Is everyone a missionary?

Goer -- another word for "missionary"

Ideas shaping world mission outreach today: Mission briefing

People today use the word "missionary" in at least four ways:

  1. As a description for all Christians
  2. As a label for people doing any kind of ministry anywhere
  3. As a specialized category for anyone with cross-cultural ministry experience, whether that be long-term or for only a few days.
  4. As a title for those specifically called and gifted for long-term cross-cultural ministry.

So, which option is better? And, is there a reason to prefer one option over another?

I favor the fourth option. That usage fits best with how believers are described in Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Corinthians 12. Those three passages compare the Church to a living organism. Like a flesh-and-blood body, Christ's Church is composed of many members, each of which has an important role to play for the organism.

Noting that a body could not function if it were made up only of eyes or ears, Paul wrote that the Church would likewise be dysfunctional if all believers tried to do the same job. In this regard, Paul asked some rhetorical questions: "Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?" Paul obviously expected a "no" to those three questions asked in 1 Corinthians 12.

To be sure, the word "missionary" is not found in that passage. One reason is that "missionary" is rooted in Latin, a language that only came to be widely used years and years after New Testament times. Notwithstanding, Paul's metaphor of a body is very relevant to how we use "missionary." Beginning with Paul and Barnabas, the Church has recognized that God calls and equips specific people to spend their lives crossing geographic, cultural, and language divides in order to foster church-planting movements. Those go-ers are the people for whom the word "missionary" was coined in the 1600s.

Broadening the meaning of "missionary" from its original usage is done with good intentions. However, it has infused lukewarm believers with urgency and a sense of purpose. On the other hand, staying with the original narrow usage of "missionary" does aid the Church by:

  1. Reminding us of the need to be intentional about taking the church to "where it is not yet" (as opposed to having people say, "We're doing all God expects of us if we are missionaries in our own neighborhoods").
  2. Embracing the image of the church as a body made up of members with different functions, one of which is following a divine call to take the Gospel across cultural, language and geographic boundaries to "where the church is not yet.".
  3. Recognizing that God doesn't expect everyone to pack their bags and grab an international flight. Some will be "go-ers." Others will be their "senders." That reflects the meaning and nuances of the word "missionary" as it was initially coined.

Postscript: Reserving the title "missionary" for those doing a specific kind of ministry rather than applying it more broadly does not excuse any believer from being passionately involved through prayer, giving, mobilizing, or even going in BOTH near-neighbor outreach AND ends-of-the-earth evangelism

Reflection questions

  1. Should every Christian be given the title "missionary"?
  2. What are the potential benefits of reserving the title "missionary" for those sent to do ends-of-the-earth outreach ministry rather than applying it more broadly to every believer?
  3. How would reserving the label "missionary" for those sent across cultural and geographic boundaries relate to the Church's description in Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Corinthians 12?
  4. How might reserving the title "missionary" for those going to people who have not yet heard the Gospel keep that part of the Church's mission before believers? What role do "go-ers" and "senders" play in fulfilling this mission together?

This mini-essay on a critical issue in world missions outreach was an article in the "Mission briefing" series published in Engage magazine.

"While growing up, my immediate community was often referred to as my 'local mission field.' While some aspects of this are true, and we all have a calling and responsibility to share the Gospel wherever we are, calling all local communities 'mission fields' greatly lessens the significance of what global missionaries do. They give up the comforts of their familiar cultures, cross various cultural boundaries, endeavor to learn a new language, and sometimes even place themselves in harm's way for the sake of the Gospel." Adam Deckard, youth pastor

Today, more people are without access to the gospel than when Paul began his missionary journeys.

Please quit re-defining my title

I am a missionary, a career missionary for the Church of the Nazarene in Italy. And I am proud (sanctified proud, to be sure) of my ministry title, "missionary."

Some of you, however, keep messing around with my word. And that bothers me not just for my own sake, but also for what we might be doing to the worldwide mission of the church.

"Missionary" is a word that historically has been used to label a specific calling and package of gifts in the Body of Christ. It does not just mean isolated or difficult or even far away. Instead, "missionary" has to do with cross-cultural evangelism. It has to do with pioneer church planting in those thousands of cultures on our planet that have virtually no churches among them.

Sadly, a number of people who really ought to know better keep trying to transfer some of the imagined romance of missionary service to pastors as well as people serving in other ministry positions. That attempted transfer bothers me.

Undoubtedly, the word missionary has been too glorified in the past. And some pastors and other people ministering in challenging situations have received less than their due. But let's not dilute down and ruin a good word in our attempts just to even up the "glory."

I've also heard the word missionary applied to every Christian. And I must confess that as a college student, I even preached some sermons on that very theme. But that was wrong. Not every Christian is involved in cross-cultural evangelism or in pioneer church planting. According to Acts 1:8, every Christian is, or should be, a witness, but not necessarily a missionary.

Most believers wouldn't function well in a cross-cultural situation that would force them to live with and minister to people whose culture and even language was radically different from their own. Just as not every Christian is a pastor, an evangelist, or even a teacher, so not every Christian is a missionary! No adequate analysis of the functioning of the Body of Christ will allow for that broad a definition of the word "missionary." Using the somewhat exotic label of missionary to motivate Christians to be effective witnesses is a mistake.

All of this is not to say we don't need more missionaries. We do. Lots of them. Our own Nazarene missionary force needs to be significantly increased beyond the numerical plateau where it has been for the last several decades.

While modern missions have had astounding success, there are still huge groups of people without the gospel of Christ. Even though it may seem strange, the truth is that more people today are unreached by the gospel than when Paul began his missionary journeys around the northern shores of the Mediterranean.

Most of these people will never be touched by the evangelistic efforts of currently-established local churches. The truth is that even if every Christian in the world were to win their near-neighbors to Christ, there would still be over 2 billion non-Christians left. Why? Those 2 billion people are hidden behind the closed doors of culture, where only Holy Spirit-called-and-gifted missionaries using missionary methods can reach them. That's a third of the world who may never know about the hope of the gospel.

So, please leave my word alone. Missionary is a valid, specific calling in the church, not an umbrella term to be applied to all Christians or even to anyone serving in a ministry position. The missionary concept is the church's way of ensuring that we're concerned not only about our near-neighbors but also about those 2 billion people locked behind complex cultural barriers, people among whom viable church-planting movements must still be started!

Written while Barbara and I were serving as Nazarene missionaries in Italy, this article was published in Preacher's Magazine

    -- Howard Culbertson,

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