Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Lessons from Afghanistan


After twenty years in the country, NATO forces from the US., Britain, Germany and many other nations left Afghanistan in August 2021. The world watched in horror as desperate people tried to cling to the last military airplanes leaving Kabul airport after the Taliban had taken back control over the country. Twenty years of service by hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who scarificed their time and many even their lives, hundreds of billions of dollars invested into the mission of the armed forces and the projects of GOs and NGOs - it seems like all of this was wasted. Politicians, the media and military leaders speak of a failed mission. As a missionary, who served in Thailand from 1998-2017, I asked the Lord what lessons, if any, the church can learn from the experience of the "secular" mission for the work of missionaries and mission agencies among the unreached peoples of the earth. The following thoughts came to my mind; they are not meant as the ultimate conclusion of  the matter, but rather as suggestions to be considered for further evaluation and as help in the process of decision-making:

  • None of the soldiers went to Afghanistan because they thought it was a great idea or because they wanted to go on vacation. They were ordered to go there!" >>  Missionaries go when and where ordered by the Lord. 
  • Soldiers left when they were ordered to, nobody stayed behind! >> Most missionaries arrive on the field with great zeal, but are rather reluctant to return home; could it be that our terms are limited?   
  • There might be a time, when a mission must face the fact that it is better to end it. The longest time the apostle Paul stayed in one place was three and a half year (in Ephesus). He normally past on the responsibility to the local church, even though that meant risking failure.
  • The Afghan government, police and army that was trained and equipped by the Western allies, failed to hold the ground against the Taliban, who basically had remained waiting quietly in the underground throughout the twenty years>> Yes, it could be that planted churches will not last after a missionary leaves (all seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3, planted by Paul, are in Turkey and have seized to exist).
  • When missionaries leave, they most likely leave behind a lot of "stuff": buildings, cars, land their foundations owned, schools, computers, etc. (hopefully no guns and tanks :)) We will not have a guarantee that it will be used only for the intended purposes.   
  • The objective of the NATO mission in Afghanistan was not clear: Why are the troops there? How long will they stay? What will they do? How do we measure "success"? If these questions are not answered before the deployment, they hold potential for great frustration. "Undefined" and "indefinetly" may sound heroic, but might not be the best answers for succesful missions.
  •  Sometimes, it might look to others or to the missionaries themselves as if their mission was a complete failure. If we think so, we might become bitter and angry with the commander in chief, the Lord Jesus, who had ordered  us to go in the first place: didn´t he know how hard it would be? Why did he send us anyway? It is therefore essential to look at the results of the mission from His perspective! You might not have achieved what you had planned  and hoped for, but look at what He did do!
  • I just recently had an opportunity to talk to one of the eight missionaries who were taken captive by the Taliban in 2001; in spite of the current situation, she pointed out the good things that were accomplished, from improvement of the infrastructure to lives that were impacted by personal relationships and prayer. 
  • For me personally, I have to face the reality that, in spite of my ministry there for almost twenty  years, Thailand remains an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation to this day and the church has not exactly exploded in size, either. However, many lives were - and remain - impacted, not at least my own!
  • The NATO forces did not succeed to establish a new political, economical and/or social system or at least to significantly change the old one. While transformed individual lives do not count as success in a political, military operation, they are essential for ambassadors of Christ. It is the other way around: What good is it if misisonaries "win the world" (= change systems), but do not win a single soul for Christ? The church has therfore to keep in mind that missionaries never go to a country or a region to change systems, but to impact people!
  • The US and other nations have offered to fly out thousands of Afghans who "helped" the troops and/or worked with them (e.g. as translators), and help them to to start new lives in America or Europe.  While this is very generous, I do not think that missionaries should nurture hopes of people we get to know and/or work with, to see their relationship with us as a means to leave their home country. After all, who went where to help whom? 
  • Lastly, a sobering reminder: If an army sends soldiers on a battle field, there will be some casualties. Likewise, some missionaries will be injured, and some will die on their assignments. Like any nation takes care of those who were wounded in the battle, the church should take care of missionaries who return home injured, rather than leaving them subject to the good will of secular social welfare systems. Otherwise, who would heed the call to go in the first place?