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What is a “missionary?”

Until the mid-20th century the term “missionary” was enviable and honorable as someone willing to give up everything in their life to carry the gospel to a tribe or an unevangelized country.  Now the term in the Western church has taken on unfortunate baggage of association with paternalistic colonialism and dependency practices to encourage conversions to evangelical religions.  Many do not want to use the term or be identified as a “missionary” for political and security issues in some countries.

The term “missionary” is a creation of the Western Latin Christianity from the translation of the Greek word for “apostle.” The etymology of the word simply means “a sent one,” but the word usage in the NT is very specific referring to the original apostles or twice refers to a group sent from a local church on a specific short-term task (with no reference to a spiritual gift or official office of apostleship as 2 Cor 8:23 and Phil 2:25).  Some who claimed the title of “apostle” were declared to be “false apostles” (2 Cor 11:13; Rev 2:2) because of their deviation from Pauline or other apostolic writings.

Do we need the term “apostle-missionary” today?  The biblical apostles were multi-gifted leaders of the early church who laid the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20). Once the foundation was laid followed the apostle’s foundational teachings tenaciously (Acts 2:42).

The different spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12; Eph 4:11; Rom 12:3-8) can manifest themselves in different servants to collectively fulfill the expansion functions of the apostles, i.e., evangelists, teachers, exhorters, prayers of faith, sacrifices of service, etc..  There is no “call” to be a missionary in the NT, rather as God gives spiritual gifts to individuals for effective ministries, these gifted persons can be recognized by local churches who can partner with them as they commit their lives in the most effective manner to fulfill the Great Commission. There is no stereotype missionary.

For convenience the term “missionary” has come to mean many things, even doing an errand for neighbor.  Patrick Johnston defines the term, “The Christian missionary is someone commissioned by a local church or denomination to evangelize and disciple people outside his or her home area, and often among people of a different race, culture or language” (The Future of the Global Church, p. 226).

We are all called to Christ in salvation with the task of becoming a witness of His grace and salvation to unbelievers around us, but a “missionary” is to take this mission of evangelism to where Christ has never been know.  This is certainly a deeper commitment requiring a broader cooperation and facilitation of the local church.

The role of the local church cannot be minimized in this global task. Gifted godly disciples must be identified, trained and mentored in their development to fulfill God’s purpose for their lives (Eph 2:10; 4:12).  The diagram below gives some idea of the areas of preparation needed to fulfill this task.

In a globalized world of multiple ethnic peoples and cultures the following functions need to be learned and adapted to multiple cultures to establish and strengthen local groups of disciples around the globe.

categories of missy minThose who take seriously the Great Commission to win and build groups of disciples in every people group without preferences, prejudices or personal interests will take the time to equip themselves for the ministry.

This six-fold ministry will require multiple partnerships in order to be accomplished.  The Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) defines the mission of the church; the vision (Matt 24:14) is to complete the basic mission of building some disciples among the last people group on earth (“nations”).  If God’s people can team together to combine our efforts, we can finish the Great Commission in our generation.

“The ministries of missions” in The Future of the Global Church, p. 226

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