What is a Missionary?

For whatever reason, the definition of “missionary” has been coming up often of late. And I have a problem with the common definition.

You see, I’ve been called to serve as a missionary to my own hometown. It wasn’t my first choice. My first choice was overseas…Africa or India. But God called me to Spokane. I speak the language. I “get” the culture. I’m an “insider”…not an “outsider.” I grew up here. Which means, according to the popular definition of missionary today, I am not a missionary. I raise support, just like a missionary serving overseas. I live by faith, just like a missionary living overseas. I’ve left behind worldly possessions and my dream career to devote my life to serving others, just like some missionaries serving overseas. But, according to the definition I’ve been hearing lately, I’m not a missionary.  Because “missionary” is defined as someone who goes to a different culture and learns a different language.

Does that mean that Americans don’t need missionaries? I’m pretty sure we can all agree that isn’t true. Then does it mean only people from other countries and cultures should tell Americans about Jesus? I’m pretty sure we can agree that isn’t true, either.  Actually, if you want to get really particular, the popular definition would exclude the Apostle Paul from being considered a missionary.

Yes, Paul was sent as a missionary to the Gentiles. But Paul was a Roman citizen…by birth. That means he had a fairly high level of familiarity with the Roman culture. And, he was a native speaker of at least three languages; Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. So, it is a pretty good guess he spoke a language that could be understood by most of the people he was ministering to and vice versa. He traveled to most of the known world in the First Century, but it was known because it was part of the Roman Empire. It was more like traveling between states in the US than it was traveling between nations in Europe, the Middle East, or parts of Asia.

Another complaint I have about defining a missionary as someone who goes to a different culture and learns a different language has to do with strategy. The goal of Cru (the ministry I serve with) has been to find “insiders” or “people of peace” to help open doors for building a movement, whether on a college campus, in the city, or on a foreign field. The ultimate goal is not only to find “insiders” but also to raise up national leaders, because it is more effective. In the end, the goal is to fulfill the Great Commission, maybe even in our generation, isn’t it? If this is true, we want to invest our time as wisely as possible, don’t you agree? Which begs the question; who would you want to invest in? Someone who knows the language and culture so he can begin ministering right away? Or someone who needs several years of language and culture training before they can begin sharing about Jesus.

Even more frustrating to me than the issue of strategy, however, is one of discrimination. This may be difficult to articulate, but the basic gist is this: defining missionaries as “outsiders” who travel to foreign cultures and learn new languages suggests that nationals need outsiders to lead them to Jesus. The “foreign missionaries” are the leaders and the nationals are the followers; a very top-down, authoritarian perspective. While the shortsightedness of such a philosophy has been demonstrated in the family and in business, we somehow miss the reality of it in the Church, and especially in missions. Missionaries can serve in a village or people group for decades, learning the culture, learning the language, translating the Bible, and establishing a Christian subculture. And leading. For decades. Without equipping the nationals to lead their own people spiritually, when that foreign missionary leaves or dies or is gone for whatever reason, the people are incredibly vulnerable. I spent time on a foreign mission base with an organization who set up shop on the campus of another denomination that had left for some reason. The people knew about Jesus, and could repeat the lessons they’d been taught. But in the vacuum of leadership left when the first denomination pulled out, the people had concocted a creative brew of Christianity and animism that left many in the village spiritually dead. It didn’t need to be that way. Indeed, it shouldn’t be that way.

The reason I’ve heard for narrowing the definition of a missionary is because not everyone who follows Jesus can or should be called a missionary. I agree with that. Some are called to service in missions or full-time Christian service. Others are not. Some are called to be teachers, or preachers, or evangelists. Those who are called can be set apart like Paul was; chosen to bring the Gospel to a particular people group or region, whether called to the marketplace, the classroom, the boardroom, or somewhere more exciting and spiritually “romantic” like the jungles or desserts of Africa. And that is where the definition should end. Narrowing it down to only include those who go to a different country and learn a different language excludes many who have been set apart and sent out. It hinders the effort to fulfill the Great Commission, in our generation or otherwise, on a number of levels.

If you want to understand more about why I think our efforts to fulfill the Great Commission are hindered by a narrow definition of who is a missionary, check back often. I have a great deal to share on this topic…

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