Around the world there are countries that are considered closed to full-time, traditional missionaries. There are all sorts of missionaries, but I am using the description "full-time, traditional missionary" to refer to those who are employed by a mission-sending agency and sent to another geographic location in order to reach people for Jesus. In essence, their paycheck and identity are directly connected to a sending agency and/or their employment as a missionary, a scenario that is restricted or forbidden by many countries around the world.
Those sent to closed countries are trained in using caution and often ask their supporters to use similar caution when speaking about their work and identity as a missionary. This level of caution can be confusing and, to some, even scary. The hope is that this article will help provide some framework for the what and why of missionary work in closed countries.
Key Question 1: What exactly does it mean if a country is "closed"?
The missionary task is difficult and is often focused on places that are considered religiously and politically hard. In missions-speak, a closed country is one that forbids or severely restricts official missionary activity. Other related terms for a closed country are “restricted access,” “limited access,” and “creative access” countries. The reasons for being closed to missionary activity are often connected to a nation’s official religion and political climate.
In missions-speak, a closed country is one that forbids or severely restricts official missionary activity.
For example, many countries have blasphemy and apostasy laws that limit religious freedom or ban conversion to another religion—in our case, Christianity—from the officially sanctioned religion. Even if there are no laws against conversion, there are steep social penalties, ranging from isolation to job loss and even death, if someone chooses to forsake their community’s and family’s religious heritage for Christianity.
While a closed country is not necessarily closed to other interests like tourism or business, official missionary activity is off-limits. For this reason, missionaries will go to these places as tourists, humanitarian workers, businesswomen, or businessmen, but not officially as missionaries. Action Point: Connect with a missionary and ask them what life and ministry are like in their country.
Key Question 2: Why do we send missionaries to places that do not want them?
The gospel is a hostile message. The message of the gospel is of a new kingdom under the rule and reign of King Jesus. It requires a new allegiance to a new authority and promotes a new way of life and practice that is at odds with the way things operate in closed countries.
The gospel is also a powerful message. All peoples everywhere are in need of the gospel message, even if they live in a closed or restricted access country. While security and missions is a complex issue, the gospel has always gone forward, even in less-than-ideal contexts. In fact, the story of the early church is one of suffering and persecution because the religion and politics of the day were opposed to Christianity (see Acts 4:18-21).
Governmental restriction has never prevented Christian men and women from telling others about the gospel. This is the story of the Church throughout history, and it is the continuing story today of the Global Church. Waiting until these countries are "open" to take the gospel to them is not a realistic option, nor does it take seriously the countless stories of men and women sacrificing everything for the gospel.
Action Point: Talk to your missions pastor or another missions mobilizer in your church about missions and security.
Key Question 3: Shouldn’t we just proclaim Jesus without fearing or worrying about government restrictions?
Official governmental policy should not deter gospel proclamation. A country may be considered closed politically or religiously, but it does not mean that it is closed to the gospel. "Closed" does not mean that God is not working or that He doesn’t want to use you there. We continue to send missionaries to closed countries because men, women, and families are still living and dying in need of the gospel. Even though the official government sign says closed, the gospel is always at work. In addition to continuing to send missionaries to closed countries, God has given many of you opportunities to reach peoples from traditionally closed countries who are right in your own backyard due to globalization and migration. Over the last twenty-plus years, the world has become more connected and people are more transitory.
What does this mean? God has provided opportunities for you to reach peoples from traditionally closed countries right in your own community. This should not surprise us. Jesus said that the gospel would be proclaimed to all the nations (Luke 24:47). If we cannot easily go to the nations, then God brings the nations to us.
"Thankfully, when a country puts out a closed sign to the gospel, there are still missionaries willing to live and minister among the people so they have an opportunity to hear and respond to the Good News."
Action point: Find people and places in your local community that are from closed countries. You could visit a restaurant or a religious building from another part of the world. Build gospel relationships.
Key Question 4: Do we need to be security-conscious when it comes to missions?
There is always a need for wisdom, especially when living and ministering in a closed country. The issue of security is nuanced and often situation-dependent. Certainly, missionaries are not called to be cavalier for the sake of the gospel. There are real considerations for personal safety and for one’s family; however, there is a marked difference between wisdom and discretion and fear for self-preservation or secrecy. When security devolves into the latter, then it is time to rethink missions strategy and identity.
Often, the use of caution and security in communication and methodology is in an effort to protect those whom you are living among. The consequences are often much more real and severe for nationals than for the missionary.
Action point: Pray for your missionaries. It is difficult to live and minister in a closed context. If you happen to be a business owner, or have a specialized degree or type of training, consider hiring and sending employees to a closed context or getting a job in a closed country where it is difficult for traditional missionaries to do so.
Every Tribe, Tongue, and Nation
Getting the gospel message to the nations has always required men and women to go to difficult places. When it comes to sending missionaries to closed countries, here are some things to remember:
Going to a closed country to tell others about Jesus in an official capacity is not allowed in many countries around the world.
People need the gospel all over the world, even in closed countries.
A closed country cannot stop gospel progress.
Wisdom is always necessary, and security is often necessary, when living and ministering in closed countries.
Thankfully, when a country puts out a closed sign to the gospel, there are still missionaries willing to live and minister among the people so they have an opportunity to hear and respond to the Good News.
Sending missionaries to closed countries is not without dangers, but Revelation 5 reminds us that one day there will be people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worshipping Jesus, even people from closed countries. Let us keep sending missionaries, caring for missionaries, and praying for our missionaries living and serving all around the world.
Greg Mathias is Director of the Global Missions Center and Associate Professor of Global Missions at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his family lived and served in the Middle East with the International Mission Board. Since that time, he has been involved in training and equipping through theological education and the local church.