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Sept. 11’s lingering cloud may deter some, but not new missionaries

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Rage and blood in the Middle East. Deadly attacks on Americans and Christians in Pakistan. Missionaries held hostage by radical Muslims in the Philippines — and threatened elsewhere. The lingering cloud of Sept. 11.

Is the cascade of grim events beginning to take a toll on Southern Baptists’ commitment to world missions?

Not if you measure commitment by the number of new missionaries going overseas — or their growing interest in sharing the Christian gospel with Muslims.

“I don’t think it’s coincidental that as all this has occurred, we’ve had a 28 percent increase in missionary appointments in the last year over the highest we’d ever had before,” said Jerry Rankin, president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. “I think it’s God’s way of calling out his people at a time when he is shaking the nations.”

The largest Southern Baptist missionary appointment service ever — 124 new workers — was held less than two months after Sept. 11. A total of 121 have been appointed since. The majority of them are going to countries or people groups with varying degrees of resistance to Christianity and mission activity.

“After 9/11, we thought there would be a drop-off in missionary appointments,” said Jim Riddell, leader of the board’s personnel consulting team. “Instead, the numbers have continued to flow heavily. My impression is that people, at least on the career side, are taking their lives even more seriously. They’re saying, ‘I want to live my life in a way that will make an impact.'”

Many of them specifically request jobs “on the edge.” Translation: difficult, often hostile places where the gospel has yet to penetrate — like many parts of the Muslim world, where spiritual hunger and openness lurk beneath a veneer of anger or apathy.

One young woman who recently completed two years of service in a heavily Muslim country is going back out as a career missionary. This time she’ll work among Muslim refugees in Europe. She admitted she was “pretty shaken up” by 9/11 and its aftermath, but it didn’t shake her commitment to serve.

“God just continues to burden my heart for Muslims, because I’ve seen so much of their hopelessness,” she said. “My desire is to share with them and see them come to know Jesus and his grace.”

For others, recent events have confirmed a conviction that they need to follow God into a dark and dangerous world.

“People who had been dragging their feet are saying, ‘Sept. 11 led me to see missions in a different way. Now is the time. God wants me to go now,'” reported IMB consultant Jerry DeOliveira, who counsels missionary candidates. “And their interest is in the Muslim world.”

Not everyone is lining up to go, however. Short-term volunteer numbers seem to have decreased significantly in recent months, particularly among teens and college students. It appears the IMB volunteer count for the first three months of the year will come in below last year’s total for the same period.

A number of projects scheduled for later this year have been canceled for lack of volunteers — and not just in areas considered potentially risky.

“The biggest effect we’re seeing is on young people,” said Bill Cashion, who directs IMB volunteer mobilization. “Parents have to make that call, and some, understandably, are a little concerned about allowing their kids to go overseas right now.”

Some missionary families temporarily relocated after the Sept. 11 attacks until their security situation could be evaluated.

One family returned, but with some degree of uncertainty about how they would be received. They were astonished at the way doors of opportunity had opened to them.

“We have found that one people group in particular has welcomed us as Americans like kings,” they wrote. “We are having many invitations to come and work. One major religious organization there invited us to come and teach English classes and to begin agriculture help work there.”

The risks in some areas are very real — and growing. Missionaries and their families are taking increased precautions in their ministries, day-to-day schedules, communications and travel.

But no amount of caution can eliminate all risk.

“Six months past 9/11, more and more people are realizing that we’re still called to the same world,” Cashion said. “It’s a fallen world, and it’s always dangerous. There’s no guarantee. The Great Commission does not come with an insurance policy that protects us from adversity.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: TO THE EDGE and A BURDEN FOR MUSLIMS.
— Are you ready to respond to the challenge of volunteering overseas? http://www.imb.org/vim.
— Curious about how you fit into what God is doing? http://www.imb.org/FPNeeds/default.htm.
— Missionary prayer needs: http://www.imb.org/CompassionNet/index.asp.
— Students — be a leader by becoming a follower: http://www.thetask.org.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges