non-American world by ‘Biblical norms’. Perspectives teaches that the gospel is superior to all cultures – it is ‘a supra-cultural message from God’ – and makes little attempt to explain the other great faiths. ‘Some religions encourage the use of meditation, mysticism and drugs to achieve inner peace and tranquillity,’ it explains. ‘Others stress ecstasy through frenzied songs, dances and self-torture.’ Tribal spiritualism is reduced to oddity: ‘Among the Siriano of South America, people spit on each other’s chests in greeting.’
Muslims are also found spiritually lacking. Islam ‘does not lead one to eternal life and heaven,’ David Sills believes. ‘They are in a sense living a lie.’ Seminarians are taught about ‘the positive aspects of Islam,’ he stresses. ‘We teach our students here that not all Muslims are Shiite-AK47-aeroplane-stealing Muslims. Some would make very good neighbours. They don’t drink alcohol, they’re very chaste in their appearance.’ But he adds, ‘That doesn’t mean they’re spiritually OK.’ A former Southern Baptist Convention president told applauding pastors in 2002 that Mohammed was a ‘demon-possessed paedophile’.
In December 2004, reporting the tsunami’s aftermath in Thailand, I came across a group of young American missionaries who had emerged from a flattened beach resort littered with decomposing corpses. Evangelical relief agencies thrived in the philanthropic free-for-all that followed both the Asian tsunami and the US-led invasion of Iraq. While many Christian aid groups forbid their staff to preach, evangelicals view war and disaster as an opportunity to win converts in Muslim lands. This is known as aid evangelism. ‘People who are recently dislocated, and are experiencing major changes in their lives, are more open to the gospel than they were before,’ Perspectives advises. Southeast Christian Church’s website describes the tsunami as ‘a crack in the 10/40 Window’. ‘People are hurting on a scale scarcely imaginable and we must help them,’ it reads. ‘And we must also find ways to give them the Good News of Jesus, a name many of them may have never heard.’
In Aceh, a devoutly Islamic region of Indonesia, the Virginia-based missionary group World Help announced plans to place 300 Muslim tsunami orphans in a Christian children’s home. ‘These children are homeless, destitute, traumatised and orphaned,’ a World Help statement read. ‘If we can place them in a Christian children’s home, their faith in Christ could become the foothold to reach the Aceh people.’ After a public furore, the Indonesian government stopped the plan.
Christian proselytising is illegal in Indonesia, and foreign missionaries are banned from many ’10/40′ countries. But for Christ’s ambassadors, there are no closed countries, only ‘creative access’ ones. So says Working Your Way to the Nations, a guide for a type of undercover missionary known as a ‘tentmaker’. Just as the apostle Paul preached while selling tents, a modern tentmaker enters a restrictive country as a diplomat, teacher, doctor, travel agent or diving instructor – indeed, any legal profession – then seeks out ‘opportunities to share Christ in a sensitive way’, the guide explains. ‘A tentmaker… is recognised by members of the host culture as something other than a ‘religious professional’, and yet is a ‘missionary’ in every way.’ It is solitary work, so tentmakers must be ‘physically, emotionally and spiritually self-reliant’, it continues, and equipped with ‘long-term and low-profile evangelistic skills’.
In the age of globalisation, Christian entrepreneurs often succeed where foreign missionaries fail. ‘Vietnam has been traditionally very antagonistic to Westerners, but business people have tremendous opportunities,’ Ron Barnes says. ‘And because of that, they also have tremendous opportunities to share what they believe in.’ The same holds true for China. But is it ethical? Absolutely, Barnes insists. If a local asks a tentmaker about his or her faith, then it’s legitimate to talk about Jesus. ‘That’s not really proselytising,’ Barnes says. ‘That’s simply responding to questions.’ In this fashion, he concludes, a tentmaker is ‘upholding the law of the land as well as personal convictions as a follower of Christ’.
A tentmaker who feels ethically ambiguous about his dual role as worker and preacher is said to suffer from a ‘bivocational identity dilemma’. Indeed, many missionaries believe that working in closed countries ‘may be unethical by man’s law, but not by God’s law’, David Sills says. This argument is also found on askamissionary.org, a website discussion forum. Ethical implications must be weighed against ‘the eternal implications of not going to these countries’, Kyle, a missionary who served in China, writes. ‘We are to walk in the light and never lie or deceive,’ Working Your Way to the Nations advises. ‘Yet it is also clear in Scripture that not everything needs to be revealed.’ In other words: lying is wrong, but being economical with the truth is all right – in fact, endorsed by scripture.
Inexperienced and poorly trained, tentmakers are often ‘lone rangers’ who, without support or oversight from church or colleagues, antagonise locals and clash with other missionaries. They are also susceptible to the ‘Elijah Syndrome’, or the belief that only you are God’s true servant and that your service is undervalued. Lone rangers ‘tend to get very discouraged’, Sills explains. ‘They think, “I’m the only one who’s out here.” There’s a depression or almost a despair that can come over you.’ The stress of adapting to strange new places renders them more vulnerable to sin, George Murray notes in his missiological paper called Missionaries’ Temptations, which singles out Europe for its ‘blatant pornography, uncensored television and topless beaches’.
‘Missionaries are funny people,’ the Perspectives tutor Bill Weber says. ‘They can be very individualistic, very driven, not sensitive to people around them.’ This obsessive drive can also make them poor husbands and fathers. ‘Every day 40,000 children die of starvation and hunger-related diseases,’ says Sills. ‘You think, “How can I help this?” It’s very hard to quit at five o’clock and go home.’ But missionary families can be close-knit. Sills, who served in Ecuador, says: ‘My wife and kids went with me everywhere. We had more time together than when we came back to the States.’ (One of his two children is now a masters student at the seminary.)
Missionaries who work in closed countries can be secretive and media-hostile. Since 9/11 they are doubly security-conscious. The International Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention no longer publishes an online directory of its field missionaries due to ‘heightened security concerns’. Several missionaries refused to talk to me for fear of exposing their covert work. ‘Be careful with any e-mail you compose yourself or forward,’ one website warns overseas missionaries. ‘Do not write about politics, political leaders, religious freedom or other such issues in the missionaries’ host country.’ The website also advises missionaries to heed Jesus’s advice to his disciples: ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10:16).
Some missionaries use encrypted e-mail services, while others rely on code words to avoid detection. A young Christian at Southeast explains how a missionary friend in China deliberately misspells words or disguises them with symbols – for example, ‘God’ becomes ‘G@d.’ ‘I can read it,’ the churchgoer, who requested anonymity, says, ‘but any government agency scanning for religious words won’t pick it up.’
Such secrecy makes the work of ‘stealth’ missionaries virtually impossible to scrutinise. But Ron Barnes insists his people are accountable to their church and fellow believers. ‘Furthermore, they’re accountable to God,’ he says. Barnes picks up a Bible and pats its battered brown cover. ‘There’s a high standard in the word of God. If someone is doing work in His name, then we have this by which to measure what they’re doing.’ Of course, non-Christians might not find this so reassuring.
Missionaries like to characterise Muslim countries as ‘resistant’ to Christian evangelism. This is debatable. Islam has common roots with Christianity and Judaism. Buddhist and Hindu populations are arguably more resistant: look at Thailand, still staunchly Buddhist after more than 150 years of missionary activity. No, what many Muslim countries are resisting is not foreign missionaries, but the American interests they are perceived to represent. ‘In Pakistan, Presbyterians are not called Presbyterians, they’re called Americans,’ Will Browne says. ‘Since 9/11, 57 Pakistan Christians have been killed in grenade attacks and shootings. It’s not Christian-ness but Western-ness that gets them into trouble.’
Foreign missionaries fare far better. Despite a handful of cases – such as Bonnie Witherall, 21, a missionary with Operation Mobilisation who was shot dead in Lebanon in 2002 – what is remarkable is how few have been ‘martyred’ in recent years, despite serving overseas in ever-greater numbers.
‘We are in the final era of missions,’ Perspectives says. ‘We are within range of penetrating every people group on the planet with the light of the gospel.’ Many evangelicals believe that when the Great Commission is done, the End Times will begin and Jesus will return.
But Sills – a cautious, lawyerly type – remains doubtful. Even when every last people group has been ‘reached’, Christ’s second coming will not necessarily be immediate. ‘We could wait 50 years, 500 years, 5,000 years before he returns,’ Sills says. Anyway, his seminarians have less apocalyptic motivations. ‘We don’t do missions driven by what we call eschatology – the doctrine of last things. We do missions because it’s the command of the Lord, and it brings Him glory.’
True, there are far more missionaries today than a century ago. But three out of every four Protestant missionaries work among predominantly Christian communities, while only a tiny percentage work among the ‘unreached’ (who also exist in greater numbers than they did in the year 1900). This has been termed ‘the Great Imbalance’.
A Baton Rouge pastor called Larry Stockstill once claimed that the world’s three and a half billion ‘unreached people’ could form 25 lines around the planet. ‘Can you picture 25 lines of Christless people, trampling endlessly toward hell?’ Stockstill asks.
Jeni can. ‘One thing that breaks my heart about Muslims is that they think Allah cannot have a human emotion, and so cannot love,’ she frowns. ‘But God is love.’ Jeni must wait for her fiancé Dave to finish seminary before they can begin their married life as full-time missionaries. Meanwhile, she plans to read the Koran, better to understand the people she hopes to convert. ‘The way women are treated in Muslim culture – it comes from the Koran. I’d be sitting with some Afghan women in their house and a man would walk in. The women would immediately cover their faces. It really hit me. I just cannot comprehend how these people think.’