What Is an IMB Missionary?

When you hear the word “missionary,” what comes to your mind? Does that word immediately conjure images of someone like David Livingstone in the 19th century, wearing a pith helmet as he explored the jungles of Africa? Do you think of intrepid families living in huts and hunting their food as they preach Christianity to primitive peoples and work to improve their standard of living?

Or at the other end of the spectrum, do you think of every Christian as a missionary, representing Christ wherever they live? In popular speech, the word is used in all of the senses listed above and in many more besides. There is a certain legitimacy to many of those uses.

What Does the Bible Say?

The Bible actually never uses the word “missionary.”

Go ahead. Check a concordance. “Missionary” isn’t there.

The root of the word is “one who is sent,” and it corresponds in some ways to the biblical word “apostle,” which means the same thing. Of course, in the New Testament there was a set, identifiable group of apostles who were authoritative eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, and since Saul of Tarsus met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, no one has been added or can be added to this group.

Their testimony and teaching is what makes up the New Testament. However, the New Testament calls other people like Barnabas “apostles” (Acts 14:14), and it does so in the context of his and Paul’s first missionary journey. In this sense, there was a type of apostle, in addition to the Twelve, who could be understood as disciples of Jesus who were sent out by the Holy Spirit through the local church to make disciples where the gospel was not yet known. This is probably the best understanding for the English word “missionary.” A missionary is a disciple of Jesus who is sent out to make more disciples for Jesus among the nations and peoples of the earth.

A missionary is a disciple of Jesus who is sent out to make more disciples for Jesus among the nations and peoples of the earth.

IMB Missionary

In light of the confusion that surrounds this word, the International Mission Board has defined an IMB missionary as follows:

An IMB missionary is a disciple of Jesus set apart by the Holy Spirit, sent out from the church, and affirmed by the IMB to cross geographic, cultural, and/or linguistic barriers as part of a missionary team focused on making disciples and multiplying churches among unreached peoples and places.

The wording of this definition is tightly packed, and each part is significant.

An IMB missionary is a disciple of Jesus. You can’t give away what you don’t have. In order to make disciples, you must first be a disciple. The first and most basic qualification for missionary service is a life of solid discipleship to Jesus.

A disciple of Jesus set apart by the Holy Spirit, sent out from the church. At the most basic level, a missionary is a “sent one” who goes out from the church in the power of the Spirit as a representative of Christ.It is the Holy Spirit who gifts, empowers, and calls every believer in Jesus to specific service in the church and to the world. It is the local church that disciples believers, discerns and nurtures their call from God, and sends them out.

And affirmed by the IMB. There is much more to be done in the service of Christ in the world than one organization can do. The IMB, under the oversight of trustees chosen from the churches that send and support us, makes strategic decisions about where to work, how to do the work, and whom to send to do that work. All of this is within the framework of our understanding of the mission God has given us in the Great Commission. In order to carry out these strategic decisions, the IMB has developed processes for mobilizing, assessing, affirming, training, supporting, and leading missionaries who serve as representatives of the IMB.

To cross geographic, cultural, and/or linguistic barriers. A missionary is more than an evangelist, although he or she is never less than one. All believers and churches are mandated by the Bible to share the gospel and disciple believers where they are located. Indeed, the success of the missionary enterprise depends on that sort of faithful obedience by local Christians and local churches wherever they are planted. However, in IMB terms, a missionary is someone who crosses barriers for the spread of the gospel. These barriers may be geographic, cultural, and/or linguistic in nature. Missionaries do not simply continue to make the gospel available to people like themselves, but they take it to peoples and places different from their own to people who do not have the same sort of access to the gospel.

As part of a missionary team. The Bible consistently shows us a picture of believers working together to do the work of God. For a variety of biblical, pastoral, and practical reasons, we do not think it wise for missionaries to work alone. For that reason, our ideal is for IMB missionaries to serve on teams in which different people have different roles and responsibilities in the missionary task. These teams may consist of other IMB workers, workers from other like-minded evangelical organizations, and/or local believers.

To make disciples and multiply churches. The work of missions involves a specific set of tasks. There are many good things a follower of Jesus can do, but we are convinced that the heart of the missionary task is to make disciples and multiply churches. In order to accomplish that task, IMB missionaries are involved in strategic entry, evangelism, disciple-making, church multiplication, leadership training, and partnering exit.

Among unreached peoples and places. Our priority is to get the gospel where Christ is not yet known. Missionary teams plant churches and/or facilitate church planting among unreached peoples and places, entrust leaders of the church with responsibility for mission (that is, equip them to shepherd the church and send out missionaries), and then move on to plant churches among other unreached peoples and in other unreached places.