Defining “Christian Missions” and “Missionary”

It is strange that I have been involved with full-time Christian missions for 17 years and have been teaching Christian missions for 13 years and yet I have never found definitions for “Christian Missions” and “Missionary” that I like. Some are too narrow. For example, some definitions for missionary limit to those who are commissioned or ordained by a sending church or agency. For me that is a too… vocational… understanding of the term. Others think of missionary in terms of calling. That would be okay I suppose if everyone shared the same understanding of what calling means. (Hint here… there is NO common understanding of what it means to be called by God.) In terms of Christian missions, some definitions focus on churchplanting, or pioneering, or being international, or being ‘cross-cultural.’ Those definitions I think were always too narrow, but in this time of globalization, I think they have easily reached the point of being— well — pointless. Other definitions are so broad that every Christian is a missionary and everything the church does everywhere is Christian mission. I must admit that there is a part of me that likes broad definitions. However, there are distinct features of Christian missions and serving as a missionary that deserve their own labels and training and study. Watering terms down too much make them essentially meaningless. They become like what has been happening with the term “worship,” where in emphasizing that everything we say and do is worship, effectively, nothing is distinctly hallowed in terms of worship.

So I thought I would try to throw out a couple of definitions today.

Christian Missions is the intentional work of the church to go outside of its normal boundaries to join God’s work where the CHURCH IS NOT, where the CHURCH HAS NOT, or where the CHURCH CANNOT.

Yes, this definition is pretty broad still, but I think it has key elements.

  1. It is intentional work. This is service… the expenditure of time, energy, and effort.
  2. The focus of missions is on the church. In other words missions is defined in terms of the church rather than culture or national boundaries. In terms of organization, missions may be built within a sodality structure or a modality structure, but in terms of organism, it is about the church— the assembly of the faithful.
  3. It involves going outside of its normal boundaries. That means it reaches beyond its own membership, its own community, its own normal sphere of influence. It is a sending out and going out.
  4. It is joining God’s work. As the saying goes, God is at work (everywhere) and invites us (the church) to join Him in that work.
  5. It may be in terms of where the church is not— where churches don’t exist. It would involve evangelism, churchplanting, discipleship, and leader development. This is pioneering
  6. It may be in terms of where the church has not— churches may exist but are not functioning well in some ways. It involve inspiring and training churches, church organizations, and individuals. This is empowering
  7. It may be in terms of where the church cannot. Some places churches may lack the ability, long-term, to do certain types of ministry work. This may include such things medical care, missionary member care, Bible translation, or radio ministry. This is a work of specialization.

Missionaries are people who intentionally embrace their role in Christian missions and identify themselves in terms of that role.

This definition also sounds pretty vague, and is essentially meaningless if not tied to the definition for Christian missions. Additionally, the term notes:

  1. It is people. This is obvious but when we say that Christian missions is about ‘the church,’ there is a risk of it becoming abstract. Christian missions may be related to the church, but it is carried out by people… individually and corporately, joining God’s presence and efforts in the field.
  2. It is intentional. It is intentional in the sense that avoids the “everything you and I do is missions”-sense. Individuals identify that what they are doing is Christian missions as is defined earlier. As such it has the characteristics listed earlier.
  3. The individuals self-identify themselves as missionaries. In other words, if you don’t identify as a missionary, in a very key and important way you are NOT a missionary. In a broad sense this has to do with calling. I am not totally sure that every people in missions has to have received some big unambiguous Isaiah 6 sort of calling. But there should be some sort of recognition that they have joined a brotherhood and sisterhood that is unique in focus and role within the church.

Are these definitions perfect. Of course not. In fact, I am not even sure if I fit into the definition of missionary that I have written. Maybe it is better to describe myself as a “Cross-cultural Minister.” Regardless, I do think that the definitions at least establish a more real world foundation for discussion of these topics.

But I welcome suggestions for improvements.

My Strength is My Temptation– Part 2

I suppose the term “Strength” is a bit of a loaded term. Very commonly what one may consider a strength another could consider a weakness. A strong desire to lead or dominate can be seen as a strength. When we think of great leaders in history, we think of their drive to lead as part of what makes them great. However, many of those with a great desire to leader lack competence, or have an unhealthy faith in their own wisdom. On the other hand, those with a “need to lead” may be in a position that does not allow them to exercise that quality— the trait expressing itself in insubordination.

Additionally, one strength can create a weakness in another area. One of the greatest basketball players of all time was Michael Jordan. He was also very good in baseball, and solid in golf. Perhaps he could have been truly great in baseball or in golf if he had not focused on basketball. Of course to some extent work in one athletic sport can help with other sports… but such focus in one would likely prevent reaching one’s potential in another. Even further, I doubt Michael Jordan is strong in Nuclear Engineering or Missiology. It is not to suggest that he couldn’t be (he seems like a smart guy) but his intense focus on basketball and other athletic endeavors ensured he would not be great in those other areas.

So I have been undermining the idea of “Strength” as it pertains to qualities or abilities in people. But that is not really to focus of this post. The point I am working toward is that STRENGTH IS A PERSONAL PERCEPTION.

We each identify in ourselves certain qualities or abilities as strengths.

It is these perceptions that open up temptations. A person who believes that they could never cheat on their spouse is open to manipulation, and ultimately falling. The person less likely to cheat is one who knows that he or she can cheat and determines not to. That person is more likely to establish personal taboos and boundaries to prevent it. Con-men and demagogues give their message in the language that speaks to the perceptive strengths of the target population. For demagogues, commonly they say something to the effect that, “What you think about yourselves and your greatness is correct. But you are being held back by ______________ (government, class group, racial group, political group, etc.)”

It is okay to identify strengths in yourself. It is okay even to identify strengths incorrectly. What is dangerous is to identify strengths in oneself without realizing that this opens to door to temptation and manipulation.

In missions this can be a common and serious problem. Some missionaries have a “Messiah complex.” They see themselves as hyper-capable and others as hyper-needy. This can develop dependent relationships. And that is one of the ‘better’ results. More seriously, this missionary may see themselves as indispensible. Some missionaries identify themselves as great leaders. Many see others as “born followers” in turn. These missionaries may not prepare for their own retirement or mortality. They may not train others up. They set up their work for failure. Some may see themselves as great preachers or evangelizers. Yet, in most cases, locals are actually better at reaching their own people. Focusing on doing all the work themselves, missionaries can hamper their work.

I hope I have made the point. One’s strength is one’s temptation. The fix for that is not to self-deprecate— to reject the idea of personal strengths. Rather, it is to be self-aware of what one’s strengths and weaknesses actually are— and to realize the strengths in terms of potential weaknesses, limitations and the potential as a temptation or area of manipulation.

My Strength is My Temptation– Part 1

I guess it struck me when I was talking about Love Languages (Gary Chapman) with my Pastoral Care Students (or maybe my wife’s CPE trainees… I can’t remember for sure). As I was talking about the five love languages <Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Receiving Gifts, and Acts of Service>, I noted that each person responds positively to words or actions of another that lines up with one’s own affinity (love language). So, if my love language is “Acts of Service,” I am likely to respond positively to someone doing acts of service for me, and see such action as loving.

And that is good to know. To appear loving to someone else, I am most likely to be successful if I act in a way that aligns with their own love language, rather than my own personal love language. For me, I am a “Words of Affirmation” type. Although “Acts of Service” are nice, I don’t typically see them as acts of love. But if I want to show my love for a person whose love language is acts of service I must step out of my own affinities and adjust to that of the other. While Love Language is pretty simple, it can be pretty powerful in talking about relationships.

But there is a dark side to Love Languages. It also tells us how to manipulate others. If I know that someone’s love language is receiving gifts, I can use gifts to manipulate that person. The person is likely to see gifts given as a positive expression of lovingness– NOT as a selfish ploy to get my own way.

Of course, Strengths are subjective things. What one calls one’s strength, another might call one’s:

  • Need. This one is pretty obvious. Love language explicitly identifies itself neutrally— If one’s love language is “Quality Time,” it is a strength in that one is likely to be much better to demonstrate love through quality time over those of a different love language. However, since that is the love language one operates under, it is the demonstration of love that one desires/needs. A lot of other tests like this can be said to be similar. 9 Spiritual pathways expresses a strength in worship… but in so doing also expresses what one’s craves/needs. Murray’s Psychogenic Needs can also be described as personal strengths (or weaknesses… more on that later).
  • Treasure/Idol. Jesus stated that where our treasure is, there are heart is also. Strengths, needs, treasures, and idols then tend to be overlapping items. Christopher Wright speaks of idols as things we worship— that which inspires awe in us, that which we desire, that which we fear, and that which overcomes our fear.
  • Weakness. Strengths are our weaknesses? Well that is for Part 2.

In Part 2 is seeking to redefine strength and show how this relates to missions.

Missiology as an Academic Field of Study?

Missiology is a rather young field of study and there has been a question of whether it should be considered an academic study. And if it is an academic study, how should it relate to other academic disciplines. I get it. If one thinks about it, Missions sounds like a less than a real topic— perhaps  a closet in the house of Ecclesiology or Soteriology. Or maybe a religious wing to Sociology or Anthropology. I think, however, that we live in an era where interdisciplinary courses of study are given more respect, so perhaps the uncertain regarding Missiology is dated. Still, I think it is worth thinking about.

An interesting article is one by Peter F. Penner, “Missiology as a Theological and Academic Discipline.” (Theological Reflections Euro-Asian Journal of Theology, August 2018). Penner speaks of how Missions has often been built on a poor theological background (I think that is pretty well-known). He also pointed out that Missions has typically been built on a poor Biblical hermeneutic.  He notes what I have seen— the study of the “Biblical Basis of Missions” is commonly in no way about the basis of missions. Rather, missions already is identified and recognized as godly and good, and then people seek to find prooftexts and illustrationsin the Bible to support these views. He quotes David Bosch who references that attitude, “…we already know what ‘mission’ is and now have only to discover it in Scripture.”

But deciding that Missions should be established on a better theological foundation, and be drawn from Scripture (rather than reverse) does not answer the question, necessarily, as to whether it should exist as an academic discipline. Penner describes four attitudes in terms of relationship between Missiology and and other Academic disciplines.

#1.  Missions may be important in its relationship to the church, but is not really an academic discipline.

#2.  Missions is certainly important and should permeate and interact with all other (Christian) academic disciplines

#3.  Missions is a bit of an embarrassing topic that is not really to be dealt with in academics.

#4.  Missions so permeates all aspects of Christian experience and academics that it makes no sense to study it as a separate academic topic.

These all make sense, but I kind of feel like there is one missing. Perhaps I misunderstand the categories and the 5th one I would like to add somehow fits into the previous four.  However, if one looks at Missions (or Missiology) as a academic discipline that is interacting with other academic disciplines much like two cultures might interact, then one can look at it in terms of categories of acculturation.  Four major ones are:

  1.   Assimilation.  The first culture loses its identity in the second culture.
  2. Separation.  The first culture refuses to interact much with the second culture strongly maintaining its own uniqueness.
  3. Integration.  The first culture interacts strongly with the second culture affecting and being affected by the second culture.
  4. Marginalization. Ineffectual integration where the result is the first culture being less than functional in the second culture.

I feel the three of these line up with the four attitudes regarding Missiology.

Attitude (#2) lines up with (C), Integration.  Missiology can and should interact with other academic disciplines and should affect and be affected by other disciplines.

Attitude (#3) lines up with (D), Marginalization.  Missiology may exist as an academic discipline, but it is somehow seen as inferior or irrelevant in relation to other disciplines. As such, it is likely to be embarrassing and ignored.

Attitude (#4) lines up with (A), Assimilation.  Missiology may be relevant and important, but its unique identity is lost in other disciplines. It may show itself in other disciplines but doesn’t have a unique and distinct “culture” (much like a culture may not exist as a community within a broader culture, but may still show itself in terms of the culinary arts or visual arts in that broader culture).

That leaves one attitude and one acculturation strategy, but they don’t line up. The remaining attitude is that Missions is foundational in much of Christianity, but is still not an academic study. The remaining acculturation strategy is Separation.  

Separation (Acculturation strategy (B)) I think should relate to a fifth attitude regarding Missiology. It is a worthy topic of academic study but there is little interaction with other academic disciplines. This attitude is pretty common, I think. Many schools have a Missions department that doesn’t interact much, academically, with other departmetns. Happily, that seems to be lessening as training is becoming more interdisciplinary. However, there is the risk that it could go so far that it drifts into Assimilation (Attitude #4).

That just leaves us with one attitude (#1).  However, when one thinks about it, it should not relate to an Acculturation strategy. That is because the attitude rejects the premise that missiology should be seen as an academic discipline in the first place. The cultural equivalent is where one denies that a culture exists, in the first place, to interact with the broader culture.

Keeping this in mind then, I would rank the attitudes from best to worst. Needless to say, this is in my own biased opinion.

Best                                                #2

                                                 #4       #5


Worst                                             #1

#3 and #1 could be reversed. From a practical standpoint, attitude #3 is likely to express itself in avoidance of missions. So that could be seen as worse. However, from an academic standpoint, #1 is worse since it rejects the premise of missiology as a field of study in the first place. Being “embarrassed or avoidant” of the field of study at least recognizes its existence. I can see how those two can be reversed.

Better Questions and Al Yagoda

The Dunning-Kruger Effect has become popularized in recent days. Unfortunately it sometimes gets reimagined as “Stupid people often think they are smarter than they really are.” Of course, that is not the issue. It is that people tend not to be self-aware of their own incompetence in a subject. People who are very ignorant in a topic often feel that they are quite knowledgeable in the topic. This is hardly surprising, since it is a truism that…

“We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know”

This reminds me of a satirical post in the “Babylon Bee.” The title was, “Scholars Now Believe Job’s Friends Were First-Year Seminary Students.” Since the story was certainly used in the training of young men in rabbinical schools for millennia, I can’t help but wonder if it is more truth than satire (“Not the Onion”-worthy).

“It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”

— Thomas Sowell

Perhaps a bit more surprising is that people who are genuinely experts in a topic often feel that they are more ignorant than they really are. The more one studies a subject the more one understands how vast it is. Although experts tend to be more realistic than novices, one may become so focused on the vast vistas of the unknown that one may lose sight of the level of competency that one has achieved. When I was in first year college for mechanical engineering, a question had come up in mathematics that was new to me. I decided to ask my dad. He told me that he had no idea what the answer was. I was shocked. My father had a bachelors degree in mathematics (magna cum laude), had been “human computer” (back when those were the only computers that existed) in missile design and then a test engineer at a high-performance bearing company. As I went on in my education, I gained a better understanding of how vast mathematics. It is so vast that no one embraces all of it with any level of competence. Expertise narrows. When young, my dad was an expert in college-level mathematics… as well as mental math. When older, his expertise became Weibull distributions and failure analysis (small but important parts of the vast, infinite, plane that is mathematics).

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

–Charles Darwin


  • Incompetent people in an area tend to think that they much more competent than they actually are.
  • Highly competent people in an area tend to think they are somewhat less competent than they actually are.
  • Highly competent people in an area tend to think that they are more competent than they really are in areas that they lack expertise.

It could be suggested that the first point on the list is unnecessary. Pretty much all of us are experts in something, and every single person on earth who is an expert in something is going to be incompetent in a vast range of things. So you get people like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking about philosophy with great confidence but without competence. I shouldn’t pick on him alone. I find people talking about climate change with great confidence (actually on both sides of the issue) but with know training in the matter. I have seen Nobel prize winners talk with great confidence on topics that they have little expertise in.

In fact, we all do it. We are all rather incompetent in most ways…. but we really don’t want to go around and sound ignorant. We all want to appear competent and that we know exactly what needs to be done. I teach Interreligious Dialogue and I have my students write up case studies of themselves in interreligious dialogue. So many are uncomfortable because they are afraid of being asked something that they don’t know the answer to. They are afraid of that “Gotcha!!” moment where they feel stupid. (Strangely, in most cases, the person they were talking to probably would have respected them more if they simply said, “Wow, that is a great question. I need to research that. Or maybe we can figure it out together.”) We want to be the Gotcha!! guy like Ben Shapiro focused more on belittling the other than on seeking truth.

We all want to be Al Yagoda.

Who is Al Yagoda? One of my bosses back when I was a mechanical design engineer told me to avoid Al Yagoda. When we have a question, don’t listen to people that answer with, “Al Yagoda do is….. ” or “All you need is…”

Answers are rarely that easy. We rarely know the answer. I tell my seminary students to embrace the sentence, “I don’t know.” It is a good sentence because it is commonly true. It is also often true when you think it is not true (As the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests).

This does not mean that one must end with “I don’t know.” I don’t know is a starting place, not an endpoint. In the classes I teach, someone asks a good question. I often will say, “I don’t know… but here are some thoughts I have on this.’ Or maybe, “I don’t know… but maybe someone else here knows.”

Sometimes, I don’t know is followed by a strategy to find out. I remember as an engineer, a friend of mine was making an electronic cabinet and wasn’t sure what thickness of sheet metal he should use. He asked me what I thought would work. I said, quite correctly, “I don’t know.’ However, I then followed with, “I think I know how we can find out.” I took him downstairs to the testing department where there were a number of electronic racks. I pointed to three of them and told him to sit on them and push on them. He did. I told him the thicknesses of sheet metal used for each. Based on that he had a good idea what to use. He discovered the truth, and did so in a way that was more visceral. Me telling him what I thought was the best thickness may or may not have been right… but it certainly would NOT be the best way to inform him.

Being an expert in a field is often not about having better answers, but having better questions. I think this is especially true in missions and in theology. I like to tell my students that they should not expect that I have the best answers. I can be wrong. I am wrong every day. I have met people who think that they are experts and so should be believed. I don’t think anyone living today is such an expert in a subject that they have earned the right to be unquestionably believed. But PERHAPS they should be taken seriously.

That is what I tell my students. They can disagree with me… and they may be right in doing so. Based on my training and experience, I don’t expect to be believed… but I DO expect to have my thoughts taken seriously. If all I do as a seminary professor is indoctrinate them to parrot my beliefs, I have done little, if any, good.

But if I can train up people to gain some sense of the vastness of theology and missions, have the self-awareness to recognize their own expertise AND ignorance, and help them to ask better questions, I have accomplished something wonderful.

That is something that I am pretty sure that I know.

Theology “Tests” in Localization

RevelationHarmonious and Coherent with Scripture? Or Disonant, or “cherry-picked” from Scripture?Unity and Canonicity of the Bible
GodIs the God described within the theology, the God who is revealed? Is God worthy of worship, and relational in prayer?God as Object of Theology
CreationIs our relation to creation in line with it being God’s good creation? Is our relation to AlL people as to ones created in God’s image, and loved by God?God as Creator
Local ChurchIs it from the community, or from the outside, or single person? Is it accepted by and intelligible to the people?Priesthood of Believers
Universal ChurchIs it open to critique from the outside? Is it open to critique and dialogue with those outside?Catholicity and Unity of he Church
Spiritual FruitDoes the actions, attitudes, and motiviations of those who follow the theology allign with ethical Christian standards? Is the fruit of the spirit evidenced?Link between Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy
ResonanceDoes it “resonate” with the culture it exists in? Does it put into words, stories, images, and ideas questions being asked in the culture?God as Redeemer of Culture
TensionDoes it challenge the culture, seeking transformation? Or does it simply support or justify what is accepted in the culture?Fallenness of Man and Culture

Taken from my book “Ministry in Diversity” Table 10. These tests come from works by Bevans, Schreiter, Tracy, and others.