Most missionary strategy is developed with one major assumption: that a missionary presence of one sort or another might be welcomed by the people to whom we feel “called” to minister. With all the missions talk of “embracing” the “unengaged” and “reaching””unreached” people groups, we need to consider one elemental aspect of ministry across cultures: What if people don’t want to be engaged by Christians?
The scenario isn’t hard to imagine: popular sentiment leads a people to reject the presence of outsiders and their influence. This can occur whether the outsiders are known or unknown, but it seems most common where the influence of outsiders is only imagined to be threatening. Some places, like Turkey, justify outright persecution of Christians by categorizing Christianity as a crime that insults “Turkishness” and Islam.
Many countries have laws restricting missionary access and activity. We tend to dismiss such laws as being imposed by controlling governments rather than reflecting the will of the people. But what about other warning signs like anti-Christian graffiti, social shunning, or outright opposition? At what point do we consider a people hostile to us and our message? Does the response of the recipient have any bearing on our efforts? Basic to our missiology is the question of whether we should attempt to continue work among inhospitable (or even hostile) people.
A “welcome” can be a subjective thing. In some places, Westerners are met with government delegations or fattened-calf feasts. In others places, missionaries may not be officially welcomed, but are shown hospitality all the same from locals. Workers often tell of being met by nationals who had been anticipating their arrival after having had dreams and visions of Westerners coming with an important message.
The majority of the world today meets Christians from the West with a collective yawn; an indifferent tolerance that neither loves nor hates us. On the one hand, our presence might mean community development or material wealth. On the other hand, our influence is seen as toxic and exploitative. Consequently, they nothing us.
Paul certainly faced hostile crowds during his travels. Sometimes he challenged such opposition, claiming his rights as a Roman citizen and condemning his accusers. Other times, the Apostle was run out of town by zealous religious people or by protective friends. so we see that despite his “calling” or “passion,” he didn’t always stay where he wasn’t welcome.
Jesus addresses the possibility of an unwelcoming community in Luke 10 when He tells His disciples “When you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you.” Earlier in that same passage, Christ mentions the harvest and the constant danger of working in the harvest fields. He never mentions working in “resistant” or “hard places.”
Obviously, we cannot confuse a red carpet reception for the leadership of the Holy Spirit. But is it good and biblical missiology to insist on maintaining a missionary presence in the face of persecution, opposition, rejection, and indifference? Are we there “for their own good,” “whether they like it or not?”
The answer must lie in our obedience to the guidance of the Spirit. There is no better strategy than to go where He leads and to stay as He directs. Resistance is best measured at the individual level, and even then, only the Spirit knows the heart of man. He is surely at work among the peoples of the earth, and He alone prepares every person of peace to welcome His messengers.