Saturday, September 11, 2010


Most countries in the world today no longer (if they ever had) have a missionary visa.  The few countries that have such a visa do not fully understand the role and function of a missionary.  Visa issues aside, many people at the street level do not understand the missionary category either.  When I was preparing to go, many people would ask me what I was going to do.  When I used the M word, they either had no clue what I was talking about or they would give me one of those "why don't you just leave those poor people alone and not try to change their culture" looks.  I started using the word sociologist.  When I would say that, people would look at me with a look of understanding and recognition.  They would ask me "what people are you studying?" "where will you be living?" "What language will you learn?"  This was a category they understood.  Bypassing the social misunderstanding is simply a matter of linguistics.  Bypassing foreign governments is another issue.  To do the latter many people have used "creative access platforms."  This allows them to use a category that the government understands and accepts.  Many come in as teachers, business people, students, agricultural experts and a host of other real jobs.

Here are some of the issues that are important to understand regarding platforms.
1. Will it get me into the country?
This is the primary question most people ask.  Many people stop and don't ask any further questions.  With most countries it is relatively easy to gain access.  If all else fails, teach English.  You can get a visa into the toughest countries in the world if you have credentials to teach English and have a job at a language institute or university.  While access to the country is important, it is not the only consideration.  Many people who have not fully developed a platform or who have a poorly conceived platform will be faced with the next question:

2. Will it connect me to people?
If you take a job working in the oilfield where you will be either on a platform or in a compound, then you have successfully made it into the country but you are still not going to connect with many people outside of the company.  Conversely, the right platform can be a huge benefit in building connections.  I have a friend here who came in working for a company.  I had been here three months and he and been here one week.  Because he had worked at the company for a long time from the states, he knew many of the people over here.  In fact, in his short time, he knew more people than I did and in deeper ways.  Granted, he knew them before he came whereas I am starting cold.  However, he gained access to a large network on day one.

3. How will it connect me to people?
This is where my personal platform gets me into trouble.  I work as a photographer; I have the equipment to prove it--i'm legit.  The problem is that there are many tourist locations in my country.  Walking around with a big camera makes you look like an easy mark.  It isn't a real problem, but obviously the sight of a camera does change things so I have to be selective and careful.  Definitely consider not just that your platform will put you into contact with people, but how it will put you in contact with people.

Theological Credentials vs. Practical Credentials.
Having spent many years in preparation prior to leaving I followed the path that appeared the most obvious and followed at the time: seminary.  In fact, I not only went to seminary, but I started in Bible College.  In hindsight I would have changed one of my degrees to be in something rather than theology, something of tangible good to a lost world.  There are many easy ways of diversifying degrees.  Pick a business, agg, medical, etc, undergrad and do the seminary work you agency requires.  The other option is to do a theological undergrad (if you must...) and diversify with your masters.  A Masters of TESOL will let you teach at an actual university in stead of a day-institute teaching children.  An MBA will get you a job helping local businesses.  

If you are currently looking at your options before going my advice is to forgo formal theological training (key word: formal) unless you specifically need it.  It may have been an asset in the days of colonialism but today, in most places, it is a liability rather than an asset.  Get an undergrad with a double major--business and anthropology--and then go and get a MA TESOL (a 14 hr degree many places.).

Defective Platforms
Not doing what you claim you are doing.  Many people object to platforms on the basis that they are dishonest.  They are only dishonest if you do not do what you claim to be doing.  Do what you say you are there to do.

Using your platform as a bait-and-switch.  If you want to bait-and-switch, go work for Amway.  I recently heard about a group working with a minority indigenous ethnic group in a large city.  One of their team members found a location where their people grouped up and hung out.  This worker recommended that they host a free esl class.  Their supervisor decided that they should go down there and teach Bible stories in English as the class--If they didn't like it, then "too bad, cause its free."  While this statement is wrong on so many levels, this is such a lost opportunity.  Teach a real class, make it better than anything in the city, and make it free!  This is the popularity of the internet.  You want to start a movement, make it interesting and make it free.

Picking the wrong platform is not the end of the world, but picking the right one can certainly be productive.

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