What do you think about when you hear the word missionary? My idea of what a missionary is was greatly influenced by the small Baptist Church that I grew up in. What usually pops into my head when I think about missionaries are the global map and missionary postcards that hung on the back wall of the sanctuary and the eccentric and awkward looking men in cheap three piece suits who would come and show us a slide show of a far off land; usually consisting of a picture showing a tinned roof single room cinderblock church with a small group of indigenous people wearing cheap three piece suits and holding their Bibles. We would hear of all the successes and struggles that they had celebrated and endured; all of the baptisms and all of the disease. And after all the stories were shared the pastor would ask the congregation to take up a love offering and visit the missionary’s table after the service was over. So for me a missionary was someone who was super excited about telling foreign peoples about Jesus, had no money, worked really hard, lived without A/C, and had a lot of kids. They were people I could not identify with and they lived a calling that I prayed I would never receive.
I was curious about what others might think about when they hear the word “missionary” so I posted a question on Facebook to see what I might get. Here are a few of the responses I received:
* A person commissioned to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to another culture.
* Christians who suffer persecution, at the hands of those who do not want to hear the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
* Someone who serves unconditionally and loves without being judgmental. Sometimes you have to leave the place you love and travel to places you never imagined.
I believe that we, in the contemporary church, need to reexamine this word “missionary”. Many errantly believe that "missionary" is a title that is found in the Scriptures, when actually the word was unknown before 1598 when the Jesuits sent members of their priesthood abroad. If we examine the etymology of the word we understand why it was used; “Missionary” is derived from the Latin word missio, meaning "act of sending" or mittere, meaning "to send". Now to be fair the concept of one who is sent is found in the Greek word apostolos, which means “a delegate, messenger, one sent forth with orders.”, and there is of course an office within the Church called Apostle. However, I do not believe that this apostolic office and our modern idea of a missionary are synonymous. I believe what we have done is inadvertently taken this relatively new word, missionary, and invented a new office within the Church. The title or position of missionary is not a bad one in and of itself but what has unfortunately occurred as a result of the position is that it has created an environment within our churches that tells the average congregant that it is an elite and radical people, called missionaries, who “Go” and that to be a person who is on mission you must travel to another continent and assume a foreign culture.
Now it may appear that I am splitting hairs here in my explanation of what a missionary is but I believe that words are very important and they do inform how we think. Most Christians today, especially those in the West, no longer understand the Church to be an apostolic entity and they certainly do not believe that they themselves have been sent. So I propose if we are to use this term “missionary” may it be used in such a way that every Christian understands that they too have been sent. Their mission and the people group to whom they have been called may only be across the street but it is missionary work none the less. Some may be blessed with an extra measure of grace to take the Gospel farther and make greater sacrifices for the sake of the mission but this should not elevate their work above another’s. Let it be understood, there is no such office within the Church called "missionary". It is we, the gathered ones of God, collectively who are on mission. We are one body with many parts all participating in the sweeping expansion of God's Kingdom to bring all peoples into obedience to the Gospel of Christ. We are a Missional Church!