I have struggled with a good job description for a missionary. Some descriptions appear to me to be entirely inadequate, or even counter-productive.
- Missionaries are cross-cultural ministers. This is a common descriptor. There are three major problems with this one for me. First, it doesn’t pass the “Paul and Barnabas Test.” We often think of Paul and Barnabas as quintessential missionaries. However, Barnabas was a Hellenistic Jew from Cyprus, and Paul was a Hellenistic Jew from Asia Minor. Where did they go on their one joint mission trip? To Hellenistic Jews and Hellenistic Gentiles in Cyprus and Asia Minor. If a descriptor does not include them, it hardly seems a good descriptor. Second, the functions associated with missionaries, such as church-planting and evangelizing under-reached people groups in local or diaspora settings, often are the same as truly cross-cultural ministry. To take these types of pioneering work outside of the field of missions research and education seems… fickle. Third, the closest term in the New Testament to the term today of “Missionary” is “Apostle.” Apostles appeared to be ministers who were called as “sent out ones” from the church to reach those outside of the church and establish new churches. I can see value for the term “missionary” to be broader today than the term “apostle” since the church has broadened in 2000 years. However, I struggle to see value in narrowing the term. Apostles were clearly not always cross-cultural. Peter was, after all, described as an Apostle to the Jews.
- Missionaries are full-time and fully financed. The same problems exist here as for the term “cross-cultural.” Paul and Barnabas were neither full-time nor fully financed. Both supplemented income with non-ministerial work. Both stepped back from churchplanting for periods of time. The skill sets for part-time or bivocational missions workers are pretty much the same as full-time and fully financed, so taking these ministries outside of the study of Missions research and education appears to me to be unjustified. And again, apostles in the New Testament seemed to have a pragmatic fluidity as far as support and schedule, so it is hard to see why the term missionary should be more limiting.
While I see value in the Missionary process described by four Ps (pioneer, parent, partner, participant), I still prefer to go with descriptors in terms of three relationships with the church:
Relationship A: Where the Church IS NOT. Where there is no viable church, missionaries work to establish churches. Ideally, this is temporary in a specific location.
Relationship B: Where the Church HAS NOT. Where there is a viable church, but one that is not yet competent, or not yet motivated, to carry out some of its functions, missionaries can come along side at motivate, train, and empower the church. Ideally, this is also temporary in a specific location, unless of course the missionary serves in a specific location, and church ministers come to them for training and empowerment.
Relationship C: Where the Church CANNOT. Even viable and skilled churches may lack certain functionality for ministries that need to be handled by missionaries for an extended period of time. Hospitals, Christian radio, translation and publishing, may be outside of the skill set or financial capacity of local churches for an extended period of time. This still should not be forever, but missionaries may be needed to serve in a specific location and ministry on a long-term basis.
These descriptors seem fairly useful.
- They are consistent with Paul and Barnabas’ ministry on their first missionary trip of church-planting. But they are also consistent with the stated purpose of the second missionary trip of Paul: “Let’s go back and visit the brothers in every town where we have preached the message of the Lord and see how they’re doing.” (Acts 15:36). It would also make the epistles of Paul an important aspect of his mission work.
- The three descriptors would also draw together various forms of research and education that cover evangelism, churchplanting, and church empowerment (especially as an “outsider”).
- They would include the functions of the New Testament apostle. The descriptors may be broader than our understanding of the term in the New Testament, but it does not exclude the functions of an apostle. (Note: I am describing the term “apostle” as used in the 1st century church, not the second century, and CERTAINLY not the way it is used today by “apostolic” Protestant churches.)
There is a fourth item as well. These descriptors would strongly embrace both Diaspora and “Reverse” missions. Since there are many unreached groups in traditionally mission-sending countries, missionaries to these countries are very justifiable. In a very realistic sense, there is much work in the US, Canada, Europe, and more– where the church “Is Not.” Additionally, many churches in traditionally “Christian” nations are unable or unwilling to carry out ministries. As such, missionaries from other areas are quite justified to come in and work with churches that “CANNOT” or “HAVE NOT.”