Monday, April 15, 2013

Is Every Christian a Missionary? Yes and No.

If you have been a Christian for any length of time you have probably heard the oft repeated phrase, "All Christians are missionaries" or "We're all called to be missionaries wherever we are." Whenever I hear these kinds of statements something doesn't sit right with me. So in this blog post I want to explore why I think that the bible teaches that individually all Christians aren't missionaries and why that is OK!

Defining Mission as Illuminated by the Trinity

The first thing to do is to establish a Trinitarian definition for mission--for the sake of this blog post I will attempt to keep it simple. Our English word missions stems from the Latin word missio, which means 'to send.' This was the word chosen to translate the Greek word from which we also get the word Apostle, which means, 'one who is sent.' Therefore, mission has to do with sending.  In John 20:21 Jesus says, "As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you."

A traditional symbol for the Trinity
Appropriately defining missions means that we must understand Missio Dei, the missionary God. We serve a missionary God; the Father sent His own Son across the greatest divide imaginable, to become a man and live among us. The Father and Son then sent the Holy Spirit to indwell the people of God at Pentecost, this is the bedrock on which we must build any biblical understanding of mission.

Some people may have difficulty understanding our God as a missionary--possibly because they only see sending as it relates to two persons of the Trinity. The Father was not sent, but the Son and Spirit were. Anyone who has taken to studying the Trinity understands that the relationships and roles within the Trinity are not uniform. The Father is not the same as the Son, and the Son is not the same as the Holy Spirit. There is only one God with three distinct persons, who's roles and relationships are not the same.

God's essence and attributes (e.g. Holiness, Justice, Love, etc.), however, cannot divided up between the different persons of the Trinity. This is one of the main areas of contention with the idea of Missio Dei. The late Missiologist David Bosch wrote in his book Transforming Mission, "mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God." (pp.389-90) I love this quote, but it is potentially untrue. If we only consider being sent as mission, then mission cannot be an attribute of God, because the Father was not sent--that is why I believe that mission is a corporate activity that involves sending and being sent.

The other main contention some theologians have with the concept of Missio Dei would be whether it is an eternal attribute of God--and in order to keep this blog post simple I will have to save that discussion for another time. Whether or not you agree that mission is an attribute of God, you must agree that it is something very close to God's heart, and central to God's interaction with mankind.

Understanding Mission as both an Individual and Corporate Activity

Therefore, our understanding of mission is illuminated by the relationships within the Trinity and must include both the sendee and the sender.  Within the Body of Christ, the Church, there are those that are sent, but also those that send them--both are participating in mission corporately as  commanded by God. The church corporately is a missionary as it is empowered by the Holy Spirit--and individuals within the church are set apart by the operation of the Spirit and sent out to bring about new manifestations of the church in different geographic locations among different peoples, thus advancing the Kingdom of God.

Before we can go deeper into understanding the corporate and individual aspects of mission as they relate to the church, we must consider how mission, being sent, is a unique calling and separate from the general command to proclaim the Gospel, that is to do evangelism.

Being sent means that there is a geographical element to mission--for Jesus this meant moving from Heaven to Earth, for the church in the first century it meant traveling from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the End of the Earth (see Acts 1:8). Judea and Samaria--and for that matter much of the Mediterranean were reached in the time of the first Apostles, we have yet to accomplish the task of taking the Gospel to all peoples, that is, the ends of the earth.

Mission, therefore, means crossing ethnic, linguistic and cultural boundaries with the Gospel. The great commission includes the command to make disciples of 'all nations,' but these nations aren't the same thing as the nation-states that we think of today (e.g. Russia, Canada, Denmark, etc.), but instead nations in this context refers to ethno-linguistic people groups (e.g. Russians, Canadians, Danish people, etc.). Within any given nation-sate, there are multitudes of people groups. In Russia for example, Joshua Project has identified at least 170 distinct people groups--of these, 85 are unreached with the Gospel, meaning that less than 2% of the people in those groups have a relationship with Jesus.

John Piper wisely distinguishes between evangelism and mission in a recent article entitled, How Much Is Left to Do in the Great Commission:
"Missions is not the same as evangelism. Evangelism is sharing the gospel with any unbelievers, and that work will never be done till Jesus comes. Missions, on the other hand, relates to people groups, not just people... missions is crossing a culture, learning a language, and planting the church through preaching the gospel among people groups that have no churches strong enough to evangelize their group."
With this further clarification of the definition of mission in mind let us consider the corporate and individual roles within the church.  The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth spells out how he believes that different Christians are given different gifts and callings and that they work together for the glory of God.
"Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?  But earnestly desire the higher gifts." (1 Cor 12:27-31)
Paul wrote a similar list in Ephesians 4:11-12: "And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ."

We're not all the same, even if we're wearing Uniqlo

He starts by helping the reader to understand that we are individually part of a corporate body, the church. Corporately 'you are the body of Christ,' and individually you are 'members of it.' I think this is a helpful distinction to keep in mind--and it as an especially difficult distinction for many individualistic Westerners to understand.

That means that there are actions taken on behalf of the church that we are corporately involved in, even if we are not directly involved in them. Within the corporate body of the church, God has given a diversity of gifts and callings--which according to Ephesians 4:11-13 are for equipping the saints for the work of ministry in order to build up the body of Christ.

Paul is clear to point out that these different callings have been appointed by God, and they are not static, some gifts are grown through service. Other gifts are learned through training (equipped). But he makes another thing clear, not all people are equally gifted or called to the same ministries. At the front of both of these lists is the word apostle.

The Apostles of the first century were not the last of the apostles (it is important to distinguish between big 'a' Apostle and small 'a' apostle)--in fact, apostles are a specialized group within the church that have been called to certain geographic areas and ethno-linguistic groups to establish churches, think of them as a highly trained strike-force. The twelve Apostles, were specially called by Jesus and equipped to establish the church in Judea and Samaria among the Jews--in the case of Paul, Barnabas, Silas and others named apostles in the New Testament, it meant going to the gentiles throughout the Roman Empire.

So to recap, the church is corporately a Missionary--if you are a member of the church of Jesus Christ, you are part of the invasion of the Kingdom of God on earth. Individuals within the church have different roles, given to help build up the church--only some are called and equipped to be apostles, that is, missionaries. According to Paul, becoming an apostle is something to aspire to when he says, 'but earnestly desire the higher gifts.' The highest gift according to the Apostle Paul is to be called into missionary service for the King.

Additional Insights and Applications

We don't do missions alone--even those called into full time missionary service are an extension of their local church. Without the prayers, encouragement and financial support of the body of Christ, missionaries would be unable to do the work to which God has called them.

One trend within contemporary missions that concerns me is that most missionaries are sent out by para-church organizations, and increasingly are raising their support among individuals rather than churches. Some of these missionaries go into countries and do not actually work towards seeing an indigenous church planted where they are ministering--in my mind, this is weak and dangerous ecclesiology. Missions that are cut off from the life of the church are not glorifying to God.

One bible story that I think illustrates this valuable lesson is of David's wisdom in Samuel chapter thirty. While pursuing the Amalekites, who had kidnapped their wives and children, some of David's men were too exhausted to continue the chase. David wisely left them by the river to defend their supplies. Upon returning from the battle victorious, David's men set about dividing the spoils--however some contention arose about whether those two hundred men deserved anything because they did not go and fight. But David replied to his men, "You shall not do so, my brothers, with what the Lord has given us. He has preserved us and given into our hand the band that came against us... For as his share is who goes down into the battle, so shall his share be who stays by the baggage. They shall share alike." (1 Sam 30:23-24)

We're not all called to go
David properly identifies the victory as belonging to the Lord--even though they had individually either fought or stayed behind, corporately they were victorious because of God. The same is true for mission, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, all our efforts towards advancing the Kingdom are fruitless. In the case of modern missions, there are some who go and there are some who stay and support--each one is rewarded the same as long as they are faithful to the role that God has given them. We are victorious corporately as we each serve in the roles that God has given to advance his Kingdom on earth.

Missions is the activity of the whole church, but I am personally responsible for my role in it. Many people have never asked the Lord how He would have them be involved in His mission. Aside from tithing to their church many are not directly involved in the primary work for which the church exists on earth. This is tragic, it is like being part of a professional sports team but never leaving the locker room!

As Paul points out, there are many different callings in the body of Christ, not everyone is called to be an Apostle--but we shouldn't be content to be where we are. Paul encourages us to aspire to greater gifts of service to the body of Christ. One step you may consider is taking the Perspectives class.

There are some that are called to use their gifts to help administer, or show hospitality--but that doesn't give them permission to be ignorant of what others in the body are doing. In fact, Jesus teaches us to pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." (Matt 6:10)

In addition to awareness, we are responsible to use our resources, time and energy to advance the Kingdom of God. You can support missions with your prayer, with your money and with advocacy.

Missionaries have an obligation to have a strong ecclesiology (a theology of the Church). I believe it is my responsibility to represent the local manifestation of the body of Christ through my mission work in another place. I am not just a loan missionary, but a representative of English speaking churches in North America--and more specifically of Converge Worldwide churches in the Pacific Northwest, and even more specifically of the Christian church in Olympia Washington.

I am individually a representative of their corporate prayers, giving and advocacy. Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the church in Antioch, and they continued to represent the Antioch church throughout their years of missionary service--reporting back to Antioch after each trip to share what God was doing through them.

Additionally, the churches planted through the missionary's service in another country become an extension of the local church to which the missionary has been sent by. There should be an ongoing relationship of fellowship and mutual prayer and encouragement. When the church in Jerusalem was suffering from famine, Paul raised resources throughout the churches of Asia to benefit a church with which most of them had no direct connection to.

When I cross over a geographic boundary, I am no less a part of the corporate body that I have been sent out by. I think this is one area that many missionaries struggle with, both in relation to their sending churches (if they have any) and in relationship to the church in the nation where they are ministering. I believe that modern missions in general has a weak ecclesiology and this is something we need to repent for.

Winning, only possible with losing
We need to be more careful in how we discuss missions and use words such as 'missional.' At the beginning of this message I shared my frustration with the oft repeated phrase, "we're all missionaries." The truth is, that while this is an appropriate comment as it pertains to our corporate life in the church, it is not true individually. We are not all called to be apostles, we are not all equipped to be apostles--not everyone is an apostle, so lets stop saying that everyone is a missionary! In fact, I think this actually causes more confusion about what mission really is than anything else.

Words having meaning, and how we use them effects the world around us. The words we use influence our worldview and perception of reality. For example, consider little-league sports, when everyone gets a trophy and there are no losers, then there are really no winners either. It is the potential of losing that makes victory so sweet. By corollary, if everyone is a missionary, then no one is really a missionary.  The fact that we have recently been using the word 'mission' so undiscerning has the potential of causing significant problems for the advance of God's missionary enterprise.

Language that diminishes the high calling of mission, I believe, dishonors those men and women that have been called into cross-cultural missionary service by belittling their sacrifices and suffering. Your two weeks overseas last summer does not make you an apostle, so stop calling it 'short term missions.' I want to advocate for the use of the terms like 'short term ministry' or 'international vision trip,' or 'Christian tourism.' Stop misusing the word mission!

For that matter, stop using the word missional to describe your local congregation or the members in it--unless your church (or a large part of it) is intentionally reaching out to other people groups in your geographic area. Do you have a Spanish language outreach, or an ESL ministry, or a outreach to International Students, or a Refugee ministry? If not, then  your church is not missional, and neither are your church members. The truth is, even in churches that have these kinds of ministries, usually only a handful of the members are actually actively involved in them, which is really rather disheartening.

If your church loves sharing the gospel, then I would encourage you to use the term 'evangelical.' If your church loves reaching out to hipsters with trendy music and appropriate facial hair, then by all means use the word 'relevant.' But let us reserve the word mission for the high calling of apostolic ministry. The universal church, the body of Christ is a missionary--your local congregation is a part of that body, that is the context in which any church is truly missional.


Is Every Christian a Missionary? Yes and No. As we participate in the body of Christ we are all part of the global advance of Christ's Kingdom. Each one of us, individually, contributes to that advance as we are faithful to the calling that God has put upon our lives. Each of us is encouraged to pray and use our resources to equip and send those that God has called to take the Gospel cross-culturally. We are not all given the same calling, each one of us has been given different talents and gifts with which to build up the body. In this, we see how the Trinity illuminates our relationships within the church.

Mission doesn't seek to bring uniformity to the cultural, linguistic and ethnic differences we see around the world--but instead to see God glorified through the myriad of different cultures, peoples  and languages. Just as there is one God with three distinct persons, so the church together worships and serves one God in a diversity of beautiful pageantry: 
"After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”" (Rev 7:9)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you brother for Biblically sound and insightful words concerning missions. It has been helpful to me. Many churches blur the line between God's specific calling on an individual's life and that of the typical church member considering himself or herself a missionary. The church needs to understand a clear distinction between those specifically called, whereas God entreats all members to support missions. As you stated with discernment, we need not undermine those missionaries truly called by God. Enjoyed reading the article.