I have already said some things that I think do NOT define a missionary. I don’t think professional status defines a missionary. I do not think working cross-culturally is a necessary condition as well. Neither do I see the popular Christian understanding of being “Called” as tied of necessity to being a missionary.
I pointed out that a broad definition for missionary is preferable by me since exclusivist terms often drive a wedge in ministry that need not be there. However, there are some people who abuse the term “missionary” to the point that one should either throw away the term or create solid limits.
I would suggest a few (somewhat vague) qualities that should define a missionary.
1. Personal Qualities. Passion, Willingness, and Flexibility. A missionary must have a passion to serve God outside of the home church setting. A missionary must be willing act on God’s call (whether it is a general call or a personal call) to go wherever Christ would have them go. A missionary must have the flexibility to deal with different and changing cultural and ministerial situations.
2. Theological Qualities. A missionary must be orthodox in faith, Christ- centered, and people-focused.
For some, being orthodox in faith (as in correct doctrine) is obvious, while for some this seems silly. However, I am speaking from a Christian context… the original idea of missionary coming from the Latin “missio” or the Greek “apostolos”. The idea is in these terms is of being sent out. This suggests being sent out by the church and being sent out by God– and these drew from orthodox understandings of the church and God. So for me… a Buddhist can be a “Buddhist Missionary” or a Mormon can be a “Mormon Missionary”. But to be a “Missionary” one is serving within the context of the faith as given by Christ and passed onto the Apostles (the original missionaries).
Theologically speaking, a missionary must be Christ-centered. The Matthew version of the Great Commission states that the Apostles (and us ultimately) are to give the Good News of Christ, baptize them in the name of the Trinity, and guide people to obey Christ’s commands. The Acts 1 version of the Great Commission shows the main thrust is to be witnesses of Christ. The John version of the Great Commission points out that missionaries are sent out by Christ. A missionary who does not center his work on Christ and his charge to us… is not a missionary (once again as orthodox Christian missionary).
Missionaries must be people-focused. The Great Commandment makes it clear we are to Love God and Love Others. Missionaries must be interested and actively concerned about the physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being of those they work with and for.
Ministerially. I see three broad categories of ministry that apply to missionaries.
A. Where the Church Is Not. Here, missionaries evangelize, set up churches, and train leaders.
B. Where the Church Has Not. Some places churches exist but have not been involved in certain Christian ministries. Here missionaries can inspire, train, and empower.
C. Where the Church Cannot. Some ministries, like publishing, orphanage work, or radio ministry, may be outside the ability of local churches to support and run themselves. In these cases, missionaries may need to serve to fill the gap.
Two of these three things are transitional in nature. As the missionary plants a church and trains leaders, he should be preparing himself for departure. A missionary may train and empower churches and local organizations for new ministries. Once again, this should be transitional. Only in ministries where the local church/organizations cannot take over fully should missionaries serve long-term. (Of course, missionaries may transition from outsider/foreigner to insider/local… but this takes a conscious effort).