Two Types of Risk
by Phil Martin
Have you ever heard of the Grizzly Man? There was a documentary with that title released in 2005 following the life and tragic death of bear enthusiast and advocate Timothy Treadwell. As I was reading about his story I realized that there are some interesting parallels to the questions and concerns raised about open missions in China. First, here are the basic reactions people have to Grizzly Man.
The most natural reaction to hearing a story of a man who lived with bears and got killed by one is, “Well, what did you think would happen?” If you hang out with massive, ferocious, & carnivorous creatures, there is a high probability of death by mauling.
That was unnecessary
Was living with the bears really a requirement for protecting them? Is there anything about VERY close proximity to bears that furthers the goal of protecting them from poaching or habitat loss? Most other conservationists are able to fulfill the same goals without taking on the risk of living with wild grizzlies. So it seems his death didn’t even accomplish anything. In fact, it was counterproductive as the two bears that attacked were put down by park rangers.
At least he should have taken basic precautions
Timothy “Grizzly Man” Treadwell didn’t carry pepper spray, he didn’t set up an electric fence around his camp, and at times he even had food in his tent. These are all basic steps to NOT getting killed by a bear. If he was constantly in so much danger, why not take advantage of proven methods of attack prevention?
He had a death wish
Willingly living with Alaskan Grizzly bears is pretty close to suicide. Especially when he stayed so late into the winter when bears are preparing for hibernation and are more aggressive. Clearly he was deranged or wanted to be a martyr.
The end of the story proves the critics right
They said he would die if he continued to bivouac with bears. Timothy said the bears were misunderstood and wouldn’t hurt him. He was indeed attacked by grizzlies, proving the critics right and Mr. Treadwell gravely wrong.
What does this have to do with church planting in China?
Two years ago this month, two of our teammates were deported from China for illegal religious work. Our team takes a more open approach to missions in China. For example, we don’t have a business cover, we openly post things online, we participate in Chinese church services, and introduce ourselves as Christians working in a church. These actions are all viewed as the equivalent of living with grizzlies. This has led to some to react similarly to how we all react to the Grizzly Man. However, those conclusions are unfounded. The Grizzly Man was a sad and misguided fanatic that embraced risks entirely disconnected with achieving his goals. Church planters in China gladly accept necessary risks in order to make disciples. Let me explain what I mean.
Well duh… to an extent
The Chinese government (let’s say the dragon) is not a fan of foreign missions work in China. If you are a missionary in China there is a risk of being kicked out. This has been sufficiently proven by our teammates. Unlike the grizzly man however, we are agreeing with the critics on this point. We don’t dispute that there is a risk of some persecution. However, we disagree on the level of danger, necessity of the risk, which behaviors are risky, and the end goal.
Living with the Dragon is necessary
First, This is so obvious that it may be missed. Deportation from China is not the same as death. There is a significant difference in level of danger. The seriousness of the risk needs to be accurately measured.
Second, at the very least most Christians agree that to be faithful to the Great Commission at least some Christians need to live in the country being reached. For all the new avenues open through technology, nothing fully replaces life on life discipleship, following the incarnational approach of Jesus. So living in the country is necessary for some.
Thirdly, what about being involved in the local church? Project China takes a pretty rigid stance on the place of the local church in missions. That includes from the sending side as well as on the field. Is that really necessary, or is it more akin to trying to protect grizzlies by moving in next door?
We firmly believe that “the heavy-lifting of the Great Commission will always be done by the church.” There are many ways to be a Christian worker in China, but faithfulness to the Great Commission requires both evangelism and discipleship. There are many people who have not heard. We have a personal responsibility to them. That demands evangelism. Those that respond in faith need to grow in maturity. That demands discipleship. The local church is the only tool that is equipped to faithfully do both. Strategies that just reach unheards without plugging them into a church (very common in China) will consistently produce spiritual orphans rather than disciples. Strategies that just train existing church leaders will only work with a limited pool of people and will consistently teach leaders that evangelism is only for second tier Christians. Unlike the grizzly man, our risk is non-negotiable. Living with the Dragon is just part of the job.
“Common sense” precautions are misguided
In this analogy, not having any internet presence is presumed to be like carrying pepper spray. If there is a risk, the thinking goes, why would you make yourself such an easy target. This is a case where the common sense is mistaken. Pepper spray has been proven many times to save people from bear attacks. There is no evidence that not being on the internet protects missionaries in China from persecution. That may be surprising to many, but our team has yet to see this proven. In fact, the “underground” Chinese led churches often have a very visible internet presence. Even more telling, when our teammates were deported, in the four days of questioning by police and religious bureau officials, not once were the websites mentioned. The thing that got them kicked out was Great Commission activity. Those very activities are non-negotiable for Christians anywhere.
Our “platform” and how we introduce ourselves while in China are very similar. It is assumed that a missionary in China MUST work another job to be in China. It is assumed that evangelism must be covert or even subliminal. Neither of these has proven to significantly increase risk. Evangelism and discipleship are to persecution what smoking three packs a day is to cancer. Being on the internet is more like not washing your fruit before you eat it.
There are examples of missionaries purposely doing extremely risky behaviors, hoping to incite persecution in order to receive praise for suffering. The Grizzly Man likely thought this way, and in reality he got what he wanted. We all know his story because he was a bear advocate martyr. In contrast to those brash actions, our team has no desire to be persecuted. Our best case scenario is quietly ministering faithfully in a needy corner of China for decades.
From the beginning persecution is an accepted risk
A reasonable person will conclude from the Grizzly Man story that his death proves his critics right. Some have made a similar conclusion about our teammates untimely departure from China. The difference is that we don’t believe staying in China for a long time is the primary goal. Making disciples is the goal. “Our time in China has persuaded us that the best use of foreign resources is in directly interacting with local churches in their native languages, working to plant new congregations, and training national pastors ‘from scratch.’ ” Yes, those actions do raise the level of risk, but we gladly accept it if that’s what is required to make disciples in China.
Lastly and most importantly, “Is it safe?” is the wrong question
I am not saying that danger is inherently good. Simply that safety isn’t the deciding factor for Christians. When we have a choice between danger and obeying Christ, we all know obeying wins. If we are convinced that being obedient servants of Christ will lead to danger, Christians joyfully march forward, knowing that God is sovereign over each step we take. This is true whether we are in Beijing or North Philly.
If stories of Paul’s travels and hardships are taught in our Sunday school classes, but not emulated in our lives, we have not met the same Jesus that confronted the Apostle on the road to Damascus.