RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Southern Baptist missionaries forced to relocate because of terrorist threats against Americans and Christians worldwide are seeking God’s wisdom about how to get the gospel to their people groups in a dramatically different world.
“There are two meanings to the word ‘retreat,'” said Avery Willis, the International Mission Board’s senior vice president of overseas operations. “One of the meanings is to say we are going to withdraw from the battle. The other meaning describes a spiritual retreat — a time to step back in order to return to the battle and be more effective.”
Willis recently visited relocated missionaries who serve Muslim people groups. Many are using their involuntary retreat time to regroup and strategize about how to continue work among their people group. Missionaries are learning to work through others to reach their people group or planning to move to other areas where pockets of their people group are located. Sometimes the move is to another country, and sometimes it is simply from rural areas to cities.
“We’ve got missionaries who are frustrated that they have to move out of their place of service at this moment, and on the other hand missionaries who are genuinely concerned about what’s going to happen,” Willis said. “But one thing is sure: No one wants to leave.
“They recognize that they will have to do things in a different way in many locations,” Willis said. “But they are focused on the same strategy: reaching every people group and giving every person a chance to hear, understand and respond to the gospel.”
Willis said the board has been taking steps to protect missionaries.
“We’re telling [missionaries] to be on alert depending on the level of activity or threat in the country,” he said. “We take all the warnings we get from the State Department and our own sources and try to give that information to the regional leaders and people on the front lines so they can make decisions on the right basis.”
During a crisis, regional leadership works with missionaries and other IMB leadership to decide when to relocate and when to return to their place of service, Willis said.
Although a few missionaries have reported threats being made against them, “by and large the people they know have expressed overwhelming support for them,” Willis said.
“The potential for danger is not geographical. Terrorism is a problem everywhere.”
Willis credits missionaries with trying to make the best of a very trying situation. Having to live in a hotel or disrupt schooling for children causes aggravation for families. Missionaries primarily express frustration, however, at having to leave the people for whom they have been willing to give their lives for Christ if necessary.
“They feel like here is this great chance for witnessing that they could have with their people if they were there,” Willis said.
Although the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the U.S. military response initiated Oct. 7 have disrupted many missionaries’ lives, the events also have led to opportunities to share Christ.
Missionaries told Willis stories of Muslims rushing up to them in the streets to express regret and grief because of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“There have been many who are moderate Muslims who have been appalled at the terrorism and the jihad,” Willis said. “They say, ‘Isn’t there a better way?'”
Missionaries ask Christians to pray for Muslims in the wake of the attacks, Willis said.
“We should pray that the love of God will be evident to the Muslim world,” he said. “They believe in a God of power, but they don’t understand the God of love.
“Christ has come to show us that he loves us.”