This world. This place. This life.

The high cost of covert evangelism


Two days ago ten members of a Christian medical team were killed in Afghanistan.  The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying that the volunteers were trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

The medical team was organized by the NGO International Assistance Mission.  IAM is a signatory to a Red Cross/Red Crescent code of conduct which, among other things, includes a pledge that “Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.”  In other words, IAM pledges not to proselytize.

I can understand why it might be difficult to trust that promise.  And I also can see how easy it would be for the Taliban to capitalize on that mistrust.

I’ve been thinking about world religions lately, recognizing that when I interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, I will need to know more than I know now.  So when I was in our local used book store a few weeks ago, and saw a paperback copy of Reza Aslan’s No God but God in the new arrivals section, I snapped it up. I also decided to take a trip down the world religions aisle.

In the Islam section of that aisle, one title in particular stood out.  There were about six copies, all brand new, of Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs.  Further investigation confirmed what I suspected–that this book should have been shelved with Christian apologetics.

When I was in college, belonging to a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was an important part of my journey out of fundamentalism.  One year I went to IVCF’s Global Missions Conference, Urbana, where I remember learning how to be a missionary in the 10-40 window, and specifically how to work covertly within Muslim countries where proselytizing is illegal.  A quick trip to IVCF’s page about Urbana showed me that this is still something IVCF is doing.

Christian missionaries who go into Muslim countries as undercover evangelists probably think long and hard about the personal risks they are taking, and they probably call it “counting the cost.”  But I wonder if their accounting considers the risks their choices create for others.  I wonder if they realize how their covert evangelism erodes trust, breeds suspicion, and endangers those whose mission is simply mercy, and not conversion.


10 thoughts on “The high cost of covert evangelism

  1. Good post! A couple years ago when I was teaching a college speech class, I had a student who was going to become a nurse so the could go to other countries and do exactly what you’re talking about — trying to convert people covertly. She actually gave a speech about it and was all smiles about her plan. How sad and scary!

    • Thanks, Deborah. I was probably that student at an earlier point in my life…I even remember wearing that smile. I do have to watch myself, though. That tendency lives on in me, despite new religious allegiances. It is a rare person who can simply live his or her faith, without harboring secret desires to convert others. I think I know one such person.

  2. Is undercover evangelism wrong? Evangelism of Christianity, or Islam, or even Liberalism? A covertness worthy of slaughter for you seem to defend the Taliban here. Perhaps the real crime here was not evangelism was mercy which the Taliban fear more than Christ, and there for punish harshly.

    • I don’t know about “wrong,” but in many countries it’s illegal. I’m not defending the Taliban. Far from it. What I am saying is that IAM explicitly pledges not to evangelize, but that promise is undermined by the widespread practice of covert evangelism. Many Christians have a hard time telling one kind of Muslim from another–why wouldn’t Muslims have a hard time making similar distinctions among various types of Christians?

  3. …and why should we UUS who speak of the interconnect web of life expect anyone to make a distinction of any sorts between anyone. Shouldn’t we UUs roundly condem anyone who slaughters any individual because of their witness? These good people murdered because they witnessed through their works, they did not covertly evangelize, just as we UU’s witness here with our blogs. We condemn AZ for asking suspected illegal aliens for ID, yet you seem willing to divvy up Christians here between those who covertly evangelize and those who don’t, and explain proclaiming no judgement that the covert provokes the Taliban to kill. That’s odd… a bit shameful.

    • For the record, killing these people was a terrible thing to do it–whether it was the Taliban or not.

      I don’t have a comments policy on this blog–yet. But I do want to promote open but civil conversation, and the intensity of your critique, and particularly your use of the word “shameful,” is veering away from my definition of civil. The blogosphere often distorts our relationships, making us feel free to say things we wouldn’t say in “real” life.

      I’ll say more about this when I get around to writing a “Best Practices” post sometime this week–maybe even later today.

  4. I drive by the church of one of those killed, and the news interviewed the pastor. The news and a sign in front of the church lead me to believe that they were evangelizing. Even though they may have promised not to. I know the news can often be misleading, but the public story around here is that they died for the cause of spreading the word.

  5. PS – I just reread my comment, and see that it could easily be misinterpreted. I don’t at all mean to imply that the killings were justified. Only that people in the hometown of one of them believe that they were doing medical work, … and evangelizing. I don’t think we will ever know the truth of it, not that it matters.

  6. Pingback: Reasons for living, taking relationships for granted, and more UU blogging « : The Interdependent Web

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