Defining Missions – What is a Missionary?

When I visit churches in America I am always interested to hear how the pastor will introduce me from the pulpit. I usually hear something like “Today we have with us Brother, uh… Missionary, uh… Pastor Chris.” I can’t count the number of times that I have been approached by good hearted and humble disciples in the stateside churches with the question, “What should I call you?” I might be mistaken, but I can’t imagine that any of our American pastors are used to hearing this question. I’m not keen on titles, so it really makes no difference to me what people call me. In fact when faced with this question I usually grin and say, “My mom named me Chris.” But this confusion on what to call a missionary sheds light on the vague understanding we have about what a missionary actually does. For many, what a missionary does is as mysterious and strange as the lands in which he ministers. I am convinced that the vagueness of the term “missionary” is partially to blame for this mystery. And I believe that this mystery causes some real and practical harm to both the missionaries that are sent and the churches and pastors that send them.

In the post “Defining Missions – Where is the Mission Field” we defined missions as working to fulfill the Great Commission. Mission work is not defined by geographical location but by the work in which we are involved. The next term we want to look at is missionary. Sticking to the aforementioned definition of missions would lead us to conclude that every Christian involved in the Great Commission is a missionary. That makes the terms missionary and evangelically minded Christian virtually synonymous, and doesn’t seem to get us anywhere. Instead it leaves us without a word for Gospel laborers that work in cross cultural or foreign situations. So let me be clear from the outset that I am not suggesting we stop using the word, but that we understand its limitations and the practical problems that can arise from not understanding those limitations.

Limited Lingo

In common speech when we use the term missionary we are usually referring to a Christian ministering in some way overseas. This seems to me a valid definition as far as it goes. There are many ways to serve the Body of Christ in an American church. The same thing applies to the foreign mission field. A Christian that goes to teach at a Gospel-centered orphanage in Asia and another that goes to conduct evangelistic crusades in that same Asian country would both be termed missionaries by their sending churches and organizations. I think that is fair, right and just, and have no problem with calling either one of them missionaries. Based on the definition already given for the term missions, these servants could also be called missionaries if they were doing the same types of Gospel service in America. It is fair to call them missionaries, but it is rather vague. It causes an unnecessary cloud of mystery to envelop the day-to-day activities of those laborers. It is like the term minister. When someone says they are a minister, we have a general idea that they are somehow involved with Christian ministry, but are left to wonder in which particular ministry they are involved. Are they a pastor? A youth pastor? A worship leader? A traveling evangelist? Or something else? Minister is a good word and very useful, but we need more information. I believe the term missionary is very similar in its usefulness, and in its vagueness.

As mentioned, I am not suggesting that we do away with the word “missionary.” In general it is a pretty useful way to describe a Christian that goes to another country to serve God and help fulfill the Great Commission. I feel we can safely use the word as long as we strip off the shroud of mystery that so often surrounds it. On the other hand, if it is used to describe a ministry that is so different than anything in the local American church, to the point that no American pastor or Christian could really be expected to fully understand it, I think we would do better to be rid of it altogether. If the ministry signified by the term missionary is not clear and understandable, it can cause some real practical problems between those that are called to minister overseas and those that are called to send them. And those of us that have been involved with sending out laborers into the harvest or have been sent out can testify that the relationship between a pioneer and his pastor is no insignificant relationship. The connection that a worker has with his pastor faces many obstacles under the best of circumstances, but when they are living hundreds or thousands of miles apart from each other, it is even more fragile. We don’t need the added stress that ambiguous terms like missionary might give rise to if they are not clarified.

Describing missionaries by the particular ministry they are involved in would go far in removing some of the misunderstandings surrounding the term we are discussing. Instead of applying this vague term to every overseas worker, more use could be made out of terms like apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. If we feel it is necessary, we can note that they happen to be serving in that particular role overseas, as a missionary. Or, if they are not necessarily walking in a role best described by the five-fold ministry gifts, we could say they are serving God by teaching in an orphanage overseas, serving as a Christian social worker in Thailand, leading a Bible study in Russia or any number of other things that people with the title “missionary” might be involved in. Just as emphasizing the task of the Great Commission over and above the location in which the Commission is fulfilled helps us clarify the term missions, putting more emphasis on the ministry of the overseas worker, instead of the location of that ministry, would help demystify the everyday activities of the worker.

If I say I am a missionary, it is vague, and possibly gives rise to various images that may or may not apply to my particular situation in ministry. One person might picture me traversing jungles in search of a lost tribe of cannibals; another might picture me running an orphanage in the city slums; and yet another listener might imagine me standing on a stage in front of multitudes preaching the Gospel. On the other hand, if I say that I am a pastor in Indonesia, most of my listeners would picture me going about the business of making disciples, counseling people, preaching sermons and leading a congregation of believers. Even if they picture our church building as a straw hut instead of the storefront we actually use, they would still have a pretty good grasp on my day to day activities. If I then add that I am also laboring as a teacher, the large percentage of my listeners would imagine me spending a lot of time in study and preparation. They would picture me teaching the Bible to my church as well as other congregations in the area. If I make mention of the apostolic gift at work in my life, the picture that would come to most minds is of me starting new works and leading other workers in Gospel related labors. Using the terms that are common for the different ministry gifts at work in the Body of Christ gives my listener a clear understanding of what I spend my life’s work doing.

Possible Problems

Why do people need to understand and have an accurate picture of the missionary’s ministry and the activities related to it? How much difference could it really make? To those that hear of a missionary somewhere yet have no connection with him, it might make no difference at all. But for those that are linked in covenant to the missionary, or those that feel called to become, or send out, a missionary, it is very important. Let me now turn from the vagueness of the word, to some of the practical problems that can arise from not understanding what a missionary is called to do.

Take for example the young disciple called to labor overseas. As long as he was planning on pioneering a church somewhere near his pastor, he was still able to look to his shepherd for training. He could soak in all the wisdom his pastor had to offer about how to pioneer a church and lead a congregation. And the pastor himself could speak with confidence out of his own experience. If the young buck couldn’t understand why the pastor was giving the counsel he was, the pastor could confidently smile, look him in the eyes, and say, “You’ll understand soon enough, my lad.” But as soon as the disciple realizes that he is going overseas, something changes. All of a sudden, he is not going to be a pioneer pastor but a missionary. This is something his pastor has no experience with. How can his pastor train him for something he has never done? The aspiring missionary might begin to feel that his pastor is no longer qualified to train him. Not only the disciple but even the pastor himself might start to believe that he doesn’t have what the young minister needs. The belief that a missionary is something totally different from anything in the American church might lead to great struggle for both the aspiring laborer and the sending pastor. Maybe the pastor, out of insecurity and fear, will decide his church can’t be involved in missions and hold back the disciple from God‘s calling on his life. Maybe the disciple will no longer feel he needs his pastor and move away from home to enroll at a Bible school that focuses on training missionaries. He might reason that in such a school he can learn missionary things. Or possibly the up-and-coming missionary will choose to join an organization with mission experience and abandon his relational commitment to the church in which he was saved and discipled. However the particular scenario unfolds, misunderstanding what missionaries do can lead to a wedge being placed between the future missionary and his pastor.

If the pastor and disciple do work it out, and the disciple makes it overseas, that is not the end of any possible problems. When the young missionary comes home to visit the good pastor will try to keep him accountable to some standard of ministry. The missionary could easily tell the local pastor, “It’s different out there. You don’t know because you haven’t been there. But trust me; I know what I am doing.” Many pastors out of humility would feel that this might be true. In that case, the missionary would miss out on the important input his pastor had to give him. This would be due to the fact that both he and his pastor felt a missionary is completely different than a pioneer pastor. So the missionary, though he has a wise, loving and humble pastor, would be left to figure things out on his own. That is a dangerous place to be!

The Bible describes members of the Body of Christ by the ministry and gifting that they walk in. I am confident that if we did this with missionaries, it would help us have a more realistic view of foreign mission work. This practice and the clarity it would give would help those that aspire to pioneer a church overseas realize that their pastor, has something to offer in their preparation process. They wouldn’t feel like they had to go to some special mission school to prepare for the foreign mission field, but would understand that the local church is the best training ground there is for ministry. Defining missionaries by the gifting they walk in would also help the home church pastor feel confident that he can speak into the life of the pastor-missionary over the years since he also has experience as a pastor.


Someone ministering in a church overseas is doing basically the same ministry as someone ministering in a church at home, just as someone preaching the Gospel in America is involved with the same mission as someone doing it in a foreign land. This principle seems so obvious, but it seems we have unwittingly put a large gap between domestic missions and foreign missions, and between ministers that labor in our home country and those that labor overseas. In an attempt to honor the sacrifices made by laborers that have gone overseas, we have in effect ended up separating them and their work from their home church. We would be better served to recognize that a laborer should be defined by their ministry, not by where they minister.

It isn’t important what title we give our cross cultural ministers, but it is important that we have no misperceptions about the work in which they are involved. It is true that there are some practical differences like language and culture in the settings in which they labor. But these differences are not so essential that we need to create a completely isolated category of ministry for them. Christ gave gifts to his Body, and through those gifts he equips the saints so that the Church of God can build itself up in love. He gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. It is noteworthy that missionary didn’t make the list. This is because the term missionary gives no clue as to what ministry that laborer is supposed to be involved in. Instead it merely tells us that whatever he is doing he is not doing it in his native land. In order to effectively train and cover our missionaries we must be clear about the ministries they are preparing for and walking in. We must realize that missionaries are walking in the role of pastor, prophet, evangelist, apostle, teacher or one of the other ministry gifts described in the Word of God. Emphasizing the work, gifts and calling of the particular missionary over and above the location of his ministry will go far in helping us to accomplish the Body of Christ’s God-given calling as a church planting, missionary sending Body!


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