Mission Issues: Risk


I will never forget the day I said farewell to a mission worker in the late 1990s. “Take care,” I said. “I don’t take care,” he said. “I take risks.”

Risk is an issue exercising many mission organisations today. Perhaps it is acceptable for an individual to take risks for themselves, but can an organisation ask its workers to take a risk?

Weighing up risk

“Risk” is defined as exposure to danger, harm or loss. Most people accept risk in moderation. Many of us look for adventure, and adventure without risk would not be adventure! Taking risks raises courage, stretches imagination and strengthens emotional health. It is also unavoidable. We accept risk when we step out of our front door.

Allen Gardiner, who inspired the founding of the South American Missionary Society, travelled the world as a naval captain. It was normal to leave wife and children behind – a pattern he continued as a missionary to South America, where he died of starvation. Few mission agencies countenance such behaviour today.

In the early days of mission 60 per cent of all missionaries died within two years of arriving in their adopted country. Should anyone have stopped them?

Safety first?

The UK culture in the 21st century is highly safetyconscious. We live in a world with notices warning us that a floor might be slippery; we may not use a ladder without training or sell homemade cakes to the public in case we poison someone.

We are often astonished at the heroism of the early missionaries who went so bravely, suffered in many ways and often died early. But life in 17th century England was also “poor, brutish and short”. Britain’s early missionaries did not have the average life expectancy of 85+ years we have today. It seems our Western culture is no longer able to face the prospect of dying: neither in the young, nor the old. Many of us do all we can to avoid pain, suffering and loss.

The Bible and risk

Throughout the Bible we see people taking risks: Abraham left Ur Moses challenged Pharaoh Joshua stepped out in faith against Jericho Jeremiah spoke against the king Paul endured beatings and imprisonment The Bible gives story after story. Do we dare use Hebrews 11:32ff to encourage people to offer for service? The writer says they do not have time tell of those who were “tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection”.

On the other hand, Acts 8:1 tells us all except the apostles were scattered (though they preached the word wherever they went). In other words, they fled to escape persecution. Paul tells of his suffering in 2 Corinthians 11:23ff and faced persecution with courage when called by God to do so. But part of his response to risk was: escape it if you can. So he was let down in a basket over a wall and moved on from Lystra where he had been stoned.

The language of security management is first and foremost, “identify and then minimise risk”. In Acts 9 Ananias didn’t immediately leap to his feet and go to minister to the murderous Saul – you might say he did a risk analysis and accepted the mitigations offered by God. Security managers are often trained to focus, in a crisis, on the primary objective of “preservation of life”. Trustees and leaders of mission organisations, however, need to ask themselves if there might be other primary objectives – such as the ongoing work of the church in the host country or the spread of the gospel.

Questions for us all

When it comes to risk, where do we draw the line? Do we say, “I will give my life to save a nation”? Or only to save my family? Questions mission leaders must ask include:

  1. Should we/can we ensure the complete safety of our personnel?
  2. How do we respond to the challenge of Scripture which implies persecution is the normal fate of a Christian?
  3. How much risk can a person be asked to take in pursuit of the Great Commission?
  4. From the early deaths of missionaries vibrant missions emerged. Should CMS in the 21st century avoid the death of mission personnel and their children at all costs?
  5. Should a worker be allowed to stay in a dangerous place if they believe it is right to do so, when all advice points towards the need for them to be evacuated?
  6. How does an agency determine how much “risk” is too much?

Too often we find the Scripture to back up what we already believe. If I choose to stay in a dangerous situation I might cite the case of Daniel. If I choose to pull someone out of a risky situation I might quote, “shake the dust from your feet”.

As you think about this issue, please don’t forget to pray for leaders who have to take decisions about risk every day, as well as those who face those risks across the world.

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