Unsplash: Q.K. Wang

Kicked Out: Reframing the Call to Missions

By Andrew Shaughnessy, Dec 3, 2019

This month we're releasing a series of articles on missionaries who know firsthand what it's like to be kicked out of a country in which they've ministered and called home. As a result, they've learned a lot about God's calling, and what they need from the church in times of trauma and transition. If you missed the first in the series, which was also Network magazine's cover story, you can find it here

“I’d been under investigation for a while,” said Benjamin*. “I’m not really sure how long.” 

Benjamin Kitchener and his family served as MTW missionaries in East Asia for eight years before things went bad. It was against the law to be a missionary in the country where they lived and worked, so he and his colleagues had to operate in secret. Even so, the church had been growing for generations. Officials weren’t happy about it, but they mostly turned a blind eye or did their best to keep control of this upstart religion. But now, the winds were shifting. The government was preparing for a crackdown. 

In late 2017, local authorities pressured Benjamin’s landlord to kick him and his family out of their house. By early 2018, new religious regulations were put into effect country-wide. After the authorities contacted the local college where Benjamin had been working—the source of his local work visa—the administration called and told him: “You need to resign.” 

That evening, one of Benjamin’s friends gave him a call. She was on familiar terms with the college’s board of directors and investors, and she was able to confirm his fears—the government was onto him, actively investigating his activities. 

“You should think about leaving the country,” she told him.

“We already had plans to leave the country to spend the New Year with my wife’s family,” Benjamin said. “Before I left, [the government] systematically stripped away every bit of status that I had to stay in the country. They gave me a five-day visa and said that I needed to be out of the country before the end of that time.” 

So they left—not knowing whether they would ever be allowed back in. 

For months, Benjamin and his family tried to sort out a permanent solution. He secured a short-term tourist visa, returned to Asia for a few months, and left again, fully expecting to return soon. 

Then came the crackdown. In the space of a single weekend, the government arrested dozens of members of the house church with which Benjamin and his family had been working, including the pastors. Over the next year, things only got worse. Across the country, house churches were shut down and pastors arrested. Little by little, the Kitcheners realized that they would not be able to go back to this country they loved. It was simply too dangerous. 

A People, Not a Place 
When a missionary gets kicked out of a country by a hostile government, they can struggle with a kind of existential-spiritual angst. Many experienced their original call to missions as a God-given draw to a particular place. It’s something we’ve all heard from the missionaries we know or support: “I felt God call me to Uganda,” or, “I went to Bangladesh and I just knew God was calling me here.” 

If they are forced to leave, it can be terribly confusing. After all, if our sovereign, all-powerful God called them to a particular country, why would He allow a government—however hostile—to kick them out? Why call them someplace, and then keep them from fulfilling that call? 

“I encounter a lot of missionaries that feel like their ministry is over if they’re excluded from being able to live in the country where they’re serving,” Benjamin said. 

When Benjamin realized he would not be able to return to his East Asian home, it was heartbreaking. He mourned the loss of friendships and feared for the unknown fate of his imprisoned colleagues. Yet he never questioned his call. Benjamin believes that he is called to a people group, not a place. And that’s been an enormous comfort to him. 

“Early on, I realized that my calling really is not location determinate,” he explained. “Therefore I can minister to [the people of this country] right here in the United States. I can minister to students who are coming here to study. I can even minister to them in neighboring countries in Southeast Asia or wherever they are. I firmly believe that even though I can’t be there in [my old mission field,] my ministry continues.” 

A World of Possibilities 
The way Benjamin sees it, when those seasoned missionaries get kicked out of their country of service, their calling is far from over. Our globalized world holds countless opportunities for ministry that continue to use missionaries’ hard-earned language and culture skills, even outside of the country to which they originally felt called. Every year, international students from countries closed or hostile to the gospel study at universities across the globe. Cities like Atlanta, New York, Seattle, London, Amsterdam, Sydney, and many more, have significant populations of people from many nations: from Iranians to Indians, Chinese to Syrians. 

These sojourners and immigrants need Jesus just as badly as their countrymen back home, but they can be much easier and safer to reach and build relationships with in countries where sharing the gospel is allowed. Experienced missionaries who know a particular language and culture have a massive leg up on the rest of the American church in trying to connect with them. 

“I’d like to reframe the concept of what it means to minister to a people group,” said Benjamin. “I maintain that we can still do that ministry, even if we’re not in their country of origin.”

None of this, Benjamin clarifies, is meant to minimize the critical importance of sending missionaries to serve a target people group in their country of origin. After all, the pool of people who are qualified, able, and willing to follow the call to missions in hard places overseas is much smaller than that of those who are willing to serve in the relative safety and comfort of the United States. 

Rather, his is an argument grounded in realism, efficiency, and a trust in God’s goodness. As more and more missionaries are forced off the mission field against their will—whether by hostile governments, political upheaval and conflict, or even sickness—MTW, churches, and the missionaries themselves should take full advantage of their hard-earned experience and skills. To write them off would be a waste. 

These days, Benjamin and his family are living in a large city in the Midwest. It’s been more than a year since they left their mission field in East Asia, with no end in sight. They’re hoping to move to another Asian country—trying their hand at ministry there. It would be a brand new country for the Kitcheners, a new and unfamiliar mission field, but his target people group would be the same. The second language he uses for ministry would be the same. The calling—Benjamin’s lifelong calling to this particular people group—would be the same.

*Names have been changed.

Andrew Shaughnessy

Andrew Shaughnessy is a long-time word slinger who spent nearly six years as MTW’s staff writer, gathering and telling impact stories from missionaries across the globe. These days, he’s off working as an analyst and editor in the publishing industry, writing fiction, and mountaineering. He holds a B.A. in history and English literature from Covenant College, and an M.S. in political science from Portland State University.

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