As political and military leaders continue meeting to plan their "war on terrorism," missionary heads are holding their own summit to review their efforts to share the gospel in the shadow of potential conflict.
With international tensions heightening, leaders representing thousands of American missionaries serving overseas gathering for a unique roundtable this week are ready to rip up their planned agenda, and discuss strategy and security in light of last week's terrorist attacks.
Several hundred delegates are due to meet in central Florida Thursday, Sept. 20, for Godmission.CommUNITY, a four-day conference said to be the most comprehensive gathering of missions leaders in North America in decades. Planned for two years, the event brings together 17 missionary networks, many with numbers of member groups.
The conference had intended to bring missionary organizations together to find ways of working more closely, but "God [perhaps] wants us to do something different," said Lon Allison, director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, which is coordinating the event. "We might have one day that is nothing but prayer for the world. We might put on a separate session to talk about Muslims and Muslim-dominated areas."
Organizers had considered canceling the conference, but "we felt that it was even more important now, because it has something to say about the changing shape of missions, especially in countries where there could be extremist groups that are so against America and American mission movements," Allison added.
Extra security measures have been taken at the conference venue. Among the speakers due to address the event are Tom Houston, a former leader of The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, and Michael Cassidy, whose African Enterprise has pioneered racial reconciliation and peace initiatives in South Africa.
Elsewhere, missionary organizations are tightening their own security procedures and making contingency plans to evacuate workers if necessary. Overseas staff have been put on high alert and warned to keep in touch with American embassies. Staff with Christian-based relief groups in Afghanistan have already left the country, and some missionary groups are withdrawing their foreign workers from Pakistan.
Concerns have deepened, too, for the safety of two American missionaries kidnapped in the Philippines. The rebel Muslim group that abducted Martin and Gracia Burnham on May 27 is said to have links to Osama bin Laden, believed to be behind last week's attacks.
Assist News Service reported that Philippines radio interviewed a military official who warned that the Abu Sayyaf guerillas who kidnapped the Burnhams, along with 18 others, might harm the couple in retaliation if the United States takes military action against Afghanistan, where bin Laden is based. A third American taken captive at the same time is believed to have already been killed.
The Burnhams, both 42, were taken at gunpoint from a beach resort where they were celebrating their wedding anniversary. The couple has two children and has served in the Philippines with New Tribes Mission since 1985. Agence France Presse reported that the couple was still alive, but their health was deteriorating after weeks of poor diet and being kept on the move.
There are also fears for the safety of Americans Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry who, along with six other Western Christians working for a relief organization, have been put on trial in Afghanistan for alleged covert evangelism. They could face the death penalty if convicted.