‘All the easy places are taken.’ This axiom of modern missions quickly sums up where remaining missions work needs to be done. There is a reason the unreached and unengaged people groups (UUPGs) still do not have access to the Good News:
Reaching them will not be easy for a variety of reasons: persecution from governments, hostility from locals, dangerous roads, wars, politics, local crime, terrorism, or extreme weather (just to name a few).
Many Christians are risk averse and are not willing to go to these people.
Yet, many Christians are risk averse and are not willing to go to these people. It may also be true that other Christians are perhaps foolhardy. It became clear last November when All Nations missionary John Chau was killed while trying to reach the North Sentinelese people that there was widespread disagreement among Christians about his mission:
This article is not meant to be an analysis of that particular incident but only to highlight the need for thinking about risk.
What I hope to do in this article is to step back and soberly (albeit partially) answer the following questions: What does the Bible have to say about risk? How can agencies and local churches respond with wisdom but also with obedience to the Great Commission? How do we balance both safety for missionaries and compassion for those without access to the gospel?
It has become clear that not all Christians have the same understanding of missions. Therefore, I wish to make clear three theological beliefs that I hold, which (perhaps) ought to be made explicit here:
When Jesus sent out the twelve on a mission trip in Matthew 10, he gave one of his clearest teachings on suffering and persecution. From the beginning, the concepts of sending, going, and suffering were united in Jesus’ actions and teaching. For example:
There are many places in the New Testament where the disciples and churches embraced risk.
There are many places in the New Testament where the disciples and churches embraced risk. The basic apostolic example for this seems to be when Peter and the apostles directly disobey the governing authority of their day (Acts 5:28-29):
There seemed to be some disagreement about appropriate risk in several incidents in the early church. For example:
Just a chapter later in Acts 20, Paul resolutely heads towards Jerusalem. He knows that prison and hardship await him there, but he considers this a cost worth paying in light of completing the task that the Lord had given him (Acts 20:22-24). His decision caused the believers to weep, to embrace him, and even to grieve (Acts 20: 37-38). After Paul began his journey towards Jerusalem, he then received a prophetic word from Agabus. Agabus prophesied that Paul would be bound and handed over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:11).
Interestingly, Agabus does not finish his prophetic word by urging Paul not to go to Jerusalem. In fact, from the text, we know that none of what Agabus is saying is new revelation to Paul. However, when the people heard this, they begged Paul not to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:12). The people seemed to draw the conclusion that danger meant that Paul should not go, but this is not what Paul had concluded from the exact same prophetic word. In fact, Paul told the people that they were breaking his heart with their weeping and that he refused to be dissuaded by them (Acts 21:12-14). Paul knew the danger and felt that he was supposed to go to Jerusalem anyway.
I wonder if my church or agency would conclude that Paul had made a mistake when he eventually did get arrested.
Sometimes I wonder what that same scene would look like if it had taken place in my church or in my missions agency? It is clear from the text that sincere believers did not understand or embrace risk at the same level. I wonder if my church or agency would conclude that Paul had made a mistake when he eventually did get arrested. Would we lament the ‘loss of a great leader’?
I often wonder if we would simply call him ‘stupid’ and shrug our shoulders when he did finally give his life in Jerusalem, knowing that Paul had been warned over and over again. I wonder if we would have refused to send him at all, and maybe even been disobedient to God’s plan for him to suffer for the name of Jesus.
How can missions agencies and local churches respond to risk? If the church simply adopts the attitude that no risk is acceptable, this denies the example of Christ and the apostles. However, simply running headlong into risk and danger without doing what we can humanly do is not honouring to God either. The process outlined below fulfills wisdom and avoids foolishness as defined in Proverbs 14:16—’The wise are cautious and avoid danger; fools plunge ahead with reckless confidence’:
These are not easy decisions or discussions. However, they are necessary and honouring to God and to the peoples of the world who have not yet had a chance to hear about Jesus. Decisions to embrace risk involve loving others more than we love ourselves. They are not decisions to be made lightly or flippantly, but increasingly agencies and local churches will be choosing to send their loved ones into danger for the sake of the gospel. Let us do it with wisdom and boldness for the glory of Jesus Christ.
Sue Arnold (a pseudonym) has been serving in missions for over 20 years. Most of her field service has been in areas where Jesus is not known and where persecution is high.