Is Everyone a Missionary?

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

I understand why some Christians say that everyone is a missionary. I get it. I really do. And I am totally on board with encouraging every believer to have an outreach mentality and to look for opportunities in their daily life to share the Gospel.  Challenging people to think beyond themselves and to bless other with the Gospel is super important and I don’t want to discourage that.  When I hear people claim that all believers are missionaries, it is rare that I would say anything to contradict that because I know why they are saying that, and I agree with their goal.

That said, the word “missionary” has traditionally been applied to only a small segment of Christians, namely those who leave their family and country to go someplace far away to share the Gospel with people who have little to no exposure or access to biblical truth. In Scripture, the apostle Paul is the prime example of a missionary since he traveled around the Roman empire sharing the Gospel in places where Christ was not yet known (Rom. 15:20). 

Since “missionary” is not a biblical term, it could be defined in various ways and some people apply the term “missionary” to those who dig wells or try to stop human trafficking. Those are great things for Christians to be engaged in but are they missionary work?  Because of the example of the apostle Paul and the long tradition of the term “missionary” being applied to those proclaiming the Gospel in foreign lands, I’d say no.  They are not missionary work…. unless they are being done not only to provide people with clean water or freedom from abuse, but also to seek opportunities to make the Gospel known to the people involved. Ministries that provide practical or physical assistance to people are valuable parts of the broader calling of God’s people to be a blessing to others and to love their neighbors but I don’t think a person could properly be called a missionary unless part of their goal is making the Gospel known to people so that they can trust in Christ and be saved.  Granted, their day-in, day-out work may not be Gospel proclamation but are they doing their work with a mindset of “How can my work point people to Christ and how can this work/ministry be used to verbally make the Gospel known to people?”

Though missionary work has traditionally been focused on cross-cultural Gospel proclamation, it is not the number of hours that is spent on proclamation that makes one a missionary, but rather the mindset, the effort, and the intentionality in sharing the Gospel that makes one a missionary.  In a given week, how many hours did Paul spend mending tents?  How many hours did he spend speaking with people about the Gospel? I imagine that the amount of time he spent on those tasks varied from week to week, or month to month, and there were likely some weeks that were filled with teaching and evangelism.  But then there were other weeks that included 40+ hours of sewing tents.  Was he any less of a missionary during those periods when his time was largely spent on his “secular” work?  No, because his secular vocation was part of his broader missionary calling and he made tents within the context of his broader goal of proclaiming the Gospel.

With the example of Paul in mind, should we say that anyone who does their work with a missionary mindset is a missionary?  You could, and I would encourage every believer to be actively thinking about how they can point people to Christ through their words and deeds in whatever line of work or ministry they find themselves. We all need to have a “missionary” or “missional” (to use a trendier term) mindset.

Yet, I still think it is best to reserve the word “missionary” for those who cross cultural (and often linguistic) barriers in order to share the Gospel with those who have less access to the Gospel.  It is best to use “missionary” in this more restricted sense in order to 1) have a common working definition of what is meant by “missionary”, and more importantly 2) encourage and challenge believers to seek opportunities beyond their own cultural, linguistic, and geographical comfort zones for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel to the lost.

If we say that “everyone is a missionary” then Christians may get the impression that there is little need for churches to send or support cross-cultural missionaries to go to difficult or far away places. If you can be a missionary right where you are, why go someplace else?  Why go to the effort and expense to send someone someplace else when they can stay put?

In sum, it is important that every Christian has a “missionary mindset” in the sense that he or she is thinking about how they can make the Gospel known by word and deed, whatever their place in life or line of work. But, in order to highlight the on-going need for churches to call, equip, send, and support people to specifically proclaim the Gospel in places that are unreached or under-reached, the word “missionary” is probably best reserved for those called and sent to share the Gospel cross-culturally with the lost.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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