A few weeks back a friend of mine was writing a thesis and asked me for a good definition for the word “missionary.”
I struggled with this because I have my own understanding of what a missionary is, but it does not have a short definition, and it lacks the precision that would be preferable for a “Definition of Terms” section of a thesis. So I started going through all of my notes from the Missions classes I teach and realized that I never had written down a definition for missionary beyond my own conception of the term.
Part of the problem is that I really don’t care for the common understandings of the term. Here are a few, including my own.
- Dictionary definition. (Merriam Webster). “a person who is sent to a foreign country to do religious work (such as to convince people to join a religion or to help people who are sick, poor, etc.)” This is not that bad of a definition, except, of course, it crosses off a huge percentage of people who identify themselves as missionaries, as well as who we so consider. For example, Paul, Barnabbas, Philip, Silas, and others never, as far as we know, left their own country (the Roman Empire) to do mission work. India has a huge number of in-country missionaries, Indians reaching out to unreached people groups in India. For me, a good definition for missionary should pass the “Paul and Barnabas Test.” If they don’t fit the particular definition for missionary, it has problems.
- Ralph Winter described missionaries in terms of work that is cross-cultural. His focus was on “frontier missions,” proclaiming Christ where Christ is not known or at least indigenized. He lamented the broadness of the definition of missions by some that led to almost all activities of the church outside of itself being called “missions.” Again, my problem is that it does not pass the “Paul and Barnabbas Test.” Barnabbas was a Hellenized Jew, living among Hellenized Gentiles, from Cyprus. Paul was a Hellenized Jew, living among Hellenized Gentiles, from Asia Minor. When they went out on their First Missionary Journey, where did they go? First to Hellenized Jews in Cyprus followed by Hellenized Gentiles in Cyprus. Then they went to Hellenized Jews in Asia Minor followed by Hellenized Gentiles in Asia Minor. Any definition that excludes Paul and Barnabbas seems problematic to me. Additionally, this strong demarcation between church and traditional mission work has led to some mistaken views, I believe. One I will mention is the concept of the “Missionary Call” being somehow separate from the more general call of Christ to all to serve Him. It may seem to make sense, but, frankly, Paul and Barnabas were called to go out of the church based on the church of Antioch. Remember, God did not call the two to go on Mission. God called the church, and the church called Paul and Barnabas. Of course, you can add Peter Wagner to the confusion, who further separates out the Missionary Call, and the “Apostolic Call.” His logic falls apart, however, if one doesn’t accept Ralph Winter’s concept for missionary.
- Early Church. The early church appears to have described missionaries with the title “apostle”… one who is sent out. Far more than “The Twelve” were described as apostles. Even Jesus was called an apostle. The Didache further gives information on apostles (“sent out ones”). They appear to be people sent out of the church to minister. Although they were welcome to visit established churches, such visits should be brief since their work is elsewhere. Not a bad view. However, the related term “apostle” was butchered in subsequent centuries when it became associated with governorship of the church (a strange thing indeed), “apostolic succession”, and most recently in some denominations as part of church hierarchies (almost the opposite of the original idea). The problem with this definition is not so much the concept of missionary described, but the confusing baggage associated with the word “apostle.”
- My Definition. I don’t like identifying the term missionary with culture or nation, since that seems a bit artificial. To pass the Paul and Barnabas Test, I focus on the idea of its relationship to the existing local church. First, churches have three basic ministries: Member Care, (local) Church Growth, and Missions. Missions is Kingdom Expansion even if it does not lead to the growth of the ministering local church. So any work that a local church does outside of itself to grow the Kingdom that is not done specifically to grow itself, can be seen as Missions. A missionary would be one who primarily ministers in this capacity. But there is a problem with this definition as well. The big problem is that almost anyone can be called a missionary, and almost anything called be called missions. I personally don’t have a problem with this, and hope it compensates for problematic tendencies of some to “over-professionalize” and “over-theologize” the concepts of Christian missions and missionaries. However, there are roles in God’s Kingdom that are rather unique, going to other cultures to plant church or be involved in Helps ministries— acting where the Church Is Not, the Church Has Not, or where the Church Cannot. It is useful to have a term that describes this type of ministry and this type of ministry participant. So although I personally like my view of missions and missionaries… I recognize that it does not satisfy people who like definitions.But it, at least, passes the Paul and Barnabas Test.
- Donald McGavran. The definition I eventually gave my friend is the one from Donald McGavran: “A missionary is a Christian of any culture or nation who is sent, across cultural and linguistic frontiers (where there is no curch), to win men to Christ and incorporate them in Christian churches.” This is an extremely narrow definition and has the inherent weakness as such (including not passing the Paul and Barnabas Test). But it does at least describe, intelligently, what people picture when they think of the term “missionary.” Perhaps it would be wise here to separate, as Ralph Winter did, between Regular Missions (and thus “Regular Missionaries”) and Frontier Missions (and “Frontier Missionaries”). As such, McGavran’s definition is pretty good for a Frontier Missionary.
- Delos Miles. He describes four types of church growth: Internal Church Growth. This is church growth that does not demonstrate itself in numbers. Expansion Church Growth. This is church growth of the local church through conversion. Extension Church Growth. This is the local church planting daughter churches. Bridging Church Growth. This is classic missional expansion. A person who accepts the ministerial calling to the fourth type of growth (Bridging) could be described as a missionary. However, if one includes Extension church growth, one includes local missions, and absolutely passes the Paul and Barnabas Test. My only problem is that tying missions only to church growth may be inadequate. For a Christian minister who cares for children by running an orphanage in a foreign country I believe should be seen as a missionary. Placing a strong demarcation between “spiritual” ministry and “social” ministry is, in my mind, a failed experiment. Liberal Christians extolled social ministry to the neglect of spiritual outreach. Conservative Christians focused on spiritual outreach to the neglect of social care and justice. Both groups harmed Christian ministry in the process, I believe.
Maybe it is okay not to have a careful definition. A little murkiness is okay, sometimes. I used to be an engineer… and extremely broad term. I liked to think of an engineer as someone who professionally did some aspect of engineering. That is pretty broad and pretty vague, but it does fit reality pretty well. Reality can be a bit vague or murky, so it is okay if our definitions are too sometimes.