The following are exerpts from my response to a discussion in my missions class on the definition of “missionary”:
Let me offer a few thoughts on the matter that, for purposes of discussion, will be labeled as “my opinion” :-)
1. While I do not call every Christian a missionary, the motivation for doing so is admirable. The point most are trying to make is that the Great Commission is for all believers and that evangelism is the job not just of the hired guns, but of every believer. Christians need to be motivated to share their faith to the world around them and the church should in fact be a sending agency (Rom 10:15) whether the place they are being sent is next door or across the globe. Many people do not like the distinction missiologists make [e.g., Olsen, What in the World is God Doing, 9-13] because they do not want to diminish the calling of every Christian to spread the gospel wherever they are.
2. At the same time, definitions are important. We use words to communicate and it is important that everyone understands what we mean by what we say. Precise words are often needed to distinguish between one category and another. One case is that of “missions” vs. “mission.” A generation ago, this distinction became extremely important as Christians debated just what was the primary task of Christians around the world. In a nutshell, the distinction needed to be made between the primary task of evangelism and church planting and every other good thing that Christians should do (feeding the hungry, medical care, social justice, etc.). As one theologian noted in the midst of that debate, “if everything is mission, then nothing is mission.” Words and their meanings matter.
Most of our discussion on this topic has been over the definition of “missionary” and whether every person should be one. While I do not think the use of the term is a major issue worth fighting over, I offer a few points for your consideration:
a. Since the word “missionary” is nowhere in the Bible, a precise definition is not a matter of biblical fidelity. Likewise, we are free to delimit our understanding of the word and its use. In doing so, we do not undermine the Great Commission, the responsibility of every Christian to be a witness wherever they are, or the tremendous need for the gospel here at home (cf. Acts 1:8).
b. In my opinion, I believe it is indeed helpful to narrow the use of the term missionary because, although there may be no difference in importance, there is a definite difference in expectation in what a missionary does. Among other things, missionaries typically must: leave their home and extended family, move to a distant location, learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, study the new culture in order to communicate the gospel effectively, change his or her diet, etc., etc. The call to be a missionary, then, is quite different from the call to witness to a neighbor or be a light in the workplace. Having a distinct and separate term helps us to define the specific task of leaving, crossing cultures, planting churches, and reaching the unreached peoples of the world with the gospel.
c. We have other terminology that is adequate to describe the task/role of every believer. Every believer is to be a witness (Acts 1:8). Every Christian should be active in evangelism (2 Tim 4:4). What is the purpose served in calling everyone a missionary? Using the term does not change our responsibility to spread the gospel wherever we are. It may be that by calling everyone a missionary we may inadvertently discourage missions. While highlighting the responsibility of every believer to share the message of Christ with those around them, we may blind ourselves to the great need in other parts of the world. By reserving the term for those who go to another place and/or cross cultures, we remind Christians of the billions of people in the world who have yet to hear the good news. We highlight the fact that while in
3. Of course, the discussion can get even more precise. Even when we agree that the term “missionary” should be reserved for a particular type of ministry, what are the elements that define the term. There are still a few areas that my colleagues debate. For example, how far does one have to go; How much of a cultural barrier does one have to cross before they are in fact doing missions? I am a church planter. If I plant a church in my home town, am I a missionary? What about the next town?
Summary: In my opinion, we must strike a balance between the academic need to be precise in our language and the pastoral need to challenge our churches with the commission of Christ. The important point is to be sure that we are actively participating in God’s global mission—both here at home and around the world. Words are merely tools to help us communicate specific concepts. Whatever terminology we use, let us be sure that we are obedient to Jesus’ command to “go into all the world” with the gospel of redemption.