Sunday, March 04, 2007

Preaching to the Persecuted: A Best Practice?

I have always had mixed feelings about it. I or one of my team are visiting believers in a restricted nation and a local pastor asks if we will please speak to his church. Sometimes the invitation is a cultural expression of politeness; all visitors are asked to preach. I saw this fairly frequently in the former Soviet Union, especially immediately in the years following the fall of communism when foreign ministers descended on churches there like locusts. There were months when local pastors rarely got to speak in their own churches because of all of the visiting preachers.

Sometimes the invitation to preach is seen by the local pastor as a genuine opportunity to affirm to the entire congregation of the solidarity and love that Christians from another country share with them, letting these embattled believers know that they have not been forgotten.

Sometimes the invitation is given because the visitors expect to preach and local church leaders know that financial assistance may be dependent upon their cooperation. I know that it sounds a bit crass, but it is true.

Sometimes local leaders see these visits as opportunities to build relationships with Christians from abroad (for reasons noble and otherwise) and the invitation to speak at the church is seen as one way to accomplish this.

We at The Voice of the Martyrs in Canada have recently been wrestling with this whole issue as part of our work of establishing a Code of Best Practices for Cross-cultural Visits to Restricted Nations. Rightly or wrongly, we have effectively decided that it is best, in most cases, to decline such invitations. Effectively serving the persecuted church does not require us to do so. In our Code, we have stated, "We will endeavour to maintain as low a profile as possible when in country. We will inform our partners/hosts of this desire and ask for their assistance and advice on how to carry this out appropriately and especially when it involves invitations to preach, visiting homes, arranging interviews, etc."

The strength of our decision is underlined by increasing scrutiny on foreign visitors to restricted nations. It is no secret that many who visit persecuted Christians travel on tourist visa. This is perfectly legitimate, in my opinion, as other types of visa are inapplicable or would make it impossible to maintain the "invisibility" that such ministry requires for the safety of not only the visitor but, more importantly, the local believers.

But some have abused the system and this has not gone unnoticed by countries like India. Recently we have been receiving reports that Christians heading to India on tourist visas may have to be more careful, especially if they are heading to the state of Andhra Pradesh. Recently, police have closed prayer meetings in five areas of the state claiming foreigners were leading prayer meetings and were disturbing communal harmony. At Visakhapatnam, where such incidents were reported, commissioner of police V.S.K. Kaumudi told the press, "Whenever a foreigner visits this country he has to mention the purpose of visit. If they mention that they are coming on tourism they should restrict themselves to tourism." Kaumidi said, "On a tourist visa they can participate in prayer meetings but should not preach. If they want to come for the purpose of preaching, they can mention the purpose while taking the visa. It is for the officials to decide on the visa."

Whether this is an expression of a desire to restrict religious freedom or not on the part of authorities, I cannot say. I suspect that this is. For the past decade, there has been increasingly pressure to stem the growth of Christianity through conversions, especially amoung the Dalits.

But this example does demonstrate that we who work amoung the persecuted need to be a little more thoughtful about the whole matter of accepting invitations to preach in church services and lead prayer meetings. We need to ask ourselves if this is really a best practice. I suspect that, in most cases, it is not, especially by those who are really doing something worth doing in the first place.


Jack Niewold said...

Glenn, we recently hosted a visiting pastor from Uganda who spoke at our church, part of a series of speaking engagements he is conducting in the US. During a time of question and answer at a home following the service, the question arose concerning Americans visiting his work in Uganda. He was polite, and answered the question, giving information as to what would be expected, how much it would cost, etc. A couple of the people at the meeting became excited and began to talk among themselves about the possibility of making such a "mission" visit.

I wonder, is this the best response in this situation? Though I can't be certain, I suspect that the visiting pastor would have loved to simply say: "Please don't come. If you are thinking of spending several thousands of dollars to visit us for a week or ten days, why not just send us the money and let us do the work."

Again, I can't say that he felt this way, but I think, if I were in his place, it would be my response. Not to say it, but to think it, I mean.

Is there too much tourism and "make work" going on among well-meaning Americans who think that by visiting a mission field they are actually accomplishing something? What actually gets done by their going, anyway? Maybe they paint a few rooms, hold a few children in their laps, make themselves feel good, and go home believing they have furthered the Kingdom. I wonder if they haven't just wasted thousands of dollars, or at least not used their money in a steward-like way.

Please comment on the whole subject of Americans traveling thousands of miles to visit mission projects. Are my misgivings well-founded.

Thanks for your wonderful insights.

Glenn Penner said...

I did post an interesting article on this topic last year at You may want to check it out. But this is a subject well worth writing more about

Jack Niewold said...

Thanks, Glenn. I took a look at the article you referenced. Very good. I look forward to whatever you write on this, and on any other subject for that matter.