Should Missionaries Use a Pretext To Enter Unreached People Groups? – part 20

As I wrote in the previous blog, most missionary agencies want to send you into closed countries under some kind of pretext. For example, you would be sent as a student or a businessperson, but, secretly, you are going to do mission work. I have done a lot of research in the mission community, and it seems to me that the majority of those going like this are not going to remote unreached people groups.

It is no sin to go under a pretext, but you don’t need it. Use it, if it fits the situation, but no matter how hard you try, you will eventually have to lead people to Christ, and this will blow your cover and bring persecution. To be a missionary, you will have to disciple someone and they will turn into small groups, which will start to disciple others. You can try with all your might to avoid persecution, but eventually, it is going to happen. If you are not willing to pay the ultimate price for the sake of extending Christ’s Gospel, don’t be a missionary.

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues.

(NIV Matthew 10:16-17)

I was a new missionary in a remote mountain village with no roads, electricity, or cell phone service. The missionary agency sent me there under the pretext that I was to manage a clinic as a medical worker. At that time, I had my certification for Emergency Medical Technician, therefore my pretext was valid. No one in a remote village cares if you are certified, but it makes you, the missionary, and your agency feel better about providing medical care to people. Sometimes, it looks more valid to the governments of the countries you work in that you are certified. Most of the time, these titles and certificates are important to us not important to anyone else.

Nevertheless, being the medical worker of that village was the pretext that I went in with. This village was resistant to the Gospel and had threatened the prior missionaries that dared to enter. They were told that they would be killed if they continued teaching their people another religion. Even though I was being mentored by the previous missionary, and the agency was requiring me to enter this people group with a pretext, it was no excuse for me to do so. I was doing what I had been told to do, but at the end of the day, I was the one way out in the remote unreached people group, and I was the one who had to risk my neck to be there.

I did what the director of the mission agency wanted But I had to learn my lesson the hard way. I was providing medical care to those who needed it and, in my free time, discipling a small group of believers and traveling to other villages to evangelize. If you read the article Missionaries Are Obedient Unto Death – part 18 you know what happened. Everything quickly went wrong. As soon as the people of that village found out that I was there to change their religion, I immediately became a liar and one who had deceived them with my pretext of being medical personnel.

So what did they do? They did exactly what they do to all lying, deceiving outsiders: they plotted to kill me. By God’s grace, I made it out alive. You can say, “OK, God will protect me,” but, if he doesn’t, and you are killed, you die a liar. If you don’t enter under a pretext, and God doesn’t protect you (deciding it is your time to go), and you are killed, you die a martyr. There is a fine line between entering under a pretext and entering as a medical worker who is discipling people. The only difference is what you tell the people upfront. You tell them that you are a missionary. The other way is that you tell them you are a medical worker, and you do what you told them you would do and just be a medical worker only. Many people are happy with this but this is not fulfilling the great commission. It is just doing medical work.

So if you enter as a medical worker and a few years pass of doing what you told them what you would do, and once you are so much part of the community that you will not be run out for discipling people, you could begin to disciple people. This is not the New Testament model, but it is an option for those who want to prolong their persecution. Eventually, when people start to be transformed by Christ and are they are discipling and converting others, they will come for you, even if you have medical skills that can save their lives. You are just prolonging the persecution and possibly waiting years to advance the discipleship process.

If I were to follow the “Going with a Pretext,” model, here is how I would have entered into that village today. I go to the village leaders and tell them that I have great skills and resources that I can offer to all their people. The only thing I require is that they allow me to disciple others. If they say yes, I’m in. If they say no, I’m out. If they say no, I could then ask them if I would be allowed to help them in their clinic and learn their language for a few years. Again, if they say yes, I’m in. If they say no, I’m out. But sooner or later, I am going to have to disciple people and be on the receiving end of persecution. If they are so closed, I might go on to the next village to see if they want the skills I have and will allow me to disciple people.

So from that day on they plotted to take his life. 54 Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the Jews. Instead he withdrew to a region near the desert, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

(NIV John 11:53-54)

A hypothetical situation where you go doing what you say and learn the language, no discipleship

Hypothetically, here is how I would enter that same village today without using the pretext model: I just go into the town and look for a person of peace and start doing what I can do, which is being a medical worker and learning the language. Where I lived, I was actually invited to the town to learn the language. It helps if you can blend in to some degree, but in this situation, I did not blend in. I am a white-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed North American. I should have gone to some other part of the world to be a missionary. But if I could blend in, I would not teach and preach to the small group of believers until I knew the language well. Taking over discipleship of the small group was also not my idea but of the mission director.

It would take five to seven years to learn this language well enough to disciple if I worked hard at it and if I have language learning training, which I did. During those years, I help the people with my medical skills. Then, when I start to disciple people and they want to kill me, which they will, hopefully, I will have helped so many people and also I will have become so much like them, speaking their language, that this will have opened so many doors that the community will be divided over whether to kill me or not. This favor with many villagers, coupled with the fact that God is protecting me and giving me grace, means that I could be allowed to live in their village. I then begin to avoid the attempts to kill me with help of my angels. In the end, I still get persecution.

I don’t quite know how to write this, but I will try. If you come into a community where you start immediately going about boldly preaching and teaching, you will most likely fall under persecution. If you come into their community trying to become one of them by trying to learn their language and contributing something of value, you may not fall under persecution. Everyone in these remote communities contributes something. Sometimes, they allow foreigners into their villages purely out of curiosity. Once they see that you are making an effort to really truly be one of them, you gain respect to some degree. However, you will always be an outsider.

Once you decide to start making disciples because you speak the language and miracles happen and people become transformed and it all starts to spread, the villagers will still have to decide what to do with you. Hopefully, by then, you will have started a discipleship movement that will not die with you. Don’t forget that this hypothetical model only works when you stay continually living in the village and never go back to your country of origin. You might go down to a major town to do business, just like they do, but you are only gone for a few days.

If you go walking into a remote unreached village almost anywhere in the world, and you are offering some sort of contribution to the community and asking to learn the language, you can probably get in. You do not need to spend eight years in medical school to become a doctor before you go. Just buy a book entitled “Where There Is No Doctor” by David Werner. There are hundreds of things that you can contribute in a rural setting. Almost all remote unreached people groups live in rural areas. You don’t have to have a skill. Everyone farms or hunts or fishes or something similar, and you can learn from them how to do those things and be helping out. Once you are there and have put in the time to learn the language, you will have made a niche for yourself. Along the way, don’t forget to pray for the people to get healed and delivered. Then you will face the persecution that comes from competing with the local shaman, but you will prevail.

All that I just mentioned is usually how you can gain your permanent entrance into the people group. During those first language-learning years, God does something miraculous. Someone gets healed or cured or is changed for the better. I met a missionary that was finally accepted into his people group because he prayed for a sick horse and the horse was healed. The next day two women were at his door with sick babies. They were healed as well and the situation changed in favor of the missionaries. Soon there was a line of people at the missionary’s door. Shortly thereafter, persecution showed up at their door.

If you don’t believe in healing or miracles, obey Christ and put your hands on them, Christ will do the healing

If you do not believe that God can and wants to heal, cure, and change the people for the better, just go to an unreached people group. Someone will be knocking on your door at two o’clock in the morning with a sick baby and will ask you to pray. Even if you don’t believe in healing, God does and will heal the baby. (Mark 16:15-18) Then you will have shown that you know and walk with the one true God. You might have the local witch or shaman after you, but this is where God and his angels start to do their part.

For years, missionaries have entered into closed countries under pretexts. They use excuses to enter in, offering help, and, in secret, spread a little Gospel. Some get lucky, or God has mercy, and they gain permanent entrance into their people group. However, because they were taught this model, they are constantly under pressure to be quiet and hide their real goals and identity. I don’t know how you can find the line between using a pretext and becoming one of the local people. I guess you will just have to try it for yourself. Don’t be so missionary. You are not a missionary; you are just another person living among them to lend a hand and lead them to the only real source of truth.

I’ve personally made the mistake of being this kind of secret missionary under a pretext, and there is an attitude about it that has the sound of fear and lacks faith. I think the people can hear it too. I hear missionaries talk about being undercover and using fake names and everything is hush hush and sometimes it sounds like pride to me. If you want to get killed, go to an unreached area or closed country with pride.

I’ve known many missionaries who have done pretext missions. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this: you can be a missionary in a closed country or village without pretexts and without drawing attention to yourself. You can just do what you do and learn the culture and language and disciple once you know the language well enough and God will be with you. Don’t lie, don’t cover up your true intentions. If they persecute you in one place, do what Jesus says and flee to another.

My wife and I live in an indigenous town of about 8,000 people. We had to go through some hoops to be accepted as citizens of this town, but now we are in and we are learning to interact with the people. Today, I met an indigenous couple and talked to them for a few minutes about the community and cooperating on a project. It just felt natural, and I had absolutely nothing to hide. If people, where I live, come right out and ask me if I am a Christian or what I am doing there, I will tell them. If they do not ask, I may not tell them. I know that if I were in Yemen I could end up in jail, but I don’t think that it would come to that. I cannot explain this any more clearly. This has been one of the harder parts of this teaching to write.

I was at a mission conference met a man who was a missionary in Indonesia. And he came up to me after my lecture and told me that he lives in a village where the police come to his house every week asking for his paperwork and checking to see if he is discipling people. He told me that he can never reveal openly what he is doing or he would be expelled or thrown out. This whole attitude is not the spirit of Jesus or the disciples in the New Testament. I told him, “Brother you need to go to a village where God is opening a door.” He will be years with little or no fruit and will probably get discouraged and return to his country of origin.

Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. 48 Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.

(NIV Luke 19:47-48)

I was traveling in a remote unreached group and met a young man living there. He is single, blends in, and has lived in the village for about five years. You cannot physically tell the difference between him and the people, and I think this is important. They still know he is not one of them. He has also worked very hard to learn the language. After five years, he now holds a job that they only give to authorities in the village. They might be testing him to see if he is willing to contribute time to the community for free. They might be giving him the job no one else wants, never the less he has a job. He started out by helping men on their farms and learning the language. It was very hard work, and he was not very good at it, but this somehow showed the people that he was willing to humble himself and learn from them. He did not just come into their village with his own ideas of what he could bring. He asked the people what he could do to help, so they put him to work at hard labor. Eventually, they allowed him to start meeting with two couples who are not Christians yet, but they are open to learning about Christ. So far, he is doing well and will eventually have people come to Christ that can be discipled. If many people start to change, persecution will come and he will have to decide what to do. This kind of long-term sacrifice, humility, and language learning by someone who blends in is a key to finishing the great commission.

Mistakes made by missionaries that enter remote unreached people groups

  1. They do not blend in. If you don’t make any of the other mistakes, you might be able to get away with this one, but why would you want to when there are unreached people groups all over the world with your skin color? Do research and go where they look like you.
  2. They do not focus and work very hard on language learning. If they do work hard and are not making much progress, they did not get the proper training to help them learn the language more quickly. Remote unreached people’s languages are difficult to learn. Get training. It may take about six months but will save you years and possible discouragement to give up.
  3. They are trying to contribute something to the community that the people do not want or do not understand. It could be that they really need a medical doctor, but they may never see the need for it. It could be that they need a water purification system, but they don’t understand the need for it. The missionary should FIRST do things that the community perceives that they need, and then, later, possibly bring in water purification, medical work or whatever.
  4. They are trying to contribute something to the community that requires a lot of technical knowledge on the part of the people or a lot of money to maintain.
  5. They want to start witnessing too soon before God has opened the door by some sort of power encounter, healing, miracle, or simple favor gained by humility and years of work and learning the language.
  6. They are not happy in the new situation, and their joy is low because they were taught that they need too much support and all the conveniences of their country of origin. This lack of joy shows outwardly, and the people begin to dislike the missionary. Get content with what you have by hours in the New Testament, praying over the word of God, bringing down the strongholds of discouragement.
  7. They are not letting go of their old culture. They brought too many things from the old culture, and they are trying to make the new culture feel like back home. Get over your old culture and let it go. Live on the level of the people.
  8. They begin to have an attitude toward the people in the remote village for some random reason. Forgive and ask for grace.
  9. They feel so much pressure to witness to the people that they are unnatural, and it is obvious that they have an agenda. They are being too traditional missionary. They are trying too hard to show people that they are Christian in every little detail, and it comes across as fake. Just learn the language and do work to contribute; when you finally get the opportunity to share Christ, it will be natural and perfect timing.
  10. They are too identified with their pretext. They are not just another normal person; they are a medical doctor and feel that they deserve to be recognized as such. Or they are a highly trained linguist, an architect, or whatever. This air of importance belittles the villagers, and they begin to disdain the very message that the missionary has brought to them. Go as a servant of Christ, not as a medical missionary.

You might be able to make one, two, or possibly three of these mistakes, and God will keep giving you favor with the people. He is more interested in the people group than you are. But you cannot keep making the same mistakes over and over for a long period of time.

Go slow and work in the fields or, if you are a woman, work with the women. Focus on language and culture learning for the first several years. Become one of them. God is at work doing many things as you do these simple things. You are gaining friends, favor, respect, and opportunities for the future and are waiting on the timing of God. It may be that God wants to break down barriers in your first years. You will need to let him accomplish that and not force it. You cannot disciple people using a national language in remote unreached peoples. You will have to learn their local mother language. It won’t matter if you have come in with a pretext or without, you will eventually be found out. So don’t lie. You do not want to be seen as the lying missionary. When you are found out, God will keep you alive or not. The bad guys killed all the apostles except for John, and they killed them even though people were being healed by their shadows.

As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by.

(NIV Acts 5:15)

If you are limited to making one disciple at a time in one house at a time, remember that in only ten years you should have an underground church of 1,000 people, if you emphatically teach your disciples to make one disciple per year. After twenty years, you will have an underground church of one million. Get out your calculator and check the math. When I go into remote unreached people groups, I do not ask permission if I can share the Gospel with the people. I just assume that I can and will eventually share the Gospel. I will not hide the fact that I am a Christian if I am asked. If they tell me that I cannot share the Gospel with people, I ignore it, or I might go somewhere else.

Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.

(NIV Mark 16:20)

If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them.

(NIV Luke 9:5)

We really need to examine these verses and seek the Lord about them. What is it that makes missionaries want to go into extremely resistant peoples? It could be that the Lord is moving on their hearts to sow seed for a future harvest. You would do better to not tell your church and family which country or which people group you are going to. Stop being so proud to be a missionary and just go. Most people back home really don’t care about your great sacrifice, anyway. You might even get a little financial support if you humble yourself and stop telling people how dangerous it is. There are closed countries, and there are semi-closed countries. If you are very careful, you can get away with a lot in semi-closed countries even though the law prohibits proselytism. Proselytism is sharing your faith with the purpose of converting one to your religion. If you are sharing your faith with people who are very hungry for God, they are not going to turn you in, most of the time. Their neighbors will if they catch you. You just need to be careful whom you are led to.

I was talking to a man at a mission conference that had a table recruiting young people to go to the Muslim world. The banners and books and things just looked like they were trying to use the element of danger to recruit young people. God is not interested in the danger, nor in the false religion, the people believe. There is so much training for people to do secret undercover discipleship in extremely closed countries. By the time the missionary candidate gets through all this special training to reach extreme radical false religions, they are ruined with pride. They are so proud that they are going into danger and they have learned so many tricks and tips for going into it that they are more focused on the danger than on the mission. People are people. They believe what they believe. If it isn’t Jesus Christ they are doomed. So they need normal people who can be themselves and let Jesus come through with truth, humility, and becoming one of them. You don’t need to bow down in prayer in the Mosk with them and pray to your God as they pray to theirs. If you cannot find anyone that will open their door to you, move on. Forget all this nonsense about how dangerous it is. In your own country of origin, there are neighborhoods that you would not go into because they are dangerous. It is dangerous to take a shower with a bar of soap on the floor. Danger is relative to those who are going in humility just being who God created you to be, an unworthy servant doing what he or she was told to do. (Luke 17:7-10)