Defining Missions and Missionary


I have long struggled with defining (Christian) Missions and (Christian) Missionary. I don’t really have a problem with modern formulations of “Mission.” I find the Missio Dei understanding of Mission in terms of God’s overall plan of ministry in the world is pretty good (there are of course different specific flavors of definition). However, Missions (a human component in God’s Mission) and Missionary (one involved in Missions) I find harder to define.

I have posted quite a bit on this subject and while not trashing my previous stuff (nor assuming I won’t change my mind futher, later), I would like to add my in-the-moment thoughts here.

I struggled years ago when asked by a friend who was writing a paper (at a secular university) on missionary member care. She wanted a good definition for “missionary” but even though I had taught missions courses for several years, I had never found a definition I was satisfied with. In the end I gave Donald Macgavran’s definition. However, the definition is VERY limiting. It excludes over 90% of all missionaries. That is a problem. You can read about this by CLICKING HERE.

More recently, I shared Macgavran’s definition at a research meeting. The response is that this definition doesn’t really work for any missionary in the Philippines. Macgavran’s definition is more about pioneering missions, and few if any places in the Philippines has true pioneering missions.

So I will give a couple of definitions for consideration:

Missions is the activity of the local church to reach out beyond the boundaries of the local church, to carry out the work of God without direct benefit to that same local church.

I would like to draw out key items of this definition.

  • It is church-centered. While it is true that God is at work at all times and everywhere, missions is limited to the work of the church.
  • I use the term local church, but not because I am trying place some sort of radical downplaying of the universal church (as I have seen some others do). Rather, I am doing this to categorize it in two ways— First, to separate it from two other major ministries of the church: Member care (ministry focused on those who are part of the church family in the local church), and Church growth (ministry to reach out into the community to bring people into that same local church). The work is to support the Reign of God, but not (directly) the local church. Second, the local church defines missions. It is not defined by nation, denomination, or by culture. Missions can be local, regional, national, or international. It may be same culture, similar culture, diaspora, refugee, or completely cross-cultural.
  • It is the work of God— that work of God that God chooses to do through the church. It should not be a highly limited understanding of the work of God. It should at least be as broad as the work of Christ on earth— who was involved in proclamation, evangelism, discipleship, healing, and compassion ministry, among other things.

A missionary is a person called out by, sent out by, and accountable to the church to serve faithfully and consistently in the ministry of missions.

I would like to draw out key items here as well.

  • Called out by the church. While missionaries like to say that they are called by God, I prefer to think of missionaries as being called by the church. Some may say (as my seminary does), ‘God-called, church affirmed.” I have no problem with that. However, without the church affirmation, the person can simply be “self-called.” Much like in the movie, “The Apostle” where Robert Duvall baptizes himself as an apostle, the focus on asking about a candidates calling from God often pushes a theological agenda that may not be sound. (I recall a man showing up at a local church and telling them, “God spoke to me and told me that I am now your pastor.” That church actually did then take him in as pastor. I feel a better response should have been, “Thank you for telling us. When God tells us the same thing, we will let you know.”) I find a better thing for a church is to ask the missionary candidate about his or her journey of faith, and then to decide whether they should call the person to serve as a missionary of the church.
  • Sent by the church. I am not as big of a fan of missionaries being sent out by mission organizations, or even by denominational entities. I suppose this is because my wife and I were called and sent out by a local church. However, regardless of the institution, missions should always be seen as a sending out from the local church. This is in line with the Biblical understanding of “apostle.” An apostle was one who was sent out from the church assembly to serve a majority of the time outside of the church. I know that some people see apostles as people of great power and authority in the church. However, in the earliest days of the church, the apostles seemed to be closer functionally to mendicant monks than cardinals. Ultimately, the serve people who are not part of the church in a setting outside of the church.
  • Accountable to the church. A missionary is commonly supported by the church, but must always be accountable to the church. If someone funds themselves and calls themselves and has no accountability to anyone but God, they certainly may be serving God faithfully, but the term missionary probably should not apply.
  • Faithfully and consistently. Part-time missions and short-time missions is quite valid (although often quite problematic) forms of missions. However, I would suggest that such individuals probably should not be called missionaries— at least without an adjective in front. Perhaps it is okay to call someone a short-term missionary, at least during the short-term mission, but that person probably should not be called “a missionary.” I recall an STMer from the US talking to one of my Filipino seminary students in Baguio. The STMer from the US called himself a missionary, but quickly demonstrated to my student that he knew almost nothing about missions or what a missionary does. I think the STM mobilizer sought to motivate the team-members by getting them to embrace the term “missionary,” but embracing it and using it as a designation around others is two different things.

Anyway, this is my thoughts for now. Comments are always welcome. I am also making an assumption that when we are talking, within the church about missions and missionaries, that we are talking about Christian missions and Christian missionaries. If a person is serving in a missionary capacity of a non-Christian group (Islamic, Mormon, Buddhist, etc.), as a Christian I can describe them in terms of missionary and missions, but only with adjectives to clarify that they are outside of the bounds of Christianity and the Bible. Essentially, that is the same as other terms such as “worship” or “theology,” where they can apply to many religions. However, when talked about in a Christian setting, when used without an adjective, the assumed adjective is “Christian.”

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