Contend Earnestly: Who Is A Missionary?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Who Is A Missionary?

I'm writing as a follow up to Pete's question in the previous blog article. And I write this with the reality that I am going to spend my next year overseas, and quite possibly may move permanently outside of the USA.

The question seems easy enough at first; aren't missionaries those folk who go outside the US to share the gospel to the "Pagans?" I think this view dominated the great missionary period of the late 18th and 19th centuries. After all, America was "Christianized" and it was time to share the "Truth" of the gospel with those that had never heard of Jesus. Sounds like a biblical plan, but that same truth was ostensibly amalgamated to "Manifest Destiny" and other American idols, weakening the gospel story, and creating an American version that has hurt the gospel, and darkened the missionary endeavor.

Thanks to men like Leslie Newbigin, we have been "Enlightened" to the imperialistic missionary movement of the 19th century, and have re-focused our efforts on a fledgling America who has lost its gospel moorings (Not a bad effort at all in a post-Christian/postmodern west). This was most certainly a needed adjustment, as a weird dualism was created between missions (Overseas work) and evangelism (The gospel in America) that mitigated the need for fresh new church plants to help renew a dying institution. The church is always in need of a reformation as many of our reformed forefathers reminded us (Semper Reforma).

All of this was fine, except the fact that we have once again (As the church is so good at) thrown the baby out with the bath water. While we badly needed the corrective, many in the so called missional church movement have castigated overseas missions as imperialistic and arrogant. After all, doesn't each culture have the right to their own religion? Is it possible the church has drank the 21st century, enlightened western kool-aid, instead of the clear teaching of the scriptures to "Go into the world and make disciples?" This attitude has helped increase those that have not heard the gospel to close to 40% of the world's population. Only 2.5% of all missionary endeavors and church plants reach the unreached and/or un-evangelized.

So who are the missionaries in the 21st century? Two clear things come to mind when I think of this question; First, all of God's people are missionaries, as we are all called to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8) so that we "May proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9b). No doubt that means in our own back yards, and to the "Uttermost parts of the world." Right now though, more believers from Latin America and Asia are crossing cultural boundaries to share Jesus, than there is from the "West."

Secondly, God is a missionary. The Latin term "Missio Dei" was coined I believe by German Missiologist Karl Hartenstein to remind us of God's missionary movement throughout the world to redeem a people to Himself through His church. He is a revealing God that "Sent" us His Son as the ultimate revelation and missionary (Hebrews 1:1-3). John 16 reminds us that when Jesus left, He did not leave us alone, but promised us the Holy Spirit would come to "Convict the world concerning Sin and righteousness and judgment" (v.8), which gives us great comfort that it is God who is at work in the people's heart before God's servant shows on the scene.

It's a wonder that reformed people that believe in the sovereign grace of our Lord Jesus Christ have so much problem accepting the fact that our God is a missionary God already working in the religious and political structures of the cultures we enter, and in spite of vast cultural and religious differences, there are similarities and evidence of His grace wherever we go.

Thus we are all missionaries following our missionary master into the world, knowing He has already paved the way; therefore maybe we can enter other cultures with a gospel denuded of Americana and cultural arrogance and present Jesus in a way that allows the Spirit of God who is already working in the culture to sear it into the hearing and hearts of the people we serve. Maybe then we can enter presenting the gospel of redemption in the power and conviction of the Holy Spirit, and not with an heir of superiority, attempting conversions to our religion, ministry or country! Maybe then like 1 Corinthians 3:6 reminds us that we can plant and water, but it is God who creates growth and conversion.

Is it possible to do evangelism trusting in the Spirit of God to prepare the people we share with, and trust that God will do what He desires with His word as we faithfully bare witness to Jesus our savior?

Shouldn't we do this in our back yards, and in nations far away? Isn't the glory of God something that can't be co-opted by cultural, political and national values, and should be shared with men and women in every culture and people group? Sounds biblical?


Seth McBee said...

The more and more I interact with other Christians, the more I am convinced that they (we) don't know what the true Gospel is. We don't know what is to die on a hill for and what to allow as differences in culture/logic/discernment etc. etc.

So, the gospel becomes a bunch of Western ideals instead of about redemption from heaven for sinners in all cultures for the glory of God. Which, by the way, started in the Middle East, not in the West.

Seth McBee said...

I also wonder what would happen if we took our "call" to our own communities more seriously and acted as though we were being called to a foreign land. If we all treated our communities like Hudson Taylor did with China, I bet the Western church would look far different.

Darlene said...


It seems you have been alluding to the differences between 'East' and 'West' quite a bit lately. As an Orthodox Christian, I have learned (and continue to learn) about the great divide between the East and West. However, I'm not so sure as a Calvinist that you would concur with the Orthodox mindset.

This brings me to my question. You often speak about the 'gospel.' What would you say, according your tradition, what the gospel is? How would you describe/explain it to someone if you were an evangelizing missionary? Would your description/explanation be the same to an American as it would be to someone of a different culture?

Anonymous said...

As being a missionary myself i really do enjoy getting God word out to the lost soul and i love God because he first love me. And the bible teaches us that the day you hear my voice hardest not your heart. God is a good God because he one day save my soul.And i belive that God word start at home and then it spread aboard amen. That a mission there at your own home.The word gone to be preach to the whole world and then shall the end come so church let get the word out there and rember you might be the only bible that your friend read have a good day.

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