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Issues Facing Missions Today: 39.4 ‘Are We All Missionaries?’

Issues Facing Missions Today: 39.4 ‘Are We All Missionaries?’

The fourth, questionable point we want to consider in our hypothetical ‘Mission 101’ course is one that is often heard from Evangelical pulpits.  There is also an anti-clericalism about it as it relates to both missions and ministry.  It is this:

Point 4: ‘We are all missionaries.  Missions is not just for a select group of professional missionaries.’

Such a way of thinking is the product of a ‘priesthood of all believers’ theology, an appropriate theological conviction from the Reformation period so long as it is not overdrawn to the point of undermining serious ministerial training and a distinction of roles in a body of believers with different but complementary gifts of the Spirit.  Indeed, in language slightly altered from the previous post, which tackled the question of broadening ‘missions’ into everything, if everyone is a missionary, then nobody is a missionary.

Not everyone is gifted to be a missionary, however we define missions.  If it is a matter of cross-cultural ministry, we need to stress that some persons who are highly capable and accomplished in certain ministries in their own culture may well function poorly in another culture.  For example, some who are highly effective speakers in their own culture are inadequate communicators in another culture.  If missions is a matter of active engagement, grass-roots involvement, or physically demanding ministry, not everyone is going to be able to do it.  If it is a matter of going into dangerous contexts, thinking quickly in tense situations, and facing persecution, or if it is a matter of having linguistic or interpersonal skills or being able to get things started from scratch, not everyone is cut out for such challenges in missions.

Of course, there are different sorts of missionaries, too.  And missionaries can learn certain skills even if they are not so good at them.  And, especially, God can equip people to accomplish tasks beyond their natural abilities—this is, after all, the concept of being gifted by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12).  Yet we must realize that, just as everything we do is not automatically the Church’s mission, so too not everyone doing something is a missionary—what the early Church would have called an ‘apostle’ (lower case ‘a’) or a ‘co-worker.’

All this relates very practically to several concerns.  It relates to having discernment when assessing a call to missionary work—not just seeing if someone can raise the support needed to live overseas.  It relates to others being willing to support the properly vetted personnel for missions—not just support friends or slick fund raisers.  It relates to defining clear, long-term goals in fulfillment of the Great Commission and raising up missionaries to accomplish these goals—not just some large church flitting around from project to project to keep the exotic interest in missions hot for the congregation.  It relates to skilled training for missionary work—not just fielding anyone with a few weeks of mission training.  It relates to making changes in churches and mission agencies in their current approaches to missions in order to encourage and enable long-term, specialized missionary work (as opposed to costly short-term mission excursions).

I would turn around the present point being explored in our topics for the proposed Missions 101 course.  I would suggest that one of the primary concerns in missions today is not the democratization of missions as, for example, when everyone and anyone signs up for a two week ‘mission trip’ from their local church.  Indeed, a mission agency’s recruiter recently confided that their approach in recruitment was to sign up as many persons as possible.  The need to keep funds coming through the mission (as sometimes happens with colleges and seminaries), a lack of clearly defined goals for missionary work, and a belief that anyone can be fitted out for missionary service makes fund raising the primary requirement for missionary service, broadens mission activities to virtually anything, and lowers admission standards.
Rather, the pressing need in much of what we call ‘missions’ today is for specialization to accomplish clearly defined (even if large) tasks related to the mission of the Church and the special training, equipping, and support of a long-term missionary force.  In particular, a gifted and skilled missionary force in Great Commission missions—evangelism, church planting, Bible translation, and ministerial training and theological education—needs to be fielded for long-term work in strategic places in the world.[1]

[1] A caveat to this statement is that a mission agency needs to develop teams that accomplish this sort of work.  That is, a mission agency focussed on Bible translation, e.g., will field missionaries with a variety of gifts to accomplish this goal—not just Bible translators.  SIL, or Wycliffe, recruits a variety of personnel from computer specialists and pilots to teachers and mechanics as it pursues the goal of Bible translation.  Every mission also needs administrators, and some will work from the sending country.  Thus, there are a number of positions that need to be filled in a mission society.  Yet this does not mean that everyone is or can be fitted out for missions—even if they can raise the support needed!  The pressure here falls on local churches being wise in their support of missionaries and—perhaps especially—many mission agencies having clearer goals and greater wisdom in recruitment.  Not everyone is cut out for missionary service, even if everyone can be involved in supporting the Church's mission.