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Missions have always been risky. Here’s why many Christians still want to go

Participating in a Christian mission has always required taking on certain risks

Missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrive at the Salt Lake City International Airport from Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. The missionaries, who were serving in Puerto Rico, are part of the last group evacuated Tuesday by the church. They spent the night in Miami and are now on their way to their new temporary assignments. These missionaries lived through both hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrive at the Salt Lake City International Airport from Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. The missionaries, who were serving in Puerto Rico, are part of the last group evacuated Tuesday by the church. They spent the night in Miami and are now on their way to their new temporary assignments. These missionaries lived through both hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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When the Rev. Chad Keck was 3 years old, his dad got very sick. He’d been serving as a Christian missionary in Guatemala and contracted hepatitis A from contaminated water.

“There had been a series of earthquakes and many cities were destroyed. My dad and some others from our church went down to Guatemala to rebuild houses, churches and other buildings,” the Rev. Keck said.

What he remembers best about that period of his family’s life is how at peace his dad seemed to be.

“My dad was never bitter or upset (about getting sick.) He always talked fondly about the experience of serving others and that made a big impression on me,” said the Rev. Keck, who is senior pastor of First Baptist Kettering in Kettering, Ohio.

Rather than conclude that missionary work wasn’t worth the associated risks, the Rev. Keck, like his father before him, came to see serving missions as an essential part of Christian practice. As an adult, he usually spends at least three weeks out of the country on mission trips each year.

Taking on risk “is just part of what believers do. They don’t walk in fear. They walk in faith and trust the Lord,” he said.

That attitude came in handy in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world of Christian missions upside down. Suddenly, missionaries were at risk of contracting an illness that would prevent them from traveling and that few country’s health systems were equipped to treat.

“If a missionary is diagnosed with cancer, they’ll almost always come home for treatment. If they’re diagnosed with COVID-19, they aren’t coming home. That raises the potential risk,” said Ed Stetzer, dean of the School of Mission, Ministry and Leadership at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, to the Deseret News earlier this month.

However, neither Stetzer nor other mission experts believe that heightened health risks will be enough to keep interested Christians from signing up for future mission trips.

Missionaries have always been willing to put their lives on the line and able to find peace even in dangerous situations, said the Rev. Keck, recalling his dad’s illness.

“Missionaries count the costs of what it means to go and see them as insignificant in comparison to the opportunity to tell others about Jesus,” he said.


Fresh off the press

The COVID-19 pandemic did more than increase the health risks associated with Christian missions. It also forced many missionaries to return home early and others to radically rethink how they do their work. For my latest feature story, I spoke with mission experts about whether coronavirus-related changes will stick around once the pandemic ends.

Last week, I also wrote about a new study explaining why the Supreme Court keeps ruling in favor of religious rights. The answer is a little more complicated than most people assume it is, legal experts told me.

Illustration by Zoë Petersen

Term of the week: Self-uniting marriage

It’s much easier to get married these days than it was in the past. Couples no longer need to build a relationship with a religious leader ahead of their nuptials or go through any sort of pre-wedding relationship class. Instead, they can sign up for a wedding time slot at a courthouse or ask one of their friends to be ordained online.

Even these latter options are seen as inconvenient by some policymakers. That explains why the concept of “self-uniting marriage” is becoming more popular across the country. In a self-uniting marriage, couples can declare themselves to be wed without involving a judge or member of the clergy.

Naomi Schaefer Riley argued against the rise of self-uniting nuptials in her latest column for Deseret Magazine.


What I’m reading

Religiously unaffiliated Americans have been the subject of countless surveys and stories in recent years, but there’s still a lot of confusion about who falls into this growing group. Religion scholars Ryan Burge and Perry Bacon attempted to clear up some of the confusion surrounding religious “nones” in an analysis for FiveThirtyEight.

As I noted last week, President Joe Biden angered many of his religious supporters by failing to act on his promise to expand America’s refugee program during his first three months in office. Friday, the conflict deepened when news leaked that the Biden administration had officially abandoned its original plans. After quick and intense pushback, administration officials announced they hope to raise the refugee ceiling next month, according to Religion News Service.

Here’s an interesting question: Should Bibles be pretty? And another one: If they are, is it fair to charge $300 for them? Religion News Service explored both of these questions in an article about a growing push to market beautiful Bibles. In 2019, my former colleague Emily Hoeven wrote a similar piece exploring whether aesthetically pleasing books were the key to bringing millennials back to church.


Odds and ends

The Religious Freedom Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, launched a new event series last week with a discussion about the key religious freedom conflicts unfolding in the United States today.