3 Reasons I Don’t Want to Be a Missionary
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.
This article is submitted by Mallory Barks of Crossworld. Crossworld is a Missio Nexus member. Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.
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I totally agree with you on your perspective, although the idea is deeply entrenched around the world! our organization does not use that term anymore, but our visas in our country have been classified as a “missionary visa” (we are trying to avoid that visa in the future, but it is what it is and has benefitted many). A re-education of people on both sides of the world will help with this, partly by Biblically explaining the issue and defined by what we do and how we do it. We have spent our lives being categorized in ways that we don’t like and have tried, with some success, in trying to change peoples perspective. The key is re-educating people as your article does. Thanks for your effort!
Thanks Larry! And Mallory! Good thoughts. I didn’t like the term “missionary” in 1979 when I became one! ? Over the years it has become more problematic.
I would like to respectfully push back here. Some of this is semantics. Some is devaluing the function of the missionary–one who is SENT with both AUTHORITY and a MESSAGE. Whether this is done bi-vocationally or not is not the central issue. The intent is to go across cultures with the goal of disciple-making.
While the word “missionary” has fallen out of favor, I’d rather see it redeemed for what it is intended to mean rather than do away with it. Yes, there are security issues. But I think the way to address the dual identity concern is to better define what a missionary does rather than what’s on his or her visa.
It’s fine to refrain from using the term missionary to describe oneself. But a descriptor is needed, at least within the Church, to describe people who are intentionally sent to transcend cultural barriers in order to make disciples of Jesus. Until such a term is adopted, we will frustrate people if we ask them to give up something (the term “missionary”) without providing another term which is a dynamic equivalent. Terms like “father, husband, teacher, or disciple-maker do not adequately represent the denotative meaning of “missionary.” I am certainly open to alternatives given the negative connotations many people associate with the word “missionary.” But at this point, I’m not ready to give up a less than ideal term until a more ideal one is found. Let’s keep looking.
Agreed, it’s often far easier to criticize something than suggest a suitable replacement. Our local pastor describes himself as a “follower of Jesus” rather than “Christian” in terms everyone can understand. When someone asks if it’s possible to be a “gay Christian” he responds “Yes, but you can’t live a lifestyle of open rebellion and follow Jesus at the same time.”
A solid New Testament alternative is “apostle” (“one sent out”)
I don’t think purposely avoiding a misunderstood word is a matter of integrity, based on the example of Jesus Himself; He readily acknowledged that He was the Messiah/Christ when necessary, but also commanded the disciples to refrain from using that title because to most people it raised incorrect ideas. It is not the term “missionary” that is in fact offensive to people, it is the idea that people need saving and that God has chosen to deliver the saving message through specific (imperfect) individuals. No matter what word we use, the world will not be happy with our attempts to fulfill the task. We are ordered to make disciples (“converts”) — the very thing they don’t think we should be doing. Among the churches the title Messiah was freely applied to Jesus, and I see no reason for us not to use the title missionary (or something genuinely equivalent) among those who understand not only the real meaning of the term, but also the basis, the need, for the mission.
I don’t think the problem is ‘being a missionary’. Rather, the ‘problem’ is, being a missionary who uses a non-indigenous language, and who spends donor money liberally on agendas designed and envisioned somewhere else.
I find it interesting that the word ‘missionary’ is increasingly contested in both the ‘receiving’ and ‘sending’ arenas. Perhaps this is because in certain parts of the world it conjures up the image of the pith helmet wearing colonialist seeking to promote the ‘one true faith’ among poor primitive peoples. Seeking to change their allegiance to a ‘foreign God’ by using foreign influence.
It is therefore, understandable for those of us who have come from such a context to feel that sense of post-colonial guilt and to want to distance ourselves from any such terminology.
To a Post Modern Western society, it is undoubtedly anathema to seek to impose one’s religious beliefs or views on another. Whether that happens locally or internationally. To a society under the control of another world religion or philosophy, it is perceived as competition for that control; ‘haram’!
Liking or not the term ‘missionary’ would seem to be akin to arguing over the make, model and colour of a car. Some will love it others will hate it. But it will probably still get you from A to B for the purpose that was intended by the manufacturer.
Interestingly vehicles that are branded in one way in my home country are often rebranded differently in the country that I live in. This is to try and to take into account local tastes, concerns and language.
As ‘missionary’ is not a particularly biblical word I am fairly agnostic as to how I use it. If it is an obstacle to the local church in expressing or multiplying the ‘image of God in Christ Jesus’, we ought perhaps to reframe it as the cross-cultural or international component of mission that is promoted by the local church. At the same time we should intentionally promote the importance of the Missio-Dei at every level of the church community, including the business sector. The two should not be in competition with each other.
If the word ‘missionary’ is well embedded and properly understood within the local ‘sending’ church, what is the point of changing it?
I think the motivation for change should be surfaced here. Is the reason we ought to have an alternative word for ‘missionary’ because of the personal discomfort I feel when using the word, or seeing it written on my CV or visa? That slight embarrassment that I feel every time I try to explain what it is I actually do to my secular friends?
Is it to be ‘better accepted’ in the community that I come from or am going to?
Is it because it represents an expensive ministry that competes with other local ministries for scarce resources of time, personnel and finance?
Is it that after so many years of ministry, I have lost my identity some where along the line and no longer feel a sense of belonging to either my home country or the country I minister in?
If it is the latter, we are probably have more in common with Abram , the first ‘missionary’, than we think!
Kudos to Larry Sharp for the article. Speaking from personal experience. we were careful to quietly tell our infrequent foreign visitors (yes from the West) that we don’t say that word here. This was a sometimes futile attempt to prevent the awkward moment when the word was blurted out in the middle of our busy urban streets. Admittedly, it is a challenge to find an adequate substitute. For better or worse, we came up with “expat worker” which worked for us. Yes, this will not fly in our churches and the idea of re-educating our home-based supporting constituencies is a tough one. Our local sending church tried to use “Global Partners” which did stick for awhile. Sadly it is falling into disuse and is on its way to oblivion. I guess I simply need to throw my voice into the mix to acknowledge that this is a critical issue for most of the Majority World. What can we do to better serve the long-term viability of our freshly-minted new workers?
The word “missionary” as with many terms associated with Christian ministry, were not “titles” conferred nor offices held, but were originally verbs or nouns that described a function of ministry. The “mission” will define and determine whether anyone is a “missionary”, “one sent on a mission”. The 12 men that we associate with the word “apostle” in the new testament were sent out by Jesus with a specific mission, specific instructions and returned to report on the impact of the specific “mission” they were sent to accomplish. But in our modern day, the word “missionary” has indeed lost its original meaning almost completely. It can now mean almost anything and represents more of being an “emissary” sent out to represent a local church, organization, network, fellowship or even just carry out a personal desire to “help” people. What we refer to as “the great commission” is the basis of Jesus last command to Go, make disciples, baptize those disciples and establish local groups of Jesus followers that reflect and obey Jesus and His Word. If that is not happening then we must certainly question what we call ourselves or what terms best describe our mission. Bob Craft
This is a good discussion. In Iceland where I work the word for missionary is “kristniboði” lit. one who preaches Christ. I didn’t use this term for a long time because of the image Icelanders had of missionaries going to other lands like China, Ethiopia and Kenya where the missionaries were there to help people living in lands that were “non Christian mission fields”. So I called myself either a “pastor” or “a worker with a Christian organization.” This was never a problem.
Recently however I’ve started calling myself a “kristniboði” because my missiology has changed. It seems to me important to emphasize that the so-called first world has become a mission field and that it is perfectly legitimate to expect workers from other countries to be coming to us to proclaim Christ and make disciples because we in the west have done such a dismal job of it!
For people in churches here in N. America I have no problem saying missionary, but I´d rather call myself an “apostolic shepherd.” Why? Again because of changed missiology. I think we need to go back to some New Testament terminology that reminds the church that the church is distinct in its identity and calling. When the Holy Spirit sends us and the church releases us for “the work that he has called us to do” we are not doing the same thing as ex pat Christians who work for a multi national company and are living in XYZ land that it not their home country. Let’s admit that the cross cultural disciple making call is a crazy thing in the eyes of most people because it doesn’t make sense to them.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be wise as serpents and harmless as doves in our entry strategies, but let’s also be OK with working under a calling supported by a “sodality” called a mission agency. This is a totally different thing than being a member of a local church who is witnessing in the work place for Christ. We are as much a part of the church as those who are called to stay local and are part of something as old as Paul and his apostolic band in the 1st century.
Those of us working in so-called “developing” countries find mission terminology (missionary, missions, missional…) and the mentality associated with it to be a serious barrier to the Gospel. Many colleagues where I work in Southeast Asia refer to “missionary” as the “M-word”. We whisper it under our breath as if it’s the kind of word you would never say out loud in front of your mom. One reason for this as Larry Sharp points out is credibility. “Missionaries” aren’t credible because the M-word conjures up our dark past that don’t want to deal with and would like just forget about all together, colonialism. David Bosch explained that “the very origin of the term ‘mission,’ as we still tend to use it today, presupposes the ambience of the West’s colonization of overseas territories and its subjugation of their inhabitants. Therefore, since the sixteenth century, if one said ‘mission,’ one in a sense also said ‘colonialism.’ Modern missions originated in the context of modern Western colonialism” (Transforming Mission, p. 293).
There’s a reason why too many countries in Africa, Asia and South America are “developing countries.” But, they are not underdeveloped because they are poor countries lacking in natural resources with primitive populations. In fact, most of these countries aren’t poor at all. They are rich with incredible natural resources and industrious populations. In reality they are not underdeveloped, but rather have been overexploited by colonial powers and still suffer under a global economic system that favors those former colonial powers. Many of these countries had thriving economies and trade systems, but its people were subjected to poverty through annexation of thier land, forced slavery and even genocide. We in the West want to just want to move on from all that. We tell ourselves that colonialism is something from the past that we should just put to rest, let bygones be bygones. But, scars of colonialism are still seen today in many former colonies and the injustices of that era are still remembered. In the country where I work, there are museums all over the country where the raw brutality their former occupiers is on full display. So, yes they still remember.
This leads us back to the m-word. Both Catholic and Protestant missionaries were often complicit and benefited from these colonial powers. Yes, there were some movements among colonial era missionaries that attempted to address the abuses of colonial powers. But by and large, missionaries and missions organizations rarely questioned the colonial vision itself. Again Bosch notes, “The problem was that, even where they launched stringent criticisms against the colonial administration, they never really doubted the legitimacy of colonialism; they assumed, virtually without question, that colonialism was an inexorable force and that all they were required to do was somehow to try to tame it” (Transforming Mission, p. 303). And, that is the baggage packed into the word “missionary.”
Another potentially problematic ramification of the term is that it creates two classes of Christian…sent ones…and not sent ones. The reality is that the Great Commission applies to all. I am no more sent because I’m paid to serve missionally full-time than is my brother or sister in Christ who are working in a secular position. We are all sent ones, and if we keep insisting on the missionary term I think we do damage to MORE than reputation abroad…we create a false understanding within the church walls of what it means to follow Christ.