Missionary: More than just a Title

“We are all missionaries – right?”

We often hear this from people who should know better: Elders, deacons, pastors and even some missionaries themselves. The truth is, we are not all missionaries. As Christ followers, we are all called to be witnesses. However, some are called to do ministry locally while others are called to do missions elsewhere.
Just to explain, I am not interested in endorsing the overuse of titles. When we get to heaven there will be little need for titles there, so I don’t believe we should spend much of our time clinging to earthly titles here. That is why this is a blog post and not a book. However, we need to give honor where honor is due, while at the same time exposing some of the subtle sins of pride, arrogance and misrepresentation of the Lord.

In this brief treatise, we will look at this misunderstanding practically and biblically. We will also explore some of the root causes for this misuse of the word so that we will know how to handle the next person who makes this proclamation.

The problem in misusing this word is that there is a dumbing down of what it means to be a missionary. Just because you give someone an aspirin for their headache doesn’t make you a doctor. Nor are you a talent scout when you shout criticism at Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers starting pitcher) during a ballgame.  Why would we call someone a missionary who simply shares their faith with a neighbor or co-worker or maybe does a little ministry on the side? It’s like saying I am a car just because I am hanging out in my garage.

The truth is, all Christians should be actively sharing their faith and serving people in the communities, workplaces and in their church. Scripture says that God called “some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists and some to be pastors and teachers…” Therefore, we see that there are a variety of different roles, and yes, even titles, for people to fulfill within the body of Christ. As we will see later, the title of ‘missionary’ developed later in the progression of the church to fulfill a specific need and task, just like the roles of evangelists, pastors and teachers.

The term ‘mission’ is not found in scripture, yet its’ concept permeates both the Old and the New Testament. The Latin word missionem/ mittere means “The act of sending” and was first used to describe Christian activity in 1598 when the Jesuits sent members abroad to set up centers for Christian work in other cultures. The word missionary, therefore comes from this root as “one who is sent”.

Mission is a task on which God sends a person whom He has called to introduce another group of people to salvation in Christ. The word missionary describes the person who is sent, and the mission of the church is to send missionaries into all parts of the world until everyone has the opportunity to hear and respond to the message of Jesus.

In the Old Testament, there are a few examples of ‘missionaries’ whom God sends personally:
  • Abraham  – to be a blessing to all the families on the earth
  • Jeremiah – to be a prophet to all nations
  • Jonah – sent to call the people of Nineveh to repentance

Aside from these rare Old Testament figures, Isaiah instructed Israel to be a ‘Light to the Gentiles’. This means that the primary vision was that the world was expected to ‘come’ to Israel to receive salvation, but Israel was not necessarily sent to the world. They were to serve as an example for all to “come and see.”

In the New Testament, a new mission is birthed where God sets up the first “sending agency” known as the Church which replaces the nation of Israel as the keeper and protector and proclaimer of the gospel. He gives this entity a mandate to do four things:
  1. go into all the world
  2. make disciples
  3. baptize the followers of Jesus
  4. teach the gospel (commandments, repentance and forgiveness of sins)

The change is made from a “come and see” salvation to a “go and tell” proclamation of redemption and forgiveness of sins. This great commission mandate is not optional and was our last instructions from the Lord Jesus. He also made a promise that He would be with the church until the end of the age.

Paul and Barnabas are prime examples of missionaries that were called by God and sent out by the Church in Antioch. We see in Acts 13 that God spoke through the Holy Spirit to the church leaders concerning Paul, “’Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’. Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

Three things from this passage that are critical in our understanding of what constitutes a missionary calling. First, the missionaries were called by God to a particular task. In this case, they were called to preach to the gentiles. Second, God confirmed this calling to the church leaders. This sending entity, the church, heard from the Lord directly and was instructed by God to set them apart for the task. Thirdly, the church responded by ceremonially “commissioning” them by fasting, praying, laying on of hands, and then sending them off. These four elements can be further elaborated upon by looking at what they represent within the body of believers:

1.     Fasting– A physical demonstration of support that likely lasted for more than just one day. This means that the decision to support Paul and Barnabas was not an immediate response, and it came with serious thought and consideration of all the implications associated with sending someone to another culture.

2.     Praying– A spiritual demonstration both corporately and privately to discern the will of God in this decision. Prayer meant that the church leaders did not just engage their intellect, but they surrendered to wisdom that does not come from an earthly way of thinking.

3.     Laying on of hands – This is more than just a show of support or a gesture of alliance. This was a sign of unity in body, mind and spirit. The church leaders were communicating to those who were being sent that “we are a part of you, and you are a part of us”. Commissioning of missionaries is similar to ordination of pastors in that there is a long lineage of those who have gone before us. This is a passing of the mantle of church leadership to a new generation, which has been passed down for many years. They are communicating that their new task is an extension of our corporate mandate as a church.

4.     Sending them off – A tangible demonstration of support whereby we can only assume what took place. These missionaries were getting on a boat and heading for a distant land. The church likely took an offering and collected supplies that were necessary for such a journey, and then threw a farewell party. Continuing with conjecture, we can assume that people who had previously traveled to these places spent time with Paul and Barnabas to help them prepare for a change of culture.  Others agreed to take care of family members, belongings and other matters of home.

We should begin to see that this is a serious endeavor that required much thought, prayer, support, recognition and endorsement by more than just the individual doing something across town.

Missionaries are called to go to difficult places, exchanging what they know for something they do not know. They cross barriers: national boarders, cultural differences, languages procurement and even socio-economic variations. They study for years and acquire experience that qualifies them for a certain specific type of work. They have to learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, sell their belongings and move their family to places that are often hostile to their presence. Sacrifice is the predominant trait because many times their families suffer as a result of their calling. American missionaries often have children who leave the sterile secure learning environment of their western schools for substandard schools in the majority world. Aging parents are sometimes left back home in need of care, but the missionary is far from home. Home visits are infrequent and generally are not a vacation, but what is now being called “home assignment” where the agency expects them to be on speaking tours to inform supporters of their activities.

When on the field, they are held accountable for their actions by the church and their agency. They set goals which are measurable and are evaluated for their effectiveness. They are grouped into teams for support and encouragement. This is more than just being Christ’s representative. They have assignments, tasks, duties, and a “MISSION” for which they are responsible.”

For someone to say that “we are all missionaries” is to bring disrespect to the memory of Tom, an American Doctor who served for 30 years in Afghanistan and lost his life when a group of Taliban hijacked his convoy heading out to treat patients in a remote village in 2010. His wife Libby still lives there and brings hope and true, honest and heart wrenching forgiveness to people who are far from God.  

Who can compare themselves to Jim, who surrendered his life on Palm Beach in the jungles of Ecuador in 1956. And even more so, can there be such a thing as a ‘local missionary’ when compared to Jim’s wife Elizabeth who decided to stay and work toward reconciliation with the natives that took her husband’s life, so that they could receive the gospel?

What about Hudson Taylor, David Livingston, William Carey and all the early missionaries who packed their belongings in their coffin because they were leaving on a steamer to travel for weeks and even months to arrive at their final destinations. They knew that they would not be coming back home, but for the sake of the gospel, they endured much hardships, so that Jesus could be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. When someone says “we are all missionaries”, do you see this kind of sacrifice in their lives?

Today, missionaries spend much of their time trying to get visas for their ministry post. Many modern missionaries don’t go to school for Bible degrees, but they study for a trade that will earn them business visas to Restricted Access Nations (RANs). There is an intentionality present in real Missionaries, because they know God has called them to do something very special. Something that is different from most other people. Yes, I believe that all Christians are called to do ‘ministry’, but not all are called to be ‘missionaries’. Ministry is done locally in our Jerusalem and Judea. Mission is done globally in our Samaria and to the ends of the earth (see Acts 1:8).

There are a few who have tried to bridge this gap with words that may be acceptable for what someone does with their neighbors who are a little different than oneself: ‘Commissionaries’ is becoming more popular these days (see article in the April 2013 edition of Evangelical Mission Quarterly titled: “Are we all Missionaries?”)

To help define what a missionary is not, here are some personal examples from my life. My neighbor comes from Mexico and speaks Spanish. I do not speak Spanish, but I have built a friendly relationship with him so that I may have the opportunity to share Christ with him through a translator. I am not a missionary, but just a caring Christian neighbor. I also travel all over the world for two week trips to visit missionaries on the field. Here again, I am not a missionary, but a pastoral coach providing for the needs of missionaries. In our church, I serve as the director of an after-school center in a high-crime, low-income neighborhood full of people with different ethnicities and languages on the other side of town. When I am there, I am not a missionary, but a pastor to kids and families without a home church.

The word Missionary is so easily abused for many of the wrong reasons: Pride, arrogance, profit, naïveté, ignorance. Sometimes it is for financial gain. We all know that if it is for missions, people will be more likely to give money toward the fund. Some people just want recognition or notoriety – A baptized form of Christian pride. And for some, it is just out of plain ignorance. Very few people sit down and consider their words and the effects they may have.

A good evangelical will understand the concept of ‘the priesthood of the believer’ – that every Christ follower has been called by God to be ‘a witness’. The Lord has also empowered each believer with the Holy Spirit. In fact, the early disciples were not to go out into the world until the Holy Spirit had come upon them in Acts 1:8. Some were called to go and do mission, some were called to stay and do ministry but all were called to ‘witness’.

Let’s be satisfied with the distinction between “Ministry” and “Mission” and not try to exalt one over the other. Seek to give honor to whom honor is due.

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