Why You Should Not Call Me a Missionary

I’m not a missionary. I live in a different country than the one I grew up in. I’m learning a new language. I live here in order to share the gospel and encourage church planting. But I’m not a missionary. Or, at least, I don’t call myself a missionary.

What am I?

I’m a pastor of an international, English-speaking church in East Asia. I’m not a missionary, though some people call me one. Still, I think that this distinction is important for the sake of missions in the country that I currently live.

So do Denny Spitters and Matthew Ellison, authors of When Everything is Missions. In their book, Spitters and Ellison push against the commonly repeated refrain that every Christian is a missionary. Here are three questions provoked by When Everything Is Missions that may help preserve healthy missions in my country and around the world.

1. For the sake of missions, does your church’s language need clarifying?

Spitters and Ellison argue that much confusion surrounds words like mission, missions, missional, and missionary. Stemming from a right desire to teach Christians that all must participate in God’s global agenda, many churches have adopted missionary language to encourage obedience where they’re at: “Every Christian is a missionary.”

One problem with this approach is the real possibility that it undermines the work of actual missionaries, those who are actually sent “to plant the gospel within a target culture until it expands throughout that culture and perhaps beyond” (71). How so? Because we need language to describe those called and gifted by God for cross-cultural missions. Spitters and Ellison quote Greg Wilton who explains, “Are we all missionaries? My direct and simple answer to this question is ‘no.’ . . . The word is too precious and vital to what God in his sovereign plan intends to do throughout the world.”

“If we neutralize the word missionary to refer to every Christian, then we risk marginalizing the important work of crossing cultures for gospel ministry.”

If we neutralize the word missionary to refer to every Christian, then we risk marginalizing the important work of crossing cultures for gospel ministry. Words have meanings for a reason and we need clarity for the word missionary so we can continue calling people to the important work of cross-cultural church planting.

2. For the sake of missions, do your church’s goals need focusing?

Following on the last point and considering the Great Commission, Spitters and Ellison ask, “Does God expect us to pool our good ideas and pursue the things we care about, or did Jesus intend to convey objective meaning and purpose when he gave his final marching orders?” (28).

I praise God when I hear the many unique good works that various churches are involved in. These good works evidence a Christian concern for people. Still, it’s important to remember the limited time and resources churches have. Given these limitations, what should churches prioritize? Thankfully, Jesus hasn’t left us to guess, as Matthew 28:18–20 gives specific instructions.

Some may object that God’s work of reconciliation is all-encompassing, reconciling all of creation to himself. However, Spitters and Ellison argue that churches aren’t equipped to carry out all God does on the earth (44). For those areas where a church may be equipped and able, engaging in such work could be a good thing to do, but it’s important to regularly evaluate what’s being communicated by what a church focuses on.

I live in a city of more than twenty-five million people. The needs here are too great to wrap our minds around. Many of our church members are actively involved in ministering to these needs to the glory of God. We have church members involved in adoption ministries, providing medical care and education to children, and ministering to trafficked women and their children. We encourage, pray for, volunteer alongside, and financially support these good works.

“Biblical wisdom requires us to consider what we must do before asking what we can do.”

However, our church can’t do everything even if we were larger, our city smaller, and the needs fewer. We’re not equipped with the expertise or ability to solve most of the problems in our city or any other. So, we want to focus on Jesus’s final marching orders of gospel proclamation and church planting across cultures, trusting that these means will lead to more Christians engaged in the good works described above.

Of course, wisdom must be used here. Just as God gifts individuals differently, he gifts churches differently. Therefore, church budgets and outreach goals and activities will differ from church to church. Yet biblical wisdom requires us to consider what we must do before asking what we can do.

3. For the sake of missions, is your church involved?

Spitters and Ellison claim that many often have a highly individualized view of missions. They helpfully point out one reason for this is our tendency to read “you” as singular in our Bible reading. They write, “We easily read and interpret instructions as if they are directed to us personally rather than the church as a community” (85). However, the majority of times “you” is mentioned in the biblical canon it is plural (85). It isn’t just the Bible’s grammar. Consider Acts 13:1–4 as one example in which a church sends out missionaries.

This is quite relevant when it comes to missions. Biblical instruction and examples all indicate that missions is what the church does. The church sends, trains, assesses, and confirms believers. At the very least, the church should be a significant partner in this work.

“Not every church member will be a missionary, but every church member can be involved in this work of sending, training, assessing, and confirming.”

Not every church member will be a missionary, but every church member can be involved in this work of sending, training, assessing, and confirming. There are many practical ways that can be applied. Before writing a recommendation letter for a member who desires to pursue seminary, ask whether the congregation affirms that individual’s character and giftedness.

You can consistently teach on the importance of the local church in the lives of individuals so missionaries, future missionaries, and all members understand that God intends to use the local church to get the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Encourage your church’s missionaries to prioritize the church where they are currently at (and please don’t force them to maintain membership in your church!). The local church sends a missionary, and the missionary goes to start or serve a new local church.

I assume the authors of When Everything is Missions wouldn’t consider me a missionary, though some aspects of my life seem like missionary work. Not only do I agree with their assessment, but I want my church to as well. Why? Because clarity of language, an intentional focus on Jesus’s final marching orders, and a healthy understanding of the local church places us in a better position to see actual missionaries raised up for gospel proclamation and church planting in places where Christ has not yet been named.

Matt Tyler lives in Asia with his wife, Emily. He works as a pastor at an international church. You can follow him on Twitter.