Who Should be a Missionary

I feel like I need to make a change from what I have said before. I have previously said that a Christian missionary needed TWO distinct qualities to go into missions:

  1. Flexibility
  2. Willingness

I purposefully left out Called. For one thing, I believe the church calls people to missions, while I believe God calls EVERYONE to His mission… and He is not too quick to follow faddish preferences to describe certain Christian ministry as missions and others as not.

Flexibility suggests an openness to new cultures and to contextualization of message. It also involves the flexibility to adjust lifestyle. Willingness, definitely a related term, suggests a willingness to go where God leads, and a willingness to acculturate, and change one’s identity, to some extent.

Some people suggest that Spiritual Fervor is a quality needed of a missionary. However, it seems to me that it is a quality that is called up based on presumption rather than practice. Few missionaries, if any, I know have a spiritual fervor greater than others in church. Of course, part of the issue is that people have different ideas as to what spiritual fervor is. For some, it is the ability to throw around Christian lingo and get emotionally/spiritually wrought up. For others it involves deep involvement in the “spiritual disciplines.” I have yet to see any missionaries that have any of this sort of thing beyond those around them.

However, the spiritual aspect can’t be tossed aside and I have definitely seen missionaries fall by the wayside based on a certain issue in the area of spirituality. With further reflection, I would add a third quality:

         3.  Spiritual Durability

Spirituality is so open to interpretation, and various definitions lend themselves to denominational bias. Additionally, the idea of spirituality in the Bible is often quite different from popular Christian definitions today. So I would like to use Paul Tillich’s idea of spirituality, but limited to Christianity. In this case “Spirit” is the overlay of power and meaning. In the Christian context:

Spirituality, as it applies to missionaries, is the overlay of human and divine power in a person’s life that is focused by a recognition of following God’s path and a personal sense of vocational meaning.

“God’s paths” is not the same as call as it is popularly given. God’s path is not a destination but a path (more like Psalm 23 or Jesus call to “Follow Me.” “Call” as it is used in churches is usually tied to destination or clergical vocation.

Spiritual durability then is the recognition that what one does is important, that it has eternal meaning to self, to the people, and to God’s Kingdom. As such, one is empowered to persevere through difficult times because of the recognition that God is ever-present, ever-suffering, and ever guiding.

Book Reflection: “The Mission of God” Part 2

This is a continuation of the reflections on “The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative” by Christopher J.H. Wright.  NOTE: This is NOT a review… just things that the book got me thinking about. I haven’t finished the book yet (I am slow sometimes, but I have to give it a STRONG recommendation already).

The book seeks to develop a Biblical Theology of Missions, as well as a missional hermeneutic for understanding the Bible. This got me thinking…


With some reflection it seems to me that the obvious answer is YES and NO. It is NO in the sense that most Christians can carry out God’s mission on earth quite effectively without having a very strong theological foundation for what they do and why. But where does YES come in?

1. History has shown that Christian missions has moved forward in fits and starts (and stops). It pops up here with great fervor and dies away over there. Among missional people there is often a belief that missions people are more godly or spiritual or “on fire” than those who are not. I have not seen this as true. Perhaps missional fervor is NOT a good judge of spirituality. Perhaps the fact that missions is often disconnected from normal Christian life, and ecclesiastical life means that missions is commonly borne along through a few who are motivated in that specific area of the Christian walk. Perhaps, having a missional theology that is linked better with the overall understanding of the theology of God, Man, World, and Church, would reduce the fickleness of the overall movement of Christian missions. (Just a theory.)

2. When there is a disconnect between theology and its application, problems often spring up. Let me give an example. William Carey was a pastor of the Particular Baptists, a strongly Calvinistic group in England. This group had little interest in missions. God preordained people to Heaven or Hell after all… so what is the point of reaching out? William Carey wrote a booklet challenging this logic. He used the Great Commission in Matthew 28 to argue that Jesus gave the command to evangelize to all Christians not just the original Twelve. He made a strong case for this.

However, note this. He did not really challenge the Calvinistic doctrines… just argued that one should not use those doctrines to deny something the Jesus commanded us to do. Calvinism (particularly consistent Calvinists) always had a gaping hole when it came to missions going back to… well… John Calvin. Carey made it clear that regardless of what one believes doctrinely, one should evangelize because Jesus commanded us to. There is a seeming disconnect here. It is hardly surprising that just decades later among the Baptists (and the Campbellite offshoot) developed the “Antimissional Movement.” It was a reaction away from missions, in part because of the Calvinistic theology of its members.

This is not a diatribe against Calvinism (I am neither Calvinist nor Anti-Calvinist). But when one’s theology is not consistent with the ministerial application, it is hardly a shock that problems recur. One could argue that Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years, also known as the Hocking Report (1932) got much of its strength from the fact that missions was built on a poor theological foundation… and as such was easy to topple or redirect.

3.  Missions is often drawn from a “gerrymandering” of Bible verses. Often it seems as the practitioners of missions have already determined what they want to do and why, and simply pick those verses that seem to support what they are already doing. I know churches who have dumped all social missions because missions to them is proclamation, conversion, discipleship, and church-planting. I have known of churches who have cut off funding to orphanages because orphanages are not evangelistic… and so are not missional. They have verses to support their view… but they have to throw out an awful lot of the Bible to support such an idea. I have known missions agencies that have (incredibly) stopped working in very productive areas because people in those areas were no longer labeled “unreached people groups.” The Biblical justification for this is shallow, and the logic of stopping work because it is productive is… odd to say the least. Wouldn’t it be better to understand what God’s mission is (based on God’s revelation and character) and then come alongside… rather than doing what we want to do  and then select verses (“prooftexts”) to back it up?

4.  There is some really sloppy missions methodology out there… some of which comes from a very poor theological foundation. The focus on Unreached People Groups has been justified by utilizing Matthew 24:14. Some have taught that once we have reached all “people groups” Christ will immediately (or at least almost immediately) return. First, the passage never says that, nor, in my mind, even implies it. Second, the application of that interpretation results in a behavior that comes close to… well… evil. Think about it. People focus on trying to get the gospel into every “people group” (however one chooses to define such an entity) pulling resources away from successful outreaches among “reached” peoples in hopes that God would come back sooner. In practice that means one is seeking to reduce outreach to many people and shorten the time that the Gospel is available for response. One is actually trying to send more people to hell by giving them less time and opportunity to respond. Weird! If one truly believed the quite fanciful interpretation of the Matthew passage and believed (equally fancifully) that one could define exact “people groups” (ethne)… the proper response would seem to be to reach as many people as possible among all people groups as possible— except one. Only after evangelistic saturation of all peoples (is that realistic?) would one saturate the last people group with the gospel. <Thankfully, God did not give us control of when He comes, nor gave us the calling to “time” His return.> By the way, I am not against reaching all people in all cultures… nor do I believe that doing so nor failing to do so will change God’s timing one iota.

Some evangelical missions leaders back in the 1950s and 60s had embraced an apocalyptic view of Christianity (Christ is coming any day… at least any day really really soon.) As such, they tossed aside God’s work in caring for people’s needs in favor of quick conversion. But they were wrong… 50, 60 years later and Christ is not here yet. What if investment in demonstrating God’s love had been effectively linked to proclaiming God’s love over the last several decades (rather than disconnected). Personally, I think carrying out God’s full mission faithfully without trying to “read the signs” would have been more effective, and is still more effective today.

The Missionary Call seems to be another area of sloppiness. There seems to be little Biblical support for it at all. Christ calls all to follow Him. The church may call people to be pastors or missionaries (apostles)… but does God? I don’t think so. If He did, then the missionary call is primarily an “anti-missionary call” since the vast majority of Christians are, presumably,  not so called. The missionary call seems to be more of an excuse not to be missional than it is to motivate people to missions. Defining missions in terms of only being cross-cultural, or only to the “called”, or only for “professionals” seems to be without theological basis as well. It is hardly surprising that there are good Christians that argue that missions and missionaries are unbiblical. I have even seen blogsites that challenge Christians to show that missions and missionaries are Biblical. You know, IF one uses the common definitions utilized today, I think they have a point. However, if one is willing to challenge the definitions I believe we see the Bible as a missional book and a book of God on mission and us on God’s mission.

5.  The poor theology has led to questions about even what is the goals of missions. What is missions supposed to do?

  • Get conversions and baptisms?
  • Get churches planted?
  • Disciple?
  • “Civilize” the people?
  • Help social needs?
  • Socially liberate?
  • Promote specific denomination or theological goals?

A sound theology of missions should help determine what are our priorities and what are extraneous.

Yes, I think it is high time that God’s people take seriously Missions Theology… or a missional understanding of God.

But I’m Called!!

While this might surprise many, there are a lot of people who want to go into missions. Perhaps they want to because they want “adventure” (whatever that is). Some want to because it is an escape from the stress and drudgery of what they are presently doing (“maybe in a foreign place, people won’t know how messed up I am.”) There are many possible reasons from the commendable to the laughable. But somewhere in the conversation, one will usually say that a major reason for going into missions is that he or she is “CALLED.”

Foster Bible Pictures 0060-1 Moses Sees a Fire...
Foster Bible Pictures 0060-1 Moses Sees a Fire Burning in a Bush (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For some people, it is hard to understand. How could one be turned down for missions if he is “called?” If a minister is “called” by God to pastor a church, how could a church have the audacity to go against that?

The idea of calling has a long history. In the Bible, there are people who were unambiguously called by God. Moses was (Exodus 3;1-20). so was Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8). Paul seems to have been called three times– two directly (Damascus and Asia Minor) and one indirectly (Antioch). Some, like Raymond Lull (1235-1315) can describe what they felt was a pretty unambiguous calling. However, for most people going into missions, what they describe as calling is more ambiguous— part feeling/burden, part affirmation by others, part circumstances/open doors. So why might a person who has been “called” to missions be rejected (and not necessarily be at war with God’s will).

1.  The theological concept of “calling” is pretty weak Biblically. I have talked about this before. Most places in the Bible, calling describes a call to follow Christ, not to seek a specific profession. The few cases (like those mentioned above) where there is a clear calling to a direct profession or vocation were clear, unambiguous, and miraculous. Should the more ambiguous burden or passion to missions be lumped together as being equivalent with the miraculous events described before? Many in the Bible appear NOT to have been called in a miraculous way. One might argue, in some cases at least, that there was a miraculous calling that was not recorded, but should that be assumed?

2.  The church is responsible to evaluate pastors and deacons and missionaries and prophets. In Revelation chapter 2, the church of Ephesus was commended for testing missionaries (“apostolos”) to see if they came from God. The Didache gave some guidelines for local churches in evaluating missionaries and prophets. Paul gave guidelines for evaluating candidates for pastors/elders and deacons. It is key to note that these tests or guidelines did not have anything to do with testing the veracity of their calling. Rather they focused on their character and faith. Paul said that desiring to be a pastor/bishop is a good thing (I Timothy 3). In my mind, if calling is a requirement, then the desire would not typically be a good thing for most… it would be presumptuous.

3.  Even if calling as it is popularly understood is correct, the church must separate between calling from God and  those who are self-called. If one watches American Idol or The Voice, it is clear that many feel destined (called) to be the winner. Yet only one wins per season. Clearly some of the callings were wrong numbers. The church can and should evaluate whether what you feel is your call to missions is valid or not.

Garry Friesen in “Decision Making and the Will of God” makes a strong case that God gives us freedom within His moral will to make decisions. Decisions (such as who to marry, where to work, etc) as long as they conform to God’s moral will, are ours to make using our own wisdom and that of those who are competent and close to us. While, maybe Friesen takes the point too far at times (I am probably not the one to judge) I think there is a lot of truth there. In other words, unless you get an unequivocal miraculous voice of God telling you to do something (and you are not insane or highly gullible) you have freedom.

But freedom is still limited by church and mission organization. They need to verify certain things:

1.  Spiritual toughness. I use this term rather than spirituality, because the term often gets linked to being mystical, ethereal, ecstatic, or cloistered. Spiritual toughness is prepared to follow God on the tough roads for the long haul. It is evidenced by durable faithfulness rather than impressive prayers, fastings, readings, preachings, or such.

2.  Self-control. Financial mismanagement, sexual infidelity, or laziness are huge problems in the mission field. If one is not self-controlled at home, one won’t be on the mission field. If they are self-controlled at home, they MIGHT be self-controlled on the mission field.

3.  Flexibility. To me, the two great characteristics of a missionary are willingness (to be sent, to follow God) and flexibility. Adapting to new cultures, people, and varied circumstances and tasks needs a person of flexible mind, body, and habit. A lot of emotionally brittle, doctrinally rigid, and/or ethnocentric people want to go into missions. They really shouldn’t… usually.

4.  Relative sanity. I suppose the classic Catch-22 applies. You need to be sane to be a missionary, but no one sane would choose to be a missionary. Maybe it would be best to say that the level of insanity should be known and evaluated. Personality Disorders are likely to cause great problems in the mission field. Inability to handle anger effectively will sabotage mission work. A high level of defendance will make things difficult as well. Problems should be known beforehand, acknowledged, and addressed. Psycho-emotional problems on the field do not go away… they often cause huge problems for the person, for the mission field, and for the work of God.

5.  Philanthropy. Okay, you don’t have to be rich and throw your money around. But the term philanthropy comes from Phileo (love) and anthropos (man or mankind). Missionaries should have genuine compassion and concern for those they work with. This love should flow naturally from the love they have for God. This love for the people they work with should be greater than their love for their own denomination. This love should be greater than the love they have for certain doctrines. This love should be greater than just for those within the walls of their church. This love should not just be limited to those who think, act, or look like themselves. Bigots/ethnocentrists (repeating myself) need not apply. Missionaries should NOT be as interested in “saving souls” as “saving lives.” Lives means saving the entire person in the now and future, rather than just getting them a golden ticket to heaven. As such, concerns should include their physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and relational well-being. They should care about issues of social justice… not in place of spiritual conversion and growth, but as a related passion for the good of those they work with.

If a mission agency will not send you… it is okay, there are other mission agencies. If no mission agency will send you… perhaps your church will send you. If your church does not think you should go… be open to the idea that you should not go. Rather than simply focusing on your own confident sense of calling, seek the wisdom of others. God is probably speaking to them just as loudly as He is talking to you. Maybe you are supposed to go on mission… but maybe it is still a time for preparation. Paul and Moses took years of preparation… so did David. The answers to the question “Is it time to go now?” are YES! NO. and SOON… When your church and your mentors believe it is time to go… be ready… the time has come.

The Future of “3F” Missionaries?

What is a “3F” Missionary? This is the traditional missionary of the 19th and 20th centuries.

F Foreign  (not community, local, or regional)

F Fully Funded (not bivocational, or self-funded, but financed by churches or Mission organizations remote from where the mission work occurs.)

F Forever (serve in one place until death or retirement. No moving around or short-terming it)  

One could add a fourth F:

F Full-time (not part-time, not short-term, not bivocational)

However, generally if one is fully funded and “forever” it would be presumed one is full-time.

3F Missions

3F Missionary is the missionary of the “missionary call”. The missionary call is based on the belief that certain people are specially called to mission work and they must serve full-time, financed, and forever. Other people who are not called, cannot (or should not) be missionaries. But this understanding is changing.

Quoting from Alan Neely’s book “Christian Mission: A Case Study Approach” (Orbis Books, 1995), page 110:

“During the last half-century, however, a number of changes have ensued which have tended to diminish the traditional emphasis on being called to be a missionary:

(1) The decrease in the number of persons willing to offer themselves as vocational missionaries, that is, missionaries for life;

(2) The difficulty of obtaining permission for such persons to enter many countries as vocational missionaries and/or to remain there indefinitely;

(3) The new models of what it means to be a missionary;

(4) The inclination on the part of many young people today to ignore the traditional and “artificial division between mission in Jerusalem and mission to the ends of the earth”;

(5) The relative ease and speed of travel which is prompting an increasing number of individuals who think of mission work as a short-term task; and

(6) The increased readiness of many missionary sending agencies to depend more and more on short-term personnel.”

Looking at these six reasons, why has there been a growing change in attitude about the “Missionary Call”?

KEY #1. The world is changing (Transportation has made travel easier)

Key #2. The underlying theology of missions is being questioned . (Why is “ends of the earth” work thought fundamentally different from “Jerusalem” work? Why does being a missionary mean full-time, vocational, and one location?)

RESULT. People are looking to new flexible models of missions. These include short-term missions, bivocational missions, and even cyber-missions.

I believe that both Keys are valid and reasonable. The world is changing. The underlying theology of missions is under attack, and for good reason. Our theology must live in the tension between unchanging divine revelation and changing culture. The argument for only allowing the 3F Missionary is that unchanging revelation calls for it. But this is being questioned. Paul (whose call is often used as a reference for a missionary call) does not fit the 3F model. He was bivocational, he travelled from place to place, and it is even questionable whether the work he did was always missional (as is today commonly understood). The Apostle John appears to have been known later in life as John the Elder (yes, there is some argument about this). Since “apostle” essentially means missionary, this seems to suggest that John recognized his own change of role later in life as moving from missionary to church leader. Additionally, the fact that some individuals have been undeniably, miraculously called, does not mean that others weren’t. What was the calling for the 12 disciples? Was it “Follow Me” at the beginning of their ministry with Christ, or the Great Commission? If it is the Great Commission, William Carey (and many since) have shown that the wording makes it clear that it is a general calling for all believers to share the Gospel. If it is the “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men”, then this sort of calling appears to be more like a path. The disciples were to go wherever Jesus did and would do what Jesus said. So changing roles (as John appeared to do) is not a pro9blem. This hardly seems to fit the narrow understanding of a 3F missionary.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against 3F missionaries. Arguably I am one. I serve in a “foreign land.” I am financed (under-funded, but still funded), and I hope to do this forever. And I see myself as full-time. I also feel like God called me in a very specific and pointed way to be a missionary. I also think that 3F missionaries are very useful in providing a healthy bridge between cultures in ministry. Short-term missionaries can often do more harm than good… especially if there is no one to guide them.

My point is that the world is changing, and people are (correctly) starting to see divine revelation with new eyes. This has led to new theology about missions. Good missions today is not either/or. It is both/and. Missions works well with 3F missionaries working with mobile missionaries, as well as short-term missionaries, as well as… well, you name it!

What is a missionary? Part #1

I.  Missionary as “One Who Is Called”?

I started out planning to talk about how to define a missionary. Some characteristics of a missionary often used include:

a.  “Called” to mission work.

b.   Cross-cultural work

c.  “Professional” or “Full-time”

So my goal was to look at these three points and then offer some sort of alternative.

However, when I started to look into the first one— being called— I found a better article… so I would like to reference this one below by Kevin L. Howard.