IS IT ETHICAL to send missionaries into a closed country under false pretenses? The practice, common among evangelical groups, is coming under new scrutiny. For at least two decades, some Christian organizations have sent stealth mission workers into countries that don't accept missionaries.
Some go with skills, trades or services that are acceptable to the host nation. These missionaries, living in the target country, are often called "tentmakers," after the apostle Paul's adopted occupation. Others, called nonresident missionaries, live outside such countries and enter on short-term visas.
In both cases, their evangelism or church planting motives are kept secret from authorities. And back home, their identities and assignments are not revealed by the mission organizations in order to protect their safety.
Among Baptist church bodies, the American Baptist Churches USA does not use stealth missionaries, but both the Southern Baptist Convention and the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship do--with the latter starting to reexamine the practice.
Recent missionary murders and the war in Iraq have heightened concern about the presence and safety of missionaries, particularly in Islamic countries. The little-discussed strategy of using cloaked gospel emissaries backed by American money might spark disdain and embarrassment similar to that stemming from a recent controversy over whether evangelistically driven, well-to-do relief agencies should encourage conversions in impoverished non-Christian nations.
Ethical and missiological implications alone justify a second look at the issue, said Gary Baldridge, co-coordinator with his wife, Barbara, of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship's global missions. "We're in the middle of reflecting on the deployment of field personnel to restrictive-access countries," Baldridge told Baptists Today. Baldridge said he had hoped to invite ethicists and missiologists to hold a forum prior to the CBF General Assembly in June, but time constraints may prevent it.
Baldridge contended that the issue is more about the long-term effectiveness of the "nonresident missionary" than about public relations. "Many CBF missionaries live in areas of the world that are openly hostile to the gospel," he said. "Their identities are kept confidential in order to protect their lives and ministries and the lives and livelihoods of new Christians in these highly sensitive areas." That takes explaining to church members who support unlisted missionaries: "Please be aware that this [missionary] directory is incomplete" is what CBF repeatedly tells contributors, he said.
The Southern Baptist International Mission Board declined to comment for this story.
Keith Parks, now retired in Richardson, Texas, served both as president of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) and as the first CBF global missions coordinator. It was under his leadership that Southern Baptists began the nonresident missionary approach and an indirect funding structure.
"It really started in the '80s when we were talking with people from China," Parks recalled. "They said: 'We can't receive missionaries, but we need help.'" As a result, Parks said, the FMB created Cooperative Services International as a nonprofit organization separate from the FMB. Parks served as CSI president as well, and the organization used the same address and phone number as the FMB.
"It wasn't some James Bond approach," said Parks. "Governments know what you're doing. If you play according to their rules, they'll let you do it." Through hiring arrangements with universities and other institutions, Parks said, personnel could gain access where missionaries otherwise would be rejected. …