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Training future martyrs: Are we ready to lose our best?

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Training martyrs.
Those words evoke images of Middle East terrorist groups preparing young zealots for suicide missions. But what awaits the increasing number of young Christian missionaries from the West now venturing into “The Last Frontier” — the most unreached and often most hostile areas of the world?
Missionaries and volunteers of Generation X (born after 1964) are enthusiastically responding to the call to reach unreached peoples. In 1997 alone, 108 new missionaries were assigned by the Southern Baptist International Mission Board to Last Frontier areas and peoples.
Southern Baptists have a “whole crew of people that are literally willing to die for their people group,” one IMB mission personnel specialist was quoted as saying last year. These missionaries “have bought into (the) goal of ‘all peoples, nothing less,'” he said, “and they want to do what it takes to reach their people group.”
The frequent declaration of students considering Last Frontier missions these days is “I want my life to make a difference. I want a cause worth dying for,” added another IMB strategist.
Some of them may indeed die for it.
Amazingly few of the more than 13,000 missionaries sent abroad by Southern Baptists over the last 150 years have died violent deaths. Even fewer have died as martyrs for the faith, despite the many new fields they have entered.
But the International Mission Board has joined many other Great Commission agencies in an aggressive global strategy to evangelize thousands of people groups still untouched by the gospel. Many of those peoples live in deep spiritual darkness behind walls built by powerful religious and political powers — walls that may not be breached without bloodshed.
In most cases, the blood will come from local believers who give their lives while sharing — or refusing to renounce — their new faith in Christ. However, some missionaries will make the ultimate sacrifice. In a truly global effort to reach the unreached, it’s almost inevitable.
In 1995 alone, 150 international missionaries from various countries were murdered on the field, according to mission agency reports collected by the Global Evangelization Movement. While some probably were crime victims or targets of political violence, others undoubtedly died for the faith.
“We have a responsibility to alert people to the ultimate danger,” stresses John White, IMB associate vice president for overseas operations. “Any of the great movements of God — in Korea, for example — have always been at the loss and shedding of blood of missionaries. It’s a matter of asking ourselves if we really want to have an impact in the (unreached) world. If so, are we willing to pay the price?”
The current U.S. focus on persecution of world Christians could create hysteria or panic among American Christians, warns David Garrison, IMB strategy and mobilization vice president, who has worked intensively in evangelizing the Muslim world.
At least when it comes to missionary martyrdom, “the threat is still greater than the reality,” Garrison observes. “I just don’t see it happening that much. Why martyr somebody when you can just expel them? And yet the threat is adequate to stifle the spread of the gospel, and that is the real intent of the threat.”
Still, are Southern Baptists ready for the martyrdom — however rare it may be — of some of their best young people? Or will we adopt a spiritual version of the “Vietnam Syndrome” still permeating U.S. military strategy? Traumatized by the disastrous Vietnam experience, American generals often refuse to commit forces to battle without an advance guarantee of overwhelming victory, with minimal or no losses.
That may or may not be wise in war. It’s a recipe for timidity in missions.

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  • Erich Bridges