Contend Earnestly: What Is A Missionary?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What Is A Missionary?

I just returned from a couple weeks in Zambia working alongside some friends who are missionaries with a group called ACTION Zambia. This was my third visit in the past 13 months and it was during this trip that I really began wrestling with how we think about missions and missionaries. In spite of the fact that the Scriptures only describe two church offices in any detail, missionaries have become an unofficial official role in the church along with others like Sunday School superintendent and youth pastor.


The problem is that it leaves us with a vocation that lacks biblical definition. This is a wonderful boon on the one hand because we can launch thousands of missionaries in a short period of time since all we really need are people with the willingness to "go" somewhere, anywhere. No real need for extensive training. No red tape to slow the process down. Here today, gone tomorrow. But what kind of people end up being sent? How many of them should not only be kept home, but be locked away? How many of these will go into the field adding to the already heavy load of the local mission or even disrupt the work there because of unresolved or undetected character or theological issues?

Instead of missionaries, should we instead think of them as elders or deacons that will be sent abroad (like church planters, I suppose) and therefore hold them to the same character and doctrinal standards? Wouldn't it be better for churches at home to strive toward sending over-qualified candidates into the mission field rather than anyone who's "willing"?

What do you think? How does your church do it?

5 comments:

mgunn said...

Pete, good job bro! Good to see ya back safely! I agree, I would love to see churches planted that are "Sending" churches who have a mentality that identifies their "Apostolic" gifted men to train and send them out to plant churches, especially where no one else has planted (Which makes up approximately 40% of the world; see Romans 15:20). It seems that most of our churches are planted in harvested fields.

I also think that most often we are doing more to create renewal movements amongst Christians (Which is needed), instead of taking the risks to plant in soils that appear harder.

I pray, the church, as it begins to contemplate its role in the world, will seriously think through these issues, and begin to take Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8 more seriously.

kprochas said...

When I was going through the process for a 2 year missionary gig w/ the PCA's Mission to the World (MTW) organisation they put me through a battery of psychological tests and Bible tests. I also had to have the blessings of the elders of Green Lake Presbyterian Church. I had a week long training session and interview process at MTW HQ in Atlanta. I was accepted but I thought the majority of funding, which was incredibly high ($60K most of that to cover 'administrative costs'), would come from GLPC but when I found out I'd have to go to other PCA churches I just couldn't do it; I am no salesman and that is exactly what it struck me is what I would have to do in order to raise the money. The whole process struck me as somehow artificial and unscriptural. Anyway from what I understand other missionary organisations go through the same selection process. Again it seems to me that isn't exactly Biblical but I understand that it is an attempt to make sure that they aren't sending over a person who wouldn't be able to do the work.

When I think of this selection process I am reminded of Gladys Aylward who is a famous British missionary to China. She was a parlour-maid to a wealthy family. She felt lead by the Lord to be a missionary but was turned down by the China Inland Mission because her academic background was inadequate. So she raised the £30 it would take to go by train and went with no other money; she was given a £ note from a Christian couple on the train. She faced a lot of trials just getting to China. Ironically once she did get to the British missionary she wanted to work with the woman died in an accident a very short time after her arrival. So Gladys who didn't know any Chinese and had no official missionary training was left alone in China. With a lot of faith and prayer she took over the mission and was very successful. She was so successful that Hollywood made a movie about her life. Gladys obviously had the full blessing of the Lord though the missionary organisation didn't think she was qualified. More people considering working overseas should read her story.

I do believe that faith is a big part of going overseas. I see the Acts 29 church plant model as a very reasonable way to go about spreading the Gospel within the US and outside.

mike said...

This post bothers me on several levels. Having said that, let me just say that a missionary is someone who does the same kinds of ministry in a foreign country as those who do ministry in the missionary's passport country.

This includes your two "official" offices as well as all the other people whom God has called to ministry in whatever other ways they can (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, plumbers, carpenters, parents, gas jockeys, executives, etc.)

How we chose missionaries is the same as how we chose minsters who will minister in their "own" country. Sometimes there is a process (eg. ordination) sometimes there is a selection committee, sometimes there is active recruitment, sometimes people grow up with the desire and calling. What is essential in ministry (whether in your passport country or your host country) is the call of God.

pete said...

Mike (not Gunn)...what is it that bothers you about the post?

The problem in your definition is that it does not require that the missionary candidate have any theological training nor have his/her character examined nor have their calling tested - all of which are essential to the two primary vocational offices outlined in the church (I didn't write 1 Timothy or Titus so the "official" offices aren't mine, but by extension God's).

Not everyone who feels called should be approved. Not only do the Scriptures teach that, but I've got my experience as a church planter, pastor and missionary to back it up. That's why I asked the question in the first place, because it seemed to me that the call to missions that is given out only requires someone with the willingness to go, which is wonderful until these willing Christians reach the field and those already there discover that far too many are seriously deficient in both a basic knowledge of the Christian faith and/or mature Christian character...in the end we've done what Paul warned against by "laying on hands too quickly", wouldn't you agree?

What makes this question even more important is that there are situations out there where it's not just sending the uncalled and untrained, but even the home offices of missions orgs. You need to talk to those who are out working in the field and ask them about whether the home office is helping them with the candidates they send or hurting them.

mike said...

I really have no issue with what you have written Pete, particularly in your response to my post. I think the post bothered me because I am very close to the topic ;-)

Certainly those who are sent out need to be tested, and tried and sent with the full support and love of those doing the sending. Fo the record I recommend ordination (theological testing), ministry partner development (testing as to whether the person can gather a following), and recommendation from a local church who really knows the person.

The issue I have is when we single out those who are doing it in a different culture, as your post indicates. I would submit that we need to do this for all of those who are tasked with the responsibility of proclaiming the good news, regardless of where we do it. We can't just single out those on a mission as needing this :-)

With regards to the offices, I would suggest there is also an overlooked office of widows described in 1Timothy.

But can we really deny someone's call even if we feel they are not ready? How do we evaluate this? How do we help someone along the path toward their calling? Is the calling of God sufficient or do we need to get involved?

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