When I use the term “closed country,” I am referring to the governments that restrict missionaries’ access to their country. In many cases, this means that they won’t issue religious or missionary visas to Christians. Even if they do, it might still be more prudent to come on a different visa to avoid placing a target on your back. In these situations, it’s not only the missionaries but the local Christians who are placed at risk.
Now, as John Piper once said, “There is no such thing as a closed country unless you’re looking to minister in perfect safety, without risk.” At the same time, we recognize that there are some countries that will not allow someone to enter or stay in their country if they come to share the gospel and plant churches.
Faithfulness to Your Work
You must faithfully do what you stated you would be doing on your visa application. Whether you are studying in a university, working as an engineer, or starting a business – you must do the work well, as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23). Neither the local governments nor the local people are too naive to understand that one can’t live a comparatively luxurious lifestyle while having very few customers.
The end doesn’t justify the means. We must be true to our claims.
Would it honor the Lord if you tell someone that you came to their country to start a business when in fact you planned to keep your company afloat on life-support from a sending organization? Some religions encourage such kind of deception, but not Christianity. The church has been called to be faithful to the Lord. The Lord will produce the fruit. He will save everyone whose names he wrote down in the Book of Life. Friends, the end doesn’t justify the means. We must be true to our claims.
So, how can a missionary gain access to closed countries? I can think of three main ways. Either come as a student, a professional, or a business owner.
Gain Access to a Closed Country as a Student
Coming to a closed country as a student is probably the best starting place for most people who are interested in long-term missionary work. With some research, even in very restricted countries, you can find a local university that offers language courses for foreigners and will help you get a student visa.
As a student, you need to be learning a local language anyway, so you might as well do it full-time for at least a year. Studying will also provide you with access to a local campus where you can meet students, and they are usually the most receptive group of people. For example, coming to a Middle Eastern country makes sense to locals if you’re studying in a university and it provides you with time to assess whether you are called to be a missionary and how to stay longer if you are.
Gain Access to a Closed Country as a Professional
Coming to a closed country as a professional is probably the best long-term platform for missionary work. If you have a teacher’s degree, you can get a job at an international school or university in town. I know many missionaries who’ve come to serve through that route. Not only teachers and coaches, but high-level executives, accountants, and engineers.
You will be mostly exposed to an expat community, and you will need to be extra disciplined in the way you manage your time to learn the language and minister to the locals. Needless to say, joining a healthy local church will be of utmost importance. Unless your gifts can compare to those of the apostle Paul, you probably won’t have enough time and energy to plant a new church on your own. Prioritize opportunities where you know of healthy local churches already in the city.
If you’re already serving overseas in one of these contexts, look for ways that you can instruct new converts before a church is able to be formed. I know one family that came to a restricted country in the Middle East to work as professionals at a local university. Recently, through relational evangelism, they saw the first conversion! There are no known churches in their region, so they secretly meet with that convert for instruction in the Word. Praise God for such bold workers!
Unless you choose to join an international church in town, you will need to learn the language.
In other places, I’ve seen professionals come with a purpose of missions, but then have an extremely hard time connecting with a local church due to the language barrier. Unless you choose to join an international church in town, you will need to learn the language before coming as a professional. Even if you do join an international church, it’s important to recognize the way it may limit your gospel witness with locals. I’ve been so encouraged by the good examples of people doing an excellent job at work, and then using their free time to be faithful members of their local churches where they disciple younger Christians and evangelize the lost.
Gain Access to a Closed Country as a Business Owner
Coming to a closed country as a business owner is very difficult, but rewarding work. Personally, I love using business as a way to approach missions. As a serial entrepreneur myself, I have a special place in my heart for faithful Christians who come to a closed country, start a meaningful business, create jobs, and contribute to a local community. It’s such a beautiful picture on so many levels. A business owner will have a unique platform for discipleship and evangelism at his company––if he faithfully uses his God-given authority (2 Samuel 23:1–4).
Unfortunately, very few missionaries can start and run successful businesses in closed countries. From the examples I’ve seen most, these businesses often turn into “businesses as a façade.” Truthfully, I’d only advise someone to seriously consider coming to a closed country as a business owner if he or she already has successful experience in entrepreneurship.
The Missionary Task Comes with a Risk
There is not a single country on earth that is closed to the gospel, but the price a missionary will pay for preaching it might be higher in some places than others. It might be a side-step in your career or a big lost opportunity of growing a business in your home country. It might be a significant cut in your retirement fund. That’s probably the minimal price one should expect to pay for coming to a closed country as a missionary. I have friends who served in particularly tough places and faced complete emotional breakdowns and physical danger because of their evangelism.
Everybody will be happy if you just create jobs for locals, or study a foreign language. But the evil one will do everything in his power to thwart evangelism in his strongholds. The good news is that he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world! Our Lord sees every faithful act of his beloved children. He will surely reward everyone who’s gone out for the sake of the Name!