Lessons from Kabul
In August 2021, the western world watched in horror at the scenes of chaos unfolding at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan. After twenty years, the U.S. military had begun their withdrawal, hoping that the Afghan military they trained and equipped would be able to hold their own against a Taliban insurgency. Then, one by one, in rapid succession, city after city fell to the Taliban, in most cases without a fight. Twenty years of nation-building had failed to produce a government that could sustain itself. As the fall of the American-backed government became clear, so too did the danger to those who had supported the American program. Translators who had risked their lives in service to the U.S. military, women who had become educated, not to mention the many men and women who had become Christian, now realized the danger of Taliban rule, and they thronged to Kabul, one of the last remaining government strongholds. Here they desperately tried to board planes leaving the country. Packed and overloaded planes were chased down the runway by those who had been left behind. Some clung to the side of the plane or tried to hide in the wheel wells, and fell to their deaths. Soon the Taliban had formed a perimeter around the airport, and it became too risky to try to get through the checkpoints. Those who remained in Afghanistan remain trapped, for the time being.
Those images from Kabul will be seared into the American consciousness, much like the fall of Saigon over four decades earlier. And there are doubtless many political lessons to be learned. Nevertheless, today I want to ask the question, what missionary lessons might we learn from Kabul?
1. Missionary doors open and close.
I know several missionary families who labored in Afghanistan over the course of many years. They spent decades learning the language and integrating themselves into their society. How suddenly did the door for effective missionary service close! The American involvement in Afghanistan opened up a window of opportunity, and their withdrawal effectively closed it. Nevertheless, the fact that a door has been closed should not discourage missionaries from going to other mission fields. Rather, it should encourage them! Who knows how long those other doors will be open? Think of all the Gospel seeds that were planted in Afghanistan over the last twenty years. Their labor in the Lord will not be in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).
2. The Lord is sovereign over those doors.
At the same time, we recognize that the Lord is sovereign over the opening and closing of those doors. Christ’s plan for the church is not dependent on American foreign policy! Notice, in the verses below, that it is God who opens doors.
“Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27, NKJV).
“Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened to me by the Lord, …” (2 Cor. 2:12).
“Meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains, …” (Col. 4:3).
Ultimately, we must recognize the hand of God behind the acts of men. This gives us immense confidence, because whatever the setbacks, we know that Christ has promised to build His church (Matt. 16:18), and redeem a people for himself from every tongue, tribe, and nation (Rev. 5:9).
3. A closed door is subjective.
Some, and perhaps most, missionaries may choose to leave Afghanistan. Some may find opportunities to work with people from their language groups in other countries. Others, however, may choose to remain. Each missionary must consider the risks for themselves. However, Christ is head over the church and the state, and in some cases it may be necessary to say with Peter, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). An open door does not imply a lack of obstacles. Paul told the Corinthians that he would remain in Ephesus, “For a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries. (1 Cor. 16:9).
4. The Lord is opening other doors.
At the same time the door was closing in Afghanistan, another door was opening. Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees fled Kabul and are seeking asylum in the U.S. and other countries. The Lord is bringing the nations to us! Will the church be there to welcome them? Here is an article with practical suggestions on how to help.
5. We must plant self-sustaining churches.
The sudden removal of missionaries is a reminder of the need to plant indigenous churches that are self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing. We saw what happened when the U.S government was not able to leave behind a self-sustaining Afghan government. In the same way, missionaries must avoid fostering a paternalism that makes the indigenous churches dependent on foreign aid and influence. Lord willing, the churches that were planted in Afghanistan will continue to grow, just as the churches planted in China continued to grow after the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949.
6. We are never told to pray for persecution.
With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the threat of persecution is very real. Already there are reports that the Taliban are going door to door searching out and killing Christians. We who have not experienced such persecution are often quick to quote Tertullian as if it is axiomatic that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” But sadly, it is also possible for persecution to effectively eradicate the church. Therefore, we are never commanded to seek or pray for persecution. Rather, we are commanded to pray “for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:2-4). Peace is better than persecution, and the means of grace are more effectual for the building of the church than the blood of martyrs.
7. We are told to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters.
Although we are not to pray for persecution, we are to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters: “Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also” (Heb. 13:3). We must continue to pray for persecuted church in Afghanistan. Pray that the Lord would strengthen their faith. Pray that the Lord would preserve them from harm. Pray that their lampstand would not be put out. Pray that their persecutors would repent and turn to the Lord, and be forgiven.
 John Mary Terry, Ebbie C. Smith, and Justice Anderson, Missiology: An Introduction to the Foundations, History, and Strategies of World Missions (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 307.