About a dozen years ago a pastor asked me how missionaries are trained. He said he wanted to train his whole congregation to be missionaries. I was thinking “A missionary is a person who crosses cultures with the gospel.” He was thinking, “A missionary is a person who is fully committed, dying to selfish ambitions, living the Christ-indwelt life, and passionate about people.”
The missional movement often uses the term “missionary” to encourage people to be like this, “sent” into their world to represent Jesus by loving people and doing works of service. For some time I have heard pastors say, “When you leave this building you are entering your mission field,” and “You are all missionaries.” The term “missionary” thus serves to help people understand the call of every Christian to commitment and outreach. At the same time, this is different from the traditional meaning of the word.
In the New Testament the “sent ones” were apostles. Not all Christians were given the apostolic gift. Some were pastors, teachers, etc. During the past two hundred years, the “sent ones,” the missionaries, were the pioneers, the mavericks, those whose passion for Christ and people took them to people very much unlike themselves beyond their own land, culture, and language. Traditionally, we have recognized missionaries as those who have taken special training and obtained unusual experiences to help them understand cultures, learn languages, discern world views, and to love, communicate, and make their home among people very much unlike us. This kind of work requires particular gifts, aptitudes, qualities, and training. Not everyone is gifted for it. Not everyone is called to it. Not everyone can do it.
However, all Christians are called to love their neighbors and reach out to them. This is what a Christian does. At one time we might have called these people “Christians.” As the word Christian became too broad, we might have called them “evangelicals.” When the category evangelical became too broad, we might have called them “disciples.” When it became too easy to be considered a disciple, we might have called them fully devoted disciples. Now that this term has been overused, we are calling them missionaries.
Degeneration of language is inevitable, so missionary may be the best term we have until we find yet a more powerful word. At the same time, some people feel hurt and disrespected when all Christians are considered missionaries.These are often people who went through extensive training and years of hardship living among people of primitive cultures far from friends and family for the sake of the Gospel and people with very little access to the Gospel.
Further, it devalues the gifts, call, and training of those who continue to study and serve in cross-cultural roles. Few of us recognize what is required. If we have been in another culture or even served someone nearby, we think we are already missionaries. The concept that some must undergo serious training and sacrifice to reach people with little access to the Gospel may escape us altogether.
For an analogy, suppose that everyone who serves in the healing process becomes known as a doctor. Nurses, who assist doctors, become doctors. Aids who assist nurses become doctors. And neighbors who sit by the bedside of a sick friend are doctors. Everyone who is concerned about health becomes a doctor. You can see that calling everyone a doctor tends to minimize the training, qualifications, skills, and commitment required for an M.D. And it further confuses communication about the persons we are talking about.
It would be nice to go back and limit the term “missionary” to those who cross-cultures with the gospel. But since that is not likely to happen, perhaps we will need to distinguish traditional missionary roles and recruit people for these roles by calling them cross-cultural missionaries or international missionaries.