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.”

Maybe a “Cross-cultural Minister”?

In our Mission Research class it came up a second time. Should there be missionaries serving here in the Philippines? After all, if over 90% of Filipinos self-identify as Christians, are they needed?  If one identifies missionaries in terms of the Biblical role of apostle– evangelist and churchplanter– they are unnecessary in much of the Philippines. An outsider is less effective in evangelizing and churchplanting… so an outsider has little purpose in such work unless it is to throw money at the problem. Sadly, throwing money at problems from outside sources can create dependency— and I certainly have seen that.

So should there be missionaries serving in the Philippines? As one who could be described as a missionary, a foreigner ministering in the Philippines, it is awkward for me. My tentative solution is to separate the term “Missionary” as it is popularly understood, from another role. Perhaps we could call it “Cross-cultural Minister.”

So maybe the criteria for Missionary could be:

  • Serving outside of the local church primarily. (This is in-line with the NT Apostle)
  • Serving in another culture or same culture. (This is also in-line with the NT Apostle. There seems no evidence that apostles only worked cross-culturally)
  • The focus is more directly on Kingdom Expansion (more on evangelizing and churchplanting, though that should not negate social ministry, or translation, for example)
  • Works in support of local churches or where the church does not exist— rather than in competition with local churches, or doing what local churches should be doing themselves.

Even though I like very broad definitions for many things, including the term “missionary,” the above list seems reasonable.

One might then come up with criteria, or at least examples, of what would entail a Cross-cultural Minister, who doesn’t also fit into the criteria for Missionary:

  • Serves in a cross-cultural setting.
  • Humbly works in support of local churches or other ministries in that setting
  • May support missions (such as in logistics, training, member care, and such)
  • May help churches in that new setting work more effective in local cross-cultural ministry.

Why might it be useful to designate a difference between missionary and cross-cultural minister?

  1.  To understand the term missionary from a Biblical sense, it may be more useful to tie the term better to the New Testament term “apostolos.” However, the term missionary today is too broad, so developing a Biblical-Theological understanding of missionary is difficult. Perhaps narrowing it and setting it more in line with apostolos would help.
  2. Nations and peoples transition from being mission-receiving to mission-sending groups. However, there may be reasons for having cross-cultural ministers long after the need for missionaries has gone. This is easier to understand if different terms are used.

Cross-cultural ministers should always exist, I believe. Christians are stronger in their unity, as we recognize our international, intercultural diversity. One way such diversity is celebrated is through individuals working in other cultures. We learn from each other. Also, with refugees, economic diaspora, and more, cross-cultural ministers can be a great asset for a local culture to reach out to another culture in their midst. Diversity of viewpoints from different cultures also can make us wiser and stronger.

(On that last point. I am from the United States, and reading the poorly thought out ethnocentric bigoted statements made by sheltered, but sincere, Christians there, I say we truly need cross-culture ministers from other nations serving in the United States as well.)

I have served in the Philippinescropped-istock_000024760796small for 13 years. The first 6 years I served primarily as an organizer of evangelistic medical missions to under-reached communities. That may well meet the narrower definition of missionary, but I primarily worked with local churches, local medical personnel, and local church planters. My role was more as a catalyst than anything else. In recent years, I primarily teach missions, and teach and do pastoral care, especially for local pastors and missionaries. This would not meet the narrower criteria for missionary, but in a sense I am more necessary now. The island of Luzon, generally does not need missionaries… but they do need a reminder that the Church is international, universal…  not just local– and that we are stronger in our unity, when we embrace our diversity. We all need that.

Of course there is a risk here as well. Many Christians like to say that they support missionaries. I would hate to see many (including myself) cut off financially because they support missionaries, but not cross-cultural ministers. Classification of terms can be useful in certain settings, and destructive in others. 




Some thoughts on culture and communication, Part 4

Taking the ideas of Part 1 through 3 further (see links below), I would like to extend it to Incarnational Missions.  See the figure below (Figure 6)

Adjusted Model Figure 6.  Incarnational Missions Modification

In this case N, S, and C stay the same (natural world, society, and culture respectively). P again is the people group in that particularly moment. M is the missionary.

Incarnational Missions involves integrating into people group so as to impact them. This happens on three levels.

1.  Relocation. The missionary must relocate into the natural world of the people group he is working in.

2.  Societal Role.   The missionary must find a role in that society that will be accepted. This may be a learner, a teacher, a businessman, or something else. Failure to find a role that is understood and appreciated will greatly harm impact since it is likely that the society will find a different role for the missionary (foreigner, stranger, troublemaker).

Up to this point, the missionary does not have much impact because there is no change to the natural world nor the society of the people group. But this changes when we get to the third area.

3.  Counter-cultural Contextualization. The message of God is communicated in such a way that it is understandable to the people group and inspires change. I like the idea of counter-cultural since it is not anti-cultural (rejecting the culture). A message that rejects the culture is likely to be rejected by the culture. However, the message does not parrot the culture. The message accepts much of the culture but challenges it in certain areas. The message then would go towards “C Prime” rather than “C”.

In case this is confusing, lets go back to the game analogy.

1.  The individual must join the team (people group). This includes relocating physically to the team.

2.  The individual must abide by the rules set for the game… finding a role that is needed and appreciated on the team.

3.  The individual agrees with aspects of the objectives of the team (after all, he is now on that team), but may now challenge aspects of the objectives.

Of course, changing culture will ultimately affect society and the natural world (there is a fluidity to all of these things after all), but I would suggest that the message starts from culture and values of a people group.

Some Thoughts on Culture and Communication, Part 1

Some Thoughts on Culture and Communication, Part 2

Some Thoughts on Culture and Communication, Part 3

Counter-Cultural Contextualization

Four “L”s from Missions History

Successful missionaries, mission programs, and mission movements in Christian history seem to have four characteristics. They don’t always have all three, there is a priority to them. Now some that have been numerically successful (such as the invasion and subsequent colonization and “Christianization” of South America) fail to meet the criteria of sound Christian missions, in my opinion. So maybe there is some bias up front. Decide for yourself.

1.  Letting Go of the Ministry.

  • The missionary is not focused on consolidating power, property, or people. He maintains a “light touch on the reins” as well as light touch on the reign.
  • The missionary is willing to share power, and let go of power.
  • The missionary prepares his people and organization for his temporary or permanent absence

2.  Localizing God’s Work.

  • Translate Scripture, songs, and liturgy into the local vernacular
  • Create an indigenous (3 or 4 self) church
  • Christians should be part of the culture (perhaps counter-culturally, but still part), not part of a different/foreign culture.

3.  Loving God’s Lost and Found

  • The missionary loves the people more than himself, and demonstrates more concern about their well-being than the well-being of his “own people.”
  • The love the missionary has for the people overflows the small cup of eternal destiny to all aspects of their lives as individuals and as a community.
  • The people understand, in some small way, the depth of God’s love for them through the love demonstrated by the missionary.

4.  Linking Up Partners for God’s Work

  • Training up local partners in the field
  • Developing and organizing organizations for training and mobilizing missionary partners.
  • Building and encouraging support back home for mission work.

I don’t find these to be equally weighted. Of these four the least important (although still important) is Letting Go. Power is intoxicating, and even good missionaries become addicted. It takes strength of godly character to be weak, to be vulnerable, to maintain limited control, to empower others.

The middle two are Localization and Linking Partners.  I am not sure which is more important. Both really are needed. These seems to be more important and there appear to me to be fewer exceptions— fewer examples of successful missions where there was not localization or where there is no development of people in the field or agency or home.

The most important appears to be Love. A lot of “sins” and failures appear to be overlooked by the people being ministered to where the love of God is identified in the self-sacrificial love that the missionary shows the people he works with.

For me, at least, these seem to be important aspects for training and evaluating new missionaries.

Pastoral Care and the Missionary

English: Reverend James Chalmers, missionary.
English: Reverend James Chalmers, missionary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am scheduled to teach a two-week course at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary ( this April as part of its Summer Institute. Basically, it is an 8-week course shoved into two weeks. I am not sure that “Pastoral Care and the Missionary” is the name the course will finally settle on, but I like it. There is a course at PBTS that deals with “Missionary Member Care” but traditionally it has focused more on logistical issues and relational issues (relationships with supporters, mission board, hosts, etc.).  This is all good, but as someone involved in missions, and one who serves as the administrator of Bukal Life Care & Counseling Center (, I wanted to focus more on the psychological, emotional, and spiritual aspects of missions.

But let’s ask an obvious question. Why have a question that focuses on pastoral care for one profession? I used to be a mechanical engineer… would it make sense to have a class entitled “Pastoral Care and the Engineer?” <Hmmm…. that’s got me thinking…>

This is not a hugely well thought out post… hopefully by the time I finish prepping for the class I will have a clearer view. But here are some reasons to consider:

1.  Cross-cultural Immersion. Most (classic) missionaries are raised in one culture, yet are expected to live and thrive in a new culture. Yet missionaries aren’t typically meant to “go native”… to become become completely enculturated in their new culture. There are a couple of reasons. Missionaries are supported by people from their home culture, and they still be able to relate to them. Additionally, missionaries aren’t supposed to simply become part of a new culture, but to connect counter-culturally, adapting to the culture while also challenging it.

Missionaries often feel “culture shock” as they enter a new culture. Yet, they never truly fit in. This feeling (conscious or unconscious) of being a “stranger in a strange land” provides considerable stress that must be recognized, understood, and dealt with.

2.  Bomb in the Suitcase. I did not create this term… IMB has used it before, but I am not sure if they developed the term either. The idea is that when a missionary goes overseas, he (or she or they of course) carries baggage with him. Yet some of the baggage he carries he is not fully aware of. And that baggage has the potential of “blowing up” overseas.  Here are a few items:

a.  Anger. If a missionary has a bit of an anger problem in his home culture… he can probably deal with it because he has had decades to make his behavior culturally acceptable. But in a new culture, there will be things done differently that are very irritating (driving, food, the lack of privacy, whatever). Also, that which is culturally acceptable is different. Anger that could be dealt with at home may blow up on the field.

b.  Sex.  Family, friends, church, accountability partners at home may keep sexual problems under control. But in the field, much of that support network is gone. Additionally, the cultural landscape may be more relaxed sexually than home, and even where the culture is more conservative there are often things permitted that the missionary has not had to deal with before. It is easy to develop an attitude that “whatever happens in the field, stays in the field.” On the other hand, home supporter expectations may also cause problems. A single missionary at home may be encouraged to marry, but a single missionary in the field may be discouraged from this due to ethnic prejudices or mission board policies.

c.  Financial Mismanagement or Laziness. Problems with money or time or work may not be too much of a problem in a company or organization with a great deal of oversight… where one’s boss’s office is just a few feet away from one’s cubicle. But when management is distant, work problems can flare up.

There are many more potential bombs but you get the idea.

3.  Unreliability and Unrealistic Expectations of Partners. Missionaries are expected to be reliable, but sponsors and agencies are often less reliable. Missionaries often don’t know from month to month (certainly year to year) whether their support will continue to come in. Local hosts on the other hand may see missionaries as a cash cow. Supporters want to hear about victories more than struggles, big numbers over gradual transformation. Some supporters expect missionaries to suffer, Missionaries often are asked to host short-term missionaries… many of whom are great, but some are more like demanding and judgmental religious tourists. Many a missionary has gone home to be cut off financially, or to retire without a support system. Missionaries aren’t expected to have emotional or (especially) spiritual problems. And if they do… who can they go to? In some cases, there is no one to go to.

4.  Failure.  Missionaries are supposed to succeed. But success is often hard to recognize. Partnership failure, organizational or ministry failure, physical or emotional breakdown happens. These can happen with anyone… but the situation of many missionaries makes it difficult to handle these… especially if they have not been prepared for the vicissitudes of mission work.

5.  Special Family Issues.  Missionaries don’t just do their work and then join their family at home. Their family is also intimately involved with the mission work in the mission field culture. Children must be bicultural typically and educated to be able to function effectively in two different cultures. Many do no not have the flexibility and resilience for this. Additionally, missionaries cannot care for aged parents well from a distance. Yet, missionaries can’t (or at least should not) dump their family concerns on God… they are responsible for their family.

6.  Adaptation.  I have said that the two major characteristics of missionaries is Willingness and Flexibility. Spirituality is important, but often not the sort of spirituality that is appreciated by supporters. Spirituality is often shown in flexibility… adjusting to different ministry work, schedules, partnerships, locations, and so forth. Most people don’t deal well with changing schedules… most like a certain amount of routine. Even for those who like variety and change… it is still a source of stress. Burnout is easy… especially when willingness is not tempered by one’s own limitation.

7.  Spiritual Warfare.  Okay, I have to admit that I often don’t take spiritual warfare as seriously as I should (covering this more on a future post) but I do recognize that missionaries are in the front-lines of a battlefield that few people understand or are prepared for.

I will stop here. Anyway, I am looking forward to this class. The Philippines is an up-and-coming mission-sending country. But missionary care here is almost non-existent. Worse, it seems as if (sometimes) the senders seek to make the missionaries suffer more. That could be a mistaken impression on my part… but I do believe there is GREAT room for improvement.

Parable of the USS Truett (and Missionary Member Care)

Strange title. Anyway, and I may have put this story in a blogpost before, many years ago, I was on an inspection team of the USS Truett. The USS Truett was a Knox-class Frigate in the United States Navy. While on board, only for a couple of days, I was talking to a petty officer aboard. He was surprisingly forthright with me.  <I can’t verify the story… but I don’t need to. It’s a story.>

He was talking about an incident that happened the previous December. On Christmas day, everyone on the crew of the Truett was called in from liberty by the captain, to clean the ship. Of course, being in homeport, it would have been expected to have a minimum watchcrew aboard while the rest were on leave or liberty to be with family and friends.

But that was not what bothered this crewmember. What bothered him was that a few days later the captain apologized. Now, you might think that sounds backwards. One might expect the petty officer (and others aboard) to be unhappy about coming in on Christmas day and somewhat comforted by a later apology. But no… and there is a fairly simple reason if you think about it.

In the Navy, it is understood that the ship’s mission takes priority over personal life. One year, I was away from homeport approximately 300 days, and only could go home at night 2/3s of the remaining days. So being asked to work on Christmas was disappointing but part of Navy life. However, when the captain apologized a few days later, the truth was revealed. There was no operational necessity in bringing the crew to work on Christmas day… the captain was just in a bad mood.

Let’s bring this over to missionary member care. The question is often argued about how much a missionary should suffer in the mission field, or how easy it should be for them. Some missionaries are very well cared for while others are dumped in the field in a nearly destitute condition. What level of care should a missionary have?

I look at the USS Truett story and it helps me gain perspective. Missionaries are constrained by operational/ministerial requirements that will commonly bring some level of suffering or deprivation. It is part of the job, and just like the crewmembers on the Truett, it should be understood that some sacrifices are normal to do the job right.

On the other hand, however, sacrifices and suffering should not be dumped unnecessarily on missionaries any more than on Navy sailors. Suffering may be necessarily in the ministry but should not be artificially created by those whose job is to lead and care for missionaries.

Let’s take another example from the Navy. While I was in the Navy, I kept hearing from commanding officers “Safety First” or “Safety is our First Priority.” What nonsense! If that was true we would never go out to sea and never sail into harm’s way. However, my last CO said things better. He said something to the effect that “Our Priority is to Carry Out our Mission Safely.” I could understand that. We have to do what we have to do… we just need to find out how to do it safely.

Carrying that over to member care, instead of finding duality between mission and care, we bring them together. Mission Agencies need to find ways to care for missionaries so that they are empowered to do their mission.  Good member care helps missionaries be more effective in carrying out their mission. Lack of good member care tends to make a missionary less effective. Too much member care (care that blocks the negative challenges of normal ministry) is likely to make the missionary less effective as well. We don’t need recurrence of stories of “compound missionaries” living in great comfort disconnected from the mission field just outside of the compound walls.

The balance will always be a challenge, but for me the healthy balance is glimpsed at least in these two stories from my military past.

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 5. Solution?

I have already said some things that I think do NOT define a missionary. I don’t think professional status defines a missionary. I do not think working cross-culturally is a necessary condition as well. Neither do I see the popular Christian understanding of being “Called” as tied of necessity to being a missionary.

I pointed out that a broad definition for missionary is preferable by me since exclusivist terms often drive a wedge in ministry that need not be there. However, there are some people who abuse the term “missionary” to the point that one should either throw away the term or create solid limits.

I would suggest a few (somewhat vague) qualities that should define a missionary.

1.  Personal Qualities. Passion, Willingness, and Flexibility. A missionary must have a passion to serve God outside of the home church setting. A missionary must be willing act on God’s call (whether it is a general call or a personal call) to go wherever Christ would have them go. A missionary must have the flexibility to deal with different and changing cultural and ministerial situations.

2. Theological Qualities. A missionary must be orthodox in faith, Christ- centered, and people-focused.

For some, being orthodox in faith (as in correct doctrine) is obvious, while for some this seems silly. However, I am speaking from a Christian context… the original idea of missionary coming from the Latin “missio” or the Greek “apostolos”. The idea is in these terms is of being sent out. This suggests being sent out by the church and being sent out by God– and these drew from orthodox understandings of the church and God. So for me… a Buddhist can be a “Buddhist Missionary” or a Mormon can be a “Mormon Missionary”. But to be a “Missionary” one is serving within the context of the faith as given by Christ and passed onto the Apostles (the original missionaries).

Theologically speaking, a missionary must be Christ-centered. The Matthew version of the Great Commission states that the Apostles (and us ultimately) are to give the Good News of Christ, baptize them in the name of the Trinity, and guide people to obey Christ’s commands. The Acts 1 version of the Great Commission shows the main thrust is to be witnesses of Christ. The John version of the Great Commission points out that missionaries are sent out by Christ. A missionary who does not center his work on Christ and his charge to us… is not a missionary (once again as orthodox Christian missionary).

Missionaries must be people-focused. The Great Commandment makes it clear we are to Love God and Love Others. Missionaries must be interested and actively concerned about the physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being of those they work with and for.

Ministerially. I see three broad categories of ministry that apply to missionaries.

A.  Where the Church Is Not. Here, missionaries evangelize, set up churches, and train leaders.

B.  Where the Church Has Not. Some places churches exist but have not been involved in certain Christian ministries. Here missionaries can inspire, train, and empower.

C.  Where the Church Cannot. Some ministries, like publishing, orphanage work, or radio ministry, may be outside the ability of local churches to support and run themselves. In these cases, missionaries may need to serve to fill the gap.

Two of these three things are transitional in nature. As the missionary plants a church and trains leaders, he should be preparing himself for departure. A missionary may train and empower churches and local organizations for new ministries. Once again, this should be transitional. Only in ministries where the local church/organizations cannot take over fully should missionaries serve long-term. (Of course, missionaries may transition from outsider/foreigner to insider/local… but this takes a conscious effort).

What is a Missionary? Part 4… the Conundrum

Now, I have to admit that I don’t like terms that deny people of their proper place. Back when I was a mechanical engineer, I had a friend who did mechanical engineering, but was quick to say that he wasn’t a “real engineer” since he did not have the college degree to support it. He moved into engineering through the technician route. In my mind… if you are doing engineering, you are an engineer. People who feel a degree is needed to get the title seem to me to lack the self-confidence in their own craft.

Here in the Philippines, a recent law was passed to “professionalize” the term “counselor”. That means, one cannot use the term “counselor” unless one has been registered. I understand this to some extent. Previously, anyone could call themselves a counselor and charge money for their “professional” services. For people with demonstrated training and skills, they can now stand out from “posers”. Yet, counseling is a skill and a gift, not a profession. I can understand having a term like “registered guidance counselor” as an exclusive term… but to make the term “counselor” exclusive seems to me to be a denial of reality.

Now consider the term “missionary”. We haven’t gotten to the point that one needs a Master of Arts in Missiology to be a missionary (thankfully). But there is the concern of allowing the term to be used too loosely. After all, missionaries need to be supported from a distance (usually) so they need to be trusted.

Yet some people who call themselves missionaries don’t really do missions (on any level). Some simply work overseas and tell people that they are missionaries in the hopes of getting a second paycheck. Some simply funnel money to locals who do the real outreach work, while doing nothing missional themselves.

Obviously there are problems with sloppy use of the term “missionary”. Every time I post something about missionaries, the Internet links and tags try to connect my posts to the Mormon religion. Since Mormonism has nothing to do with historic Christianity, it is frustrating that the term that describes my calling before God is viewed by Internet logic circuits as involving a completely different religion.

On the other hand, there are dangers of getting things too narrow. My wife and I train Christian school teachers, church leaders, and missionaries. We also help run a Christian counseling center. These might not be viewed as real missions since they are not about church planting or a traditional understanding of evangelism. Now, I work in a cross-cultural setting, but my wife is working in the culture of her youth. Does that mean that I am a missionary and my wife is not?

Okay… I admit it… this post is strange and confusing. When I get around to Part 5, I will try to put together something more coherent on what a missionary is (in my view at least).

What is a Missionary? Part 3

The third part is the question of whether being a professional (full-time) is a necessary characteristic of a missionary.

In other words, can one be a volunteer, be a part-time missionary, be a short-term missionary, a tent-maker,  however one wants to say that one is not a full-time professional… can they be called a missionary?

The classic missionaries of the New Testament were wanderers. Paul, Barnabbas, Apollos, Philip, and more (including Christ) travelled from place to place. Some worked to fund themselves. Some did not appear that set roots long enough to fit the role that some would consider as long-term missionary (at least within a regional culture).

While I understand why one might consider short-term missionaries as not “real missionaries”.  That being said… I still have problems with narrowing the term. Certainly, being “professional” or paid makes no sense as defining a missionary.