What is a missionary? In general, we have a vague idea that a missionary is a person who goes overseas to plant churches and orphanages, but beyond that, we don’t really know much else. And many claim that everyone is a missionary whether they leave their homeland or not, is that really the case?
What does Scripture have to say about missionaries? According to scripture, missionaries are Christians who have been called by God to leave the comfort of their homeland and go overseas to spread the Gospel. Key scriptures such as Acts 13:2 and Matthew 28:18-20 teach us that Christ called us to make disciples of all nations and that the Holy Spirit specifically sets individuals apart for the work of intercultural missions work.
Let’s explore the Bible to gain a right understanding of the missionary’s role.
How the Bible Defines a Missionary
Knowing exactly what it means to be a missionary is an incredibly important thing to know, as it opens the door to understanding so many other things. So let’s dive into the Bible for our definition of a missionary.
The First Example of a Missionary
The first missionary is credited to the Apostle Paul, though the example of the first missionary can actually be found long before Paul was ever conceived. This first example is the nation of Israel.
The Israelites missed the reason why God called them to be His people, it was not due to their merit but the mercy and love of God. He chose them as a people to be a light and example to all the nations they were living among.
Beginning with Abraham, God promised in Genesis that he would be a great nation and that all nations would be blessed through him.
And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.– Exodus 34:10
Over and over again we see that Israel is surrounded by foreign nations and God specifically calls them to be lights to these people. These surrounding nations were utterly lost, God describes one of them as “not knowing their right hand from their left,” and it is through His compassion that He sent Jonah to speak the truth that they might repent of their wicked ways.
The Israelites often fell into the trap of thinking that they had done something special to earn the favor of God, when in all actuality, God chose them out of His faithfulness and love for ALL people.
The Great Commission
Now, if we fast forward a couple of thousand years we come to roughly A.D. 33, after Jesus died and fulfilled God’s promise to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as well as His promise to Abraham.
After Jesus resurrected He came to the disciples and commissioned them, and this is what He said.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”– Matthew 28:18-20
This a verse that virtually every Christian is and should be familiar with, it is perfect instructions laid out for us to follow and pursue. The Great Commission leads us to reach out to all people of all nations and make them disciples of Christ, but does this mean that everyone is called to be a cross-cultural missionary? The answer is found in Acts 13, somewhere around 15 to twenty years after Christ’s crucifixion.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.– Acts 13:2-3
The key here is that they were sent by the Holy Spirit and not all went. If every Christian went overseas to do missions work there would be no team to help send them, this means that some are called to go and some are called to stay.
A Missionary Summed Up
Now, take the example of the Israel––a nation completely surrounded by foreign pagan countries, yet they were called to be a light to them. This same calling is given to every Christian in every context, the difference in the missionary, however, is that they leave behind their home country and go into the pagan nations and live as a light in the darkness.
The call to be a missionary can be seen as an assignment from God and every Christian has been given assignments, missions is simply one of them. Don’t confuse evangelism with being a missionary. Every single Christian is called to evangelism, but the difference in missionaries and evangelism/ists is that missionaries are “sent out.” The Latin from which we get “missionary,” literally means, “one who is sent.”
This again goes back to the commission of the Holy Spirit; Paul and Barnabas did not set out on their first journey of their own volition but by the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
So here are the key elements that define a missionary:
- Missionaries are sent by God into all nations
- Missionaries are sent to be a light in the darkness by spreading the Gospel
- Missionaries are called to make disciples
So now that we have the basics, I am going to jump into what the Bible does not say about missionaries so that we can understand the missionary’s role through and through.
Common Misconceptions of a Missionary
If a friend asked you what you think of when you think of missions what would you say?
In response to this question, the vast majority of people instantly think of three things: Africa, orphanages, and church planting. We’ve all been there at least once, maybe when a missionary has spoken at our church, or someone mentioned they were going on a mission trip over the Summer, the first image that sweeps through our mind is one of playing with adorable little African children, or maybe painting the walls of an orphanage.
This picture or idea is not wrong, but it is too small and does not fully encompass all the missionary is called to. So here in this portion, I’ll address a few wrong beliefs people hold.
Missionaries Only do Social Work
There are two main points to this incorrect belief, and I will answer both, but let’s start with what social work actually is.
Social work is taking action against poverty and those who are unable to care for themselves or gain access to counseling, schooling, doctors, etc. An orphanage or a speech pathologist who helps children with speech problems are both good examples of social work.
The first problem is that too many people are found believing that the only way, or the “main way,” to do missions is through the social work route.
The Truth: There Are So Many Ways to do Missions Work
When I was younger I wanted to be in full-time ministry, but I wrestled with underlying guilt because I was always drawn to business and doing ministry in an unconventional way.
When I finally came to Bethany Global University at age twenty-three, my eyes were opened to the reality of God’s heart for Christians and the world. God stripped me of all of my preconceived ideas of how ministry should be done and what it looks like and combined my desire for business and ministry into one.
Now I am pursuing a degree in business as missions.
So if you feel called to missions, but don’t necessarily feel called to working in an orphanage, here are just a few ideas to think into.
- Business: providing jobs and training.
- Education: teaching English, math, etc.
- Farming/Agriculture: teaching locals how to farm or even employing farmers
Now, the second problem to address is that all too often preaching the Gospel message gets neglected.
The Truth: The Gospel Must Be Preached
Social work or any type of work for that matter is not wrong, it is biblical, but it’s important to know that if it is done without presenting the Gospel, then the missionary is missing the point.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”Romans 10:14-15
The goal in going out is to tell people about the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, if we don’t make this the priority in going or being sent, then we really are just doing social work which is no different than the red cross or other various humanitarian organizations.
Missionaries Can Only Live on Support
I have heard a lot of Christians say that the only way to live overseas is through a support team and constant fundraising, but just as there are many ways to do missions work, there are also several ways you can live overseas without constantly fundraising.
The Truth: There Are Many Ways to do Missions without Fundraising
Two things to remember before I go on, raising support is not a negative thing, it is actually Biblical, and fear of raising support should not lead you to alternate routes of getting the necessary funds.
All throughout the New Testament, you can find patterns of giving to support the mission of Paul and other missionaries. But along with that, you can find the “tent-making” method.
The tent-maker method simply comes from Acts 18, when Paul was doing mission work.
…And because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade.– Acts 18:3-4
Paul supported himself by working a trade so that he wouldn’t be a burden to the church who would have been supporting him financially––this is made clear in 1 Thessalonians 2:9.
One of my family members was a missionary in a closed country and he was able to support himself as well as his family as a translator for a business.
This is just one option you can choose, if you’re interested in more ways to support your mission, check out this blog: Types of Missionary Funding and What Works Best
All Are Called to be Missionaries
This is where people can mix up evangelists and missionaries. I touched on this earlier, so I’ll make this one brief.
We are all called to be evangelists in that we share the Gospel at every opportunity, but the key difference is location. Missionaries pick up and move overseas pretty much permanently.
The Truth: All Are Called to Be Evangelists
Now, you might not feel the Holy Spirit leading you to become a full-time missionary, but I do believe that everyone should partake in missions work, as the Great Commission tells us to make disciples of all nations, this means that all are included in that commission, we just have different roles to play.
What does this actually look like?
There are multiple ways to get involved in missions, and there are so many missions organizations that you can jump into if you’re interested in going or helping send. You can go on short trips, give money to support, pray, and ask the Lord if you are supposed to go.
The Call to Missions
I recently read a book by Rob Parker called, “The Fully Funded Missionary,” the whole book is dedicated to reshaping the way people think of raising support/funds to do missions. In the very first two pages, my mind was blown and heart shattered as I read statistics on missionaries.
…There are about four-hundred thousand full-time, occupational missionaries working around the world today….The number may be as high as six-hundred thousand if we also consider the few thousand unknown cases of missionaries….There are about seven billion people on the earth, with about five-hundred-fifty million of them born again Christians… If we do the math we find that about only one-fifth of 1 percent of Christians are engaged in missions.– Rob Parker, The Fully Funded Missionary
If those numbers don’t hit you, here is a visual to show the difference in one million people compared to one billion.
Why are so few involved in missions? Is it because of fear of funding? Is it fear of picking up and moving overseas, leaving everything that’s known to us behind? I believe it is a combination of many things, fear of raising money being one of the major ones. But I think it goes much deeper than this.
I grew up in the church and I’ve been to dozens and dozens of them, through the years I have seen a major lack of passion and teaching for long term missions work, for whatever reason, it is something we teach in passing but never teach as a core element of the church. This is a major issue that needs to be fixed!
The 10/40 Window alone (a collection countries holding the least-reached people on earth) holds the majority of the world’s population, and the ratio between missionaries and the lost there is 225,000 to 1. Let’s rewind to Romans 10 again, Paul is telling us that the world will not be saved unless people are sent to preach the Gospel, so why aren’t we sending more people?
Sing to the Lord, all the earth!– 1 Chronicles 16:23-24
Tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
Countless verses teach us to tell the world of the Gospel, so it’s our job as the body of Christ to preach the importance of missions in order to raise up missionaries who are sent.
I believe a large portion of the reason there is a lack of missionaries overseas long term, is because of this lack of teaching on the matter. Most people consider short term trips once a year or so, but nothing further. With a deeper understanding of what the Bible teaches about missions, this lack can and will be utterly shifted.
A Few Things To Pray For
Pray that God would raise up a missions movement, that Christians, not just the young and not just the old, would rise up to take the Gospel to the least reached and darkest places on earth.
Pray that Churches would place a greater emphasis on missions so that the body can become far more involved in sending and assisting missionaries.
And the last thing I leave my readers with is this: I challenge your friends as well as yourself to sincerely dig deep and pray about to whether the Lord is leading you across the globe to become a missionary.