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.