I spent 10 years in Hungary as a missionary. I had a visa and several legal papers for my residence there which stated on them that I was a missionary. Furthermore, I was sent out and supported by a number of churches who supported as a missionary.
This having been the case, I have put a lot of thought over the years into what it is that makes someone a “missionary”.
I remember working alongside Hungarians in Hungary, doing the same work – and yet I carried the title of missionary, and they were just Christians who were serving the Lord. Every now and then, some of them would say that they too were missionaries then, since they were doing the same work. But what about the other Christians in Hungary who were not with our organization, who did similar work? Were they also missionaries? They didn’t seem to covet that title, but were content to consider their service simply completely normal Christian behavior. Some Hungarians we worked with received financial support from churches in the West so that they could serve full time at a church. Did that make them missionaries, even though they were serving in their home country or culture?
Some missions organizations use the term “native missionaries” and raise funds in wealthier countries to support national workers who already know the culture and language of a place. The idea is that with the proper training and some financial support to free them up to do the work, these local Christian workers will be able to reach the places where they live more effectively than foreign missionaries. This is especially popular in countries which do not give visas to foreign missionaries. Is the word “missionary” appropriate in this case?
What makes someone a missionary?
One time when my wife and I had come back from Hungary to visit family and supporters, we were in Carlsbad, CA, and at the beach some young people, probably in their early 20’s, approached us and started talking about Jesus. They were evangelizing – and when we told them we were Christians, they told us that they had come from somewhere in the Midwest as missionaries to California. They hadn’t been sent by any church community, but believed they were called and so they had come. Does that make you a missionary?
When I moved to Longmont I knew some people who said that they were missionaries to Longmont, and raised support for their living expenses and various ministry endeavors, so that they could be free to pursue these things full-time. These particular people had grown up in Longmont and felt called to serve God in their hometown.
What makes someone a missionary?
Something that has often been proclaimed in evangelical circles is that all Christians are called to be “missionaries” and that the work of missionaries is not something which only needs to happen in far off places with developing economies, there is need for evangelism and outreach in wealthy countries, including the United States as well. One bookmark I saw said: “You don’t have to cross the ocean to be a missionary, you just have to cross the street.”
So what are we to make of all of this? What makes someone a missionary?
A little etymology helps to sort things out:
Missio = send. Thus, to be a missionary is to be someone who is sent.
There is a sense in which all Christians have been sent by Jesus to carry out his mission, which he received from the Father, in his mission field, which is the entire world.
“”For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV
“As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” – John 17:18 ESV
“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” – John 20:21 ESV
However, some are sent and supported by a local body of believers, led by a sense of calling from God, like Paul and Barnabas in Acts ch 13. It is clear from the Book of Acts, that Paul had an ongoing relationship with his “sending church” in Antioch, returning there after each of his missionary journeys. It seems there there was an accountability, and probably some degree of financial support from the church there which had sent Paul out.
Here’s how I sort it out: All Christians are called by be “on mission” with God, in his mission field, which is the entire world. In fact, to be on mission is an essential and inherent part of what it means to be a Christian. Therefore, it should be normal for all Christians to do the work of a missionary wherever they live, whether it is their home or not. This is the NORMAL Christian life.
And yet, I feel that we should preserve the significance of the word “missionary” for those who are sent out on a mission by a local body of believers to another place, following the leading of God. There is a way in which to use the word missionary to loosely diminishes the sacrifices and the unique challenges faced by those who leave home and country and follow God’s leading to go to another place, having had a local body of believers confirm this by sending them out. Similarly, there is a way in which the concept of the priesthood of all believers can be taken to a degree which detracts from the significance of a calling to be a pastoral overseer. While we are all called to minister and we are all called to be on mission, these titles point to particular roles.
There is an interesting place in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, where Paul tells Timothy: “Do the work of an evangelist.” (2 Timothy 4:5) Paul, in Ephesians 4, mentions the “office” or official role in the church of “evangelist” – in other words, it seems that there were some people in the church who had this title. However, it would seem that even though this was not Timothy’s official title or role, Paul was encouraging him to do the work of an evangelist nonetheless.
I believe the same applies in regard to the discussion of the term “missionary” or “pastor”. If you are a Christian, you may not be an officially sanctioned “missionary” – but you are called to do the work of a missionary nevertheless! You may not be a pastor, but you are still called to do the work of a pastor in your interactions with other people.