I’ve seen this thought make it’s rounds on social media and the like again recently. It’s hip to say that “Every Christian is a Missionary,” or “Every Christian ‘ought to be’ a missionary,” or even, when addressing our own audiences, “We are all missionaries.”
but look at the following proposition;
“If God is a missionary God, and we are created in His image, then the people of God should be a missionary people.” ~ Me
Seems somewhat reasonable, doesn’t it?
The problem is one of language. Should God’s people be missionary-ish? I believe they should. Should all God’s people be ‘missionaries’ in the most common understanding of the word? Let’s consider these before answering;
- “Every Christian is either a missionary or an impostor.”
This is a quote from the famous 19th Century British pastor and theologian, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. He was a megachurch Pastor in his day. He was called ‘The Prince of Preachers,’ and it is estimated that he presented the gospel to over 10 million people in his life. That’s Astounding! If only .01% went on to be earnest followers of Christ, then he could well have made 1000 disciples!
I don’t think that Spurgeon was inferring that every believer had to pack their stuff and head to some secret and dangerous location in the 10/40 window. I believe he was saying that every believer should embrace their sent-hood and adopt attitudes and actions that reflect God’s ‘on the move’ nature.
Jesus was the archetypal missionary. 40 times in the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to himself as “sent” on a mission. He left his home and glory in heaven, left his family, and left his culture to come to the earth as a missionary to reach a people, who without that sent-hood, would have never been reconciled with the Father.
Jesus also, it seems, inferred that every believer is sent. “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world (John 17:18).” There is the question of scope. Was Jesus truly referring to EVERY BELIEVER in John 17? If He was, then is there really such a thing as a subset of believers that are called missionaries? Let’s see what others have to say on the subject:
- Tim Keller communicates a similar concept in Center Church. He says, “Not only the apostles but every Christian did evangelism — and they did so endlessly. Numerous passages indicate that every Christian was expected to evangelize, follow-up, nurture, and teach people the Word. This happened relationally — one person bringing the gospel to another within the context of a relationship.”
- Winkie Pratney, New Zealand evangelist and author, says, “Every Christian a missionary; every non-Christian a mission-field.”
- Allen Turner says that, “The ‘going’ that God commands of His people is not limited to an elite group of super-Christians, even as it was not limited to the apostles to whom it was first given.” Further, it is not limited to far away places that inevitably involve the crossing of large bodies of salt water. On the contrary, the Lord calls every Christian to be a missionary. In doing so, He commands all of us to “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Yes, I realize that the Lord first directed this to His apostles, but most interpreters have understood that this wasn’t limited to them alone. In fact, and this by way of extension, it is every Christian’s “call” to the mission field—a field made up not only of exotic sounding places and far away locations, but one that includes our houses, our neighborhoods, and our communities. It includes the factories and offices where we work and the schools we attend. In reality, the mission field may be as unromantic and unexotic as that area just over our backyard fences. In other words, although we Christians are no longer “of the world,” through the precious blood of Jesus Christ, we are still “in the world” (John 17:6-19), and it is to this world—the one in which we live every day—that the Lord has called us to be missionaries.
- Eddie Arthur says that, “Some think that only ‘some people GO’ – the rest of us can stay behind and pray and give. But, this just isn’t what the Bible story is getting at. God is on a mission and we are called to be followers of this mission-oriented God. Mission isn’t something we are to do, it is what we are. To ask whether All Christians are called to be missionaries is a bit like asking whether all dogs should have four legs.
- Ernest Goodman says that, “The new paradigm is simple: all Christians are missionaries. They must be, because none of us are at “home.” Even if your ministry is to a group of people that you grew up with- a group that looks, talks, and acts just like you- you must recognize that your transformation in Christ necessarily makes you an outsider- a foreigner- to even your own culture. You can’t afford to assume that you are ministering in your own context. You don’t have a context in the world anymore.”
I have heard variations on this theme, namely that “Simply living in the spirit of Jesus Christ is a powerful witness to those around us and marks us out as a missionaries in the modern world,” but in my view, it lacks intentionality and the seemingly imperative sent-hood.
All of those examples, and many more, would seem to confirm that yes, indeed, all Christians should be considered missionaries.
Whose Job is missions anyway?
Now let’s look at some opposing views.
- Charles Ryrie has pointed out that we must distinguish between a general practice in the church and a special gift which God gives to some in that area.
- Herbert Kane has suggested that although it is not possible to give a flawless, scientific definition of a missionary, the following one should suffice: In the traditional sense the term missionary has been reserved for those who have been called by God to a full-time ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4), and who have crossed geographical and/or cultural boundaries (Acts 22:21) to preach the gospel in those areas of the world where Jesus Christ is largely, if not entirely unknown (Rom. 15:20). Not everyone, I think, fits THAT description of a missionary.
- Guy Muse, a fellow laborer and missionary here in Ecuador says that; “One of the common misconceptions about missions is that all believers are missionaries. It continues to be stated so often that few question the validity of this oft quoted misconception making the rounds from our pulpits and missions conferences. I truly wish it were true, but frequent repetition does not make it so. I believe we need to correct the language we are using and stop calling all believers missionaries.
- Gordon Olson says it well when he states: “If every Christian is already considered a missionary, then all can stay put where they are, and nobody needs to get up and go anywhere to preach the gospel. But if our only concern is to witness where we are, how will people in unevangelized areas ever hear the gospel?”
Guy also says that; “The Great Commission is taking the Gospel to our Jerusalem. This is where we live. It is where most of our time, efforts and ministry are centered. But Holy Spirit empowered believers are likewise charged to be His witnesses to their Judea, Samaria, and, yes: the ends of the earth–the nations. When we begin to move beyond our Jerusalem and seek to engage our Judea, Samaria, and the nations–then, we become misionaries–the sent ones that we are meant to be.” (You can read his blog post in full here.
Guy concludes by saying that;
“Everyone may indeed NOT be a missionary, but it is my belief that we should deliberately seek to do everything in our power to make sure we ARE missionaries.”
Some personal thoughts; playing ‘devil’s advocate in my head…
- As I stated before, it’s a problem of language. The concept of a missionary can be traced to Acts 13:2-3. During a revival, God told the church to send out Paul and Barnabas. While every believer within the nascent church was a witness, it was the Spirit who separated Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries. It was the Holy Spirit communicate directly to the prophets and teachers in Antioch and told them to send out Paul and Barnabas. Antioch DID NOT commission Paul and Barnabas, they just obeyed the Spirit and sent them.
- The elements of the missionary call were these: God called specific individuals, the church either came alongside that call or not, they covenanted with them to be supportive, and sent them. The missionaries would relay information and sometimes report back.
- This description does not necessarily fit every Christian, and to say that every believer is a missionary will only make a useful term meaningless. One has said. “If mission is everything, then nothing is mission.” We could just as easily say, “If everyone is a missionary, then no one is a missionary.”
- Further, there are ‘other’ works and words to consider. All believers may be ‘witnesses,’ (Acts 1:8) but not missionaries. We may all be ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20), or the gospel message (Christians are God’s ambassadors in that they have been “approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel” (1 Thessalonians 2:4), but not ‘missionaries.’ We may all, though there is some debate, be commissioned to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 20:18-20) but again, not be missionaries.
I can’t remember where I read or heard this idea, but it goes something like this;
“If everyone is a missionary and everything we do is missions, then everyone that is unreached will remain unreached.”
This statement seems to overreach, pun intended, but I understand it’s point. While not every believer may properly be called a “missionary” by the traditional definition (e.g. someone who is sent by The Church for the purpose of growing The Church in a new and different place among unreached or under-reached people groups,) missionary-ish living should characterize the life of every believer.
Robert C. Shannon said,
“Never pity missionaries; envy them. They are where the real action is — where life and death, sin and grace, Heaven and Hell converge.”
Some final thoughts: What’s the point of getting everyone to ‘buy into’ the thought that ALL ARE MISSIONARIES? If it’s to change hearts and minds and have people embrace there sent-hood, then it doesn’t appear to be working. There are still less than 1% of believers, when asked if they had made a disciple in the past year that answer in the affirmative. There’s a good chance that if disciples are not being made by whatever ‘missionary’ endeavor the church finds itself in, then it’s not mission, and they are not missionaries anyway.
As Guy stated above, incessantly repeating the mantra will not make any more true. Also, I happen to agree that we should start in our own Jerusalems, but it’s not a hard rule. Further, with the globalization of our own communities and the multi-cultural opportunities right next door, it’s cool to say that we CAN all be missionaries, but there are 2 things to consider;
First, there will always be those that God calls to the fringes, the marginalized, and the dispersed ones (diaspora). It’s no more cutting edge to minister within a multi-cultural community than on the fringes of a multi-cultural community.
Second, the bulk of multi-cultural or globalized communities exist in the world’s cities where there is free and easy access to the gospel. There would seem to be less need for ‘missionaries’ in that kind of environment. I say ‘seem,’ because I will not make that a hard rule either.
Is that helpful or does it propagate a myth?
By the way, this is really not ‘the final word,’ as I’m sure, on this topic. And just in case you were wondering, ‘sent-hood’ is a play on ‘sainthood.’ This post was updated from a post on April 13th of 2015.