In this postwar period we have heard a great deal about closing doors. Missionaries on furlough have warned us that in their part of the world we have “five more years” or “ten more years,” as the case may be. Dozens of books have been published with such provocative titles as Missions in Crisis, Missions in Revolution, Missionary, Go Home. And only the Lord knows how many magazine articles of this kind have appeared in the last twenty-five years. We seem to have a pathological preoccupation with closing doors; in fact, we have talked so long and loud about them that we have come to believe our own story. Consequently many Christians are about to write off the missionary movement because it has no future.
One reason for the prevailing pessimism is the failure of the mass media to give us the full picture. Newspapermen are interested in news, and news must be exciting if not sensational. “Business as usual” holds little appeal for the mass media. When several hundred missionaries evacuated Congo in the summer of 1960, the secular press published pictures and articles of the event. When those same missionaries returned to Congo six months later, none of the press services picked up the story. The average American read about the exodus. He heard nothing about the return. Naturally, he came to only one conclusion: Congo is closed.
Is it possible to separate the facts from the fiction? After all, there are almost 50,000 Protestant missionaries in more than one hundred countries of the world, in any one of which the political situation may change overnight. In some parts of the world, governments rise and fall with the barometer. To keep abreast of the international news requires a hotline to the United Nations Information Bureau. Yet despite the difficulties, it is possible to acquire a reasonably accurate picture of the world scene as it affects Christian missions. The following observations will help to place the problem in proper perspective.
1. Actually, very few doors have closed in the last twenty-five years. In the whole of Asia only six countries have expelled the missionaries: China, Mongolia, North Korea, North Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Burma. The first four countries closed when the Communists came to power, and it must be admitted that the mass evacuation of mainland China in the early 1950s was the greatest reverse ever suffered by the modern missionary movement.
In the vast continent of Africa, some forty nations have become independent since 1960. Only one—Guinea—has expelled the missionaries, and even there the expulsion has not been complete. A skeleton force remains.
In the Muslim world the picture is somewhat more somber, owing mostly to the fact that the United States has given moral and material support to Israel, thus antagonizing the Arab states. During the Suez Crisis in 1956, and again during the Six Day War in 1967, missionaries were evacuated in large numbers from various parts of the Middle East. Several Arab countries broke off diplomatic relations with the United States and to date have not restored them. When the dust settled, some of the missionaries were able to return; others were not. American missionaries in particular find themselves in the crossfire of the Arab-Israeli conflict; but British and Continental missionaries have fared better. At the present time four countries—Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria—are closed. Turning to Latin America we find that not a single country is closed to Christian missionaries. Guyana is tightening up on new missionaries entering the country, but other missionaries are still there. Even in Cuba a handful of missionaries are carrying on.
If we add them all up, we discover that fewer than a dozen countries have expelled the missionaries in this post-war period.
2. Other doors might close in the near future. It is conceivable that India, with a population of over half a billion, might close its doors to the Western missionary. Visas are increasingly difficult to obtain; consequently the number of missionaries is slowly diminishing. Even so, there are still some 5,000 Christian missionaries in India. Malaysia has restricted the missionary’s residence to ten years; after that he may not return, though exceptions have been made. Thailand has limited the number of missionaries by establishing an annual quota. Recently Singapore, the mecca of Christian missions in Southeast Asia, has made visas more difficult to obtain. With the sudden change in American policy towards Red China, the government of Taiwan may well clamp down on new missionaries wishing to enter that country.
Two countries in Africa—Angola and Mozambique—have a rapidly dwindling missionary population. The Portuguese colonial administration in Angola permitted missionaries to leave but not return. Two missions decided to pull out altogether because government restrictions rendered missionary work almost impossible. One mission in Morocco has evacuated its workers, but other missions remain even though their numbers are depleted. In January, 1970, several Methodist missionaries were expelled from Algeria for what was described as “subversive activities.”
In South America only one government—Guyana—is not allowing missionaries into the country. It remains to be seen what policy Chile, which has elected a Marxist president, will adopt toward American missionaries. Most missionaries left Cuba about the time Fidel Castro came to power; but this they did on their own. Castro did not expel them. In fact, some missionaries have remained, and others have been permitted to return for short periods.
3. Some countries are assumed to be closed but in fact are still open, at least partially. Sudan is a classic example. In 1964 some 300 missionaries, most of them Roman Catholic, were expelled from the three southern provinces. Immediately people began talking about Sudan as a closed land. This is not true. There are still missionaries in several places in the north, including the capital city of Khartoum. After the Simba uprising in the fall of 1964 and the murder of Dr. Paul Carlson and others, it was taken for granted that the Christian mission in Congo was finished. Here again, we assumed too much. There have been three separate evacuations in Congo, but never was more than half of the missionary force involved. Cuba and India are sometimes referred to as closed countries; as we have seen, this is incorrect.
4. Some doors that we feared would close are still open. The largest of these is India. During World War II when Mahatma Gandhi was carrying on his “Quit India” campaign against the British, the missionaries there feared that if India ever got its independence they would have to leave along with the British Raj. This has not happened. During the Mau Mau Rebellion, led by Jomo Kenyatta in the 1950s, the situation in Kenya was extremely grave. When Kenyatta came to power in 1963, the missionaries had their bags packed, ready for sudden evacuation. But Kenya has turned out to be one of the more stable countries in Africa, and President Kenyatta has more than once paid public tribute to the work of the missionaries. In 1965 it looked as if Indonesia would be taken over by the Communists; but the Communist-inspired coup of October 1 proved abortive. The missionaries are still there in full force, and revival has swept an estimated two million persons into the Kingdom. Too often we have been unnecessarily fearful of the many storm clouds on the political horizon, forgetting that our God “rides upon the storm.”
5. Closed doors do not necessarily remain closed forever; they have a way of opening again. For ten years—from 1948 to 1958—Colombia was closed to all new and returning missionaries. During that time there was a civil war that claimed the lives of 300,000 persons. The Roman Catholic Church, taking advantage of the unsettled conditions, carried out a widespread persecution of evangelicals. Churches were destroyed, pastors were killed, and schools were closed. But in 1957 dictator Pinilla was toppled from power and a new and more liberal regime was installed. Immediately the tide changed, and missionaries were once again permitted to enter the country. Today there are more missionaries in Colombia than at any other time in the past 100 years, and they have opportunities undreamed of ten short years ago. During World War II, Ethiopia, South Korea, and Japan were all closed to Christian missionaries; but since the return of peace these countries are again the scene of intense missionary activity. Even the Communist countries of Eastern Europe show signs of loosening up. Bibles are being imported into some countries and printed in others. Billy Graham and other evangelists from the West have held meetings in most of them.
6. In the last twenty years some doors have opened for the first time. Strange that we are so quick to learn of closing doors, but seldom hear of opening doors! For hundreds of years the Hindu kingdom of Nepal was sealed off from all contact with the rest of the world. Then in 1954 the door opened, and the United Mission to Nepal, comprising at that time some thirty missionaries belonging to ten different boards, entered the country. The mission signed a five-year contract with the government agreeing to confine its activities to educational, medical, agricultural, and technical work. There was to be no religious work. The UMN is still there, only now it comprises twenty-nine boards and 130 missionaries. It has work in fifteen towns and villages, and a small group of Christians is to be found in twenty centers. Besides the UMN, other missions are now there: the Nepal Evangelistic Band, Wycliffe Bible Translators, International Christian Fellowship, and others.
Equally intriguing though less fruitful has been the work begun in Somalia. Here the dominant religion is Islam. Somalia opened its doors to Protestant missionaries in the early 1950s. The first mission to enter, in 1953, was the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, followed a year later by the Sudan Interior Mission. Here again “proselytizing” is a criminal offense, and the two missions must exercise great care in the way they go about their missionary work. Evangelism and church planning are frowned upon, but despite the many restrictions the two missions have been able to make considerable headway. Although it is not possible to organize churches, there are small groups of believers in nine centers. A bookstore in the capital is doing a thriving business. In 1966 the SIM announced the translation of the complete New Testament into the Somali language. Work on the Old Testament is in the final stage.
Other countries that for hundreds of years have been closed to the Christian missionary are now showing signs of opening up. In the last few years missionaries have entered Yemen for the first time. Afghanistan is officially closed to all missionaries; but at present there are some eighty dedicated Christians in that “closed” land who are there for the sole purpose of serving the government and the people in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ. Three Christian congregations of expatriates have been organized and one church building has been erected. These are off bounds to Afghan nationals except for Christmas, Easter, and funeral services. A major breakthrough occurred in November, 1969, when a Youth for Christ Teen Team visited Kabul and presented a sacred concert. Over 700 people from the international community and from the nation’s intelligentsia crowded into the ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel to hear “Music With a Message.” The following day the young people were featured on the front page of the Kabul Times. The president of Radio Afghanistan called the musical group a “holy delegation.” A cabinet minister referred to the visit as “a light from God.” All this in a staunch Muslim country that is officially closed to Christian missionaries!
7. Closed doors are not necessarily an unmitigated tragedy. Missionaries, like anybody else, are inclined to have an inflated opinion of their own importance. Now and again it is well to remind ourselves that if need be God can get along without us. Any sovereign state has the right to expel undesirable aliens. But it is one thing to get rid of the missionaries; it is another to get rid of Almighty God. Heaven is his throne and earth is his footstool. He stays when the missionary leaves. This is why evacuation of the missionary is not necessarily catastrophic.
When the Italians occupied Ethiopia in 1935 they expelled all Protestant missionaries. Despite the absence of the missionaries and persecution by the Italian authorities, the infant church grew by leaps and bounds between 1936 and 1942. Upon its return, the Hermannsburg Mission discovered that the Spirit of God had moved so mightily in the hearts of the Galla tribespeople that a mass movement to Christianity had taken place. In the southeast, the Sudan Interior Mission left sixty baptized believers in three small assemblies. Seven years later when the missionaries returned there were 18,000 believers in 155 churches! The United Presbyterians also found that during their absence the working of God’s Spirit in the southwest had brought into existence a body known as the Bethel Evangelical Church under the leadership of a blind pastor, Gilada Solon. Who said missionaries are indispensable?
Or take mainland China. The total evacuation of all missionaries. Roman Catholic and Protestant, was, humanly speaking, an enormous loss, especially when many of their institutions and much of their property were taken over by the government. But China’s loss was gain for other countries in that region of the world. More than half of the China missionaries were redeployed to other parts of the Far East and Southeast Asia. In 1950 there were only three missions in Thailand; today there are almost thirty. In 1950 there were only two missions in Taiwan; today there are more than eighty. And the number of Protestant Christians in Taiwan has increased from 30,000 to 300,000. So God, who is able to make the wrath of man to praise him, is able to deploy his servants in such a fashion that his purposes of grace for the nations are worked out. When one door closes, another opens. Happy is the missionary who is able to see the hand of God in the affairs of men and nations.
8. When doors are closed, they are closed not by men but by God. This daring statement has the sanction of Scripture. In Revelation 3:7 Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, refers to himself as “the one who opens and no man shuts, and shuts and no man opens.” The Church has never had any problem with the first clause. That is God’s business—to open doors. But what is this bit about closing doors? Does God close doors? Is that not the work of the devil?
During the fifth decade of the nineteenth century the Church of Christ, like a mighty army with its banners flying, moved into China. On its banners were inscribed the words of Revelation 3:7, “I am he that openeth and no man shutteth.” It was a great day for the Christian Church when its missionaries gained access to the most populous country in the world. Exactly one hundred years later the Church was again on the move in China, only this time it was moving out. The “mighty army” had been badly mauled and the banners, tattered and torn, were trailing in the dust. But on those banners were still inscribed the words of the Holy Scripture: “I am he that shutteth and no man openeth.”
We rejoice and give praise to Almighty God when doors are opened. We say, “This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” But when doors are closed we cry, “An enemy has done this.”
According to Daniel 4:35, the Most High God does according to his will not only in the army of heaven but also among the inhabitants of the earth. It is not difficult to believe the first part about the army of heaven. But what about the inhabitants of the earth? Are they too under his direction and control?
The Church needs to take a fresh look at what the Scriptures have to say about the sovereignty of God. He knows the end from the beginning and is working all things after the counsel of his own will (Eph. 1:11). He is able to make the wrath of man to praise him (Ps. 76:10). No man can stay his hand or say to him, “What doest thou?” (Dan. 4:35).
If this is so, then we can only believe that the door of China was closed by God, not by the devil. If it had not been God’s permissive will, all the armies of Red China could not have expelled the missionaries. Someone will say: “This is hard to believe and harder still to understand.” It is difficult to understand; but we are not expected to understand everything God does. He has warned us that his ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts our thoughts. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are his ways higher than our ways and his thoughts than our thoughts (Isa. 55:8, 9). Paul reminds us that God’s judgments are unsearchable and his ways past finding out (Rom. 11:33).
Anybody can believe in the sovereignty of God when the situation is under control; but when things get out of hand, when right is on the scaffold and wrong is on the throne, then the Christian must take his stand on the Word of God and believe that in some mysterious way we cannot fully understand, the purposes of God are being worked out according to his plan. He knows what he is doing even if we do not.
9. There are more open doors in the world than we can take advantage of with our present manpower. The real tragedy is not the number of closed doors that we can’t enter, but the number of open doors that we don’t enter. Instead of beating our breasts over the closed countries of the world, we should be recruiting men and women in ever increasing numbers to enter the lands that are open and ready to receive both the missionary and his message. Several facts should be borne in mind. The open countries far outnumber the closed countries. The opportunities in the open countries are greater than ever before. In many parts of the mission field, people are turning to Christ in unprecedented numbers.
This is no time for retrenchment, much less retreat. The doors are open. The fields are white. The laborers are few. It is both foolish and futile to spend our time lamenting the few doors that are closed while we refuse to enter the many doors that are open. The closed doors are God’s responsibility. We can safely leave them with him. The open doors are our responsibility, and we neglect them at our peril.
10. No countries are completely closed. A country is not necessarily closed simply because American missionaries are excluded. If all professional missionaries were shut out of a given country, it would still be possible for the non-professional missionary to enter. We must be more flexible at this point. Paul spoke of becoming all things to all men that by all means he might win some. There is no reason why Christian laymen should not live and work abroad for the purpose of bringing the Gospel to countries closed to the professional missionary, especially in these days when the missionary corps is outnumbered by other groups, such as businessmen, military personnel, and government employees. Christian professors can teach and Christian students can study at Hindu, Muslim, and secular universities with the greatest of ease. In fact, they have opportunities not usually afforded the average missionary.
And what shall be said about the ability of radio to penetrate the thickest curtain? Powerful missionary radio stations located in Quito, Addis Ababa, Monrovia, Monte Carlo, Manila, Seoul, Okinawa, Bonaire, and the Seychelles Islands are beaming the Christian message in hundreds of languages into every corner of the habitable globe. There may be one or two countries without a Christian church, but there is none without a Christian witness.
J. Herbert Kane is associate professor of mission at the School of World Mission, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. This article will appear in his book “The Christian Mission: Problems and Prospects,” to be published next year by Moody Press.
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