Should the church let go of terms that hinder gospel work among the unreached?
By Larry Sharp
This article was originally published on crossworld.org.
My wife, Vicki, and I have spent more than forty years as career missionaries.
Being a missionary was my identity, and churches and individuals supported us throughout our career. But I don’t want to be called a missionary anymore.
Have I become apostate? Does this invalidate the “call” I had more than forty years ago? Do I no longer care to share Jesus with the 3.2 billion unreached? None of the above! I am a follower of Jesus, and I do my part to bring others to follow Him as well.
So, what happened?
The Matter of Integrity
More than seventy countries of the world today do not grant visas for missionaries. Thus, “missionaries” try to hide that identity in-country while touting that identity in North America. Something about this dual identity lacks integrity.
But any follower of Jesus can go just about anywhere in the world if they create value for the community. The bottom line is that Jesus asked us to follow Him, be His witnesses, and help others to follow Him.
Disciple-making is all about trusted relationships. It makes sense, therefore, to go where the people are — the workplace. We can be witnesses and make disciples, not by proselytizing, but by being a “blessing to the nations.”
Instead of being missionaries, we are teachers, businesspeople, engineers, researchers, aid workers, medical professionals, and community developers. We have an identity that’s consistent and authentic, and we do our craft as open followers of Jesus.
This is an honorable way to make disciples in North Africa, South Asia, and anywhere else.
The Matter of Credibility
To most of the world, missionaries work to make converts. Is this the message we want to send?
Jesus did not say, “Go and be missionaries.” He said, “Be My witnesses.” A witness must be credible and, to a majority of people around the world, a missionary is not credible. In hostile countries, this term can be dangerous. But even in places where being a missionary is legal, it can still be damaging to relationships.
When we look at the Gospels, we see Jesus met people in their context — He fed the hungry, healed the blind, taught parables, and provided wine at a wedding. These were starting points to relationships and conversations that led to deeper spiritual truths.
Perhaps the starting point for me, too, is to not identify myself as a missionary but as a Canadian, teacher, father, husband, member of my church, Christ-follower, and person who loves to fish. These descriptors are true about me, they provide bridges for conversation, and they contribute to building relationships.
The Matter of the Sacred/Secular
The term missionary itself builds a dichotomy in the church between those in sacred professions and those in secular professions … when Jesus called all of His people to be His witnesses.
There will always be a need for religious workers — disciple-makers who teach the Bible, counsel, and lead outreach as a profession. But surely, we do not believe we can fulfill the Great Commission with professional missionaries alone.
We need the whole body of Christ being witnesses and making disciples among the least-reached. All believers can and should be involved in God’s work around the world.
If missionary hinders relationships among the least-reached and impedes the mobilization of the entire body of Christ, let us be willing to give it up. Shouldn’t we have a clear identity that lends credibility worldwide and calls all of God’s people into His mission?
Let us go, therefore, as disciple-makers from all professions, to all the nations.
Larry Sharp served twenty-one years with Crossworld in Brazil as teacher and principal of Amazon Valley Academy and president of Missão Cristã Evangélica do Brasil. He returned to the United States in 1993 to become vice president at Crossworld’s home office. After twenty years as an executive, he is now Vice President Emeritus and a business consultant for Crossworld.