Are We All Missionaries? Redefining the Mission for All Believers
by Greg Wilton
The Church must continue to affirm the universal missionhood of the believer, calling all Christians to live as commissionaries, while pleading for a set-apart work of the missionary.
Photo courtesy SIM
I’ll never forget the day when someone in the church accused me of being a missionary. I had been pastor for just under two years, and our church was in the midst of an intense conflict. I pastor a small church which is filled with amazing individuals whom I love and adore, but we are not unlike most churches. We also have our problems.
In 2010, God did some wonderful things in the lives of the youth in our community and a unique scenario was developing at our church because of it. We were predominantly an all-white church in a predominantly all-black town. In church meetings and from the pulpit, I had always said to the congregation, “It’s ok if we happen to be an all-white church, but it’s not ok if that’s the way we want it to be.” During that year, God added to our church family and we became a predominantly all-white congregation with a predominantly all-black youth group. It was crazy. It was awesome. It was God.
A Comment that Led to a Quest
Our church family went through a period of adjustment as we collectively sought the Lord in determining how to best disciple these youth whom God was bringing to us. Suffice it to say, we experienced some major conflict. After a couple months my wife and I knew God was calling us to be more decisive in this conflict. At a church meeting in December 2010 I gave the church members options concerning my leadership. Here, someone also gave me one of the greatest compliments I have ever received.
This woman said, “You’re not really a pastor. You’re really just a missionary. All you want to do is spend time with people in the community.”
Trying not to smile too much, I responded, “Well, thank you so much!” By the end of the night, we all did our best to resolve the matter and move forward. I wish I could say our church made several huge steps forward. Unfortunately, we have digressed as much as we have progressed. Only an authentic demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s power can move us toward repentance and reconciliation in spite of carnal prejudices. Needless to say, that conflict, that night, and this woman’s comment continue to leave an indelible impression upon me.
Was she right in saying that about me? Was I—the pastor of a small church in Louisiana, having been born in New Orleans then raised in South Carolina—a missionary? Am I really a missionary? Should that also be said of us? Are we all missionaries?
My direct and simple answer to this question is “no”.
Not all Christians are missionaries, yet because I believe in the universal missionhood of the believer, I therefore believe that all Christians are commissionaries. I also believe that some are specially called to be missionaries. I make this distinction because I don’t want to see the word “missionary” fade away into vernacular ambiguity. The word is too precious and vital to what God in his sovereign plan intends to do throughout the world. Instead of opening the floodgates on this word, I want to restrict it while introducing other words which express God’s absolute truth that all Christians are called to live on mission for him.
I am convinced through scripture that all Christians must affirm the following words in light of God’s grand mission: missionhood, commissionary, and missionary. Although the actual words may never be adopted, the principles must be applied in light of God’s mission.
Missionhood—all Christians must know and be convinced of their identity in God’s universal call to his missio Dei
Commissionary—all Christians must know, understand, and practice the Great Commission in their daily lives
Missionary—many Christians must heed the call of God to become his witnesses throughout the world, especially to the ends of the earth
Divergent Voices in the Quest
Many trustworthy people in the field of missiology completely disagree with me. They would wholeheartedly say that all Christians are missionaries. Alan Hirsch writes, “Christians who earn a living as teachers, accountants, store clerks, mechanics, plumbers, doctors, whatever—you are a missionary!” (Hirsch 2011, 63). I suppose in that list, a pastor like myself should also be considered a missionary.
Several others, like Ed Stetzer, have also encouraged Christians to view themselves as missionaries. I am indebted to men like these who have helped me better understand the importance of daily living in God’s mission. Their influence has helped to shape my preaching as I constantly seek to instruct, convince, and remind people of God’s desire for their participation in his mission.
Yet even in light of their advice, I still have serious apprehensions about calling myself a missionary. I also have serious doubts about identifying all Christians as missionaries. This question is really important. Charles Van Engen believes that “it is important that the Christian church wrestle with its mission in the sense of articulating the reason and purpose for which it exists” (2010, 9).
Brian D. McLaren boldly asserts that “every Christian is a missionary and every place is a mission field” (McLaren 2004, 119). “Every place a mission field” is nearly universally-accepted by all Christians, but “every Christian a missionary” is highly debatable. Although written nearly two decades prior, a statement by J. Herbert Kane provides some logic behind McLaren’s statement:
The problem is more than a semantic one and must be seen in a larger frame of reference. There are those who refuse to buy the idea of “full-time Christian service” as applied to pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. By their definition every dedicated Christian, regardless of his vocation, is in full-time Christian service. If every Christian is in full-time service, then it is only a step to saying, as many do today, that every Christian is a missionary. (1986, 28)
Those with the perspective that every Christian is a missionary are trying to help all Christians see that God’s mission is for all of God’s people. When you see the point behind the point, it not only makes sense, but it is also very helpful for Christian living and practice.
On the other hand, some disagree with the notion that all Christians are missionaries. For instance, Stephen J. Strauss and Craig Ott believe McLaren’s statement and subsequent belief distorts the specific calling on some Christians to devote their lives to full-time, cross-cultural witness:
If we nevertheless choose to call every Christian a missionary, then we will need to create a new term for the Christian who is specially called, gifted, and commissioned for cross-cultural mission. Otherwise, this unique, essential, and divinely appointed role is at risk of being lost altogether. (2010, 225)
Strauss and Ott believe that all Christians are called to live on mission for God, but some are called to mission in a specific way. They believe the word “missionary” was created to help define a particular group of Christian men and women who were called to fill a particular kind of mission. They suggest new terms to replace what the word should mean, but I believe the word must not be replaced, but rather reclaimed.
McLaren’s position and Strauss and Ott’s position are reflective of two sides of the coin. While both sides may agree that all Christians are called and commanded to obey Jesus’ Great Commission, they disagree about the distinct identification of a missionary.
Moving from Theory to Practice
Many might wonder why they should even care about this debate. I assume that most North American evangelical Christians will more than likely dismiss this discussion as either irrelevant or unnecessary. Few would disagree that Christ’s Great Commission is binding on all believers. However, the plague in current North American Christianity is that most believe the Great Commission in theory, but very few believe it in practice.
Think about some of the congregations that you know or have joined. Within these congregations (yes, there are exceptions), there are a few professional Christians who are obligated vocationally to make disciples. In addition, there might be a few zealous laymen and women who are also living on mission for God either from a sense of duty or delight. However, many in these same congregations believe that Christ’s command to be his witness is not personally binding. These individuals would rather pray, pay, and stay, but certainly not go.
Too many Christians in North America want to know Christ without having to follow Christ. This is completely antithetical to living with true identity in Christ. Craig Groeschel applies a similar argument in his book, The Christian Athiest, where he says many believe in Jesus as a matter of fact but not as a matter of life and death. Similarly, Christians today might believe that Christ commended a Great Commission, but in heart many believe Christ never actually commanded it. North American evangelical Christians love to hear the Great Commission preached from the pulpit and “amen-ed” from the pew, but little of this proclamation is carried out in practice.
Like an addict, we come to realize that we have been living in denial about our Great Commission cover-up and are hungrier than ever to love God more by loving others more through making disciples of all nations.
Refocusing on the Missionhood of Believers
Much has been written lately on the subject of Great Commission reform. Some have argued that this contradiction can be cleared by emphasizing the authority of the Author (Matt. 28:18), the guilt of not going (1 Cor. 9:16), the importance of the imperative (Matt. 28:19), the glory of God (1 Pet. 2:9), the destiny and destitution of the damned (Matt. 25:41, 46), or the imminent return of Immanuel (Matt. 24:24). I am forever grateful for books like David Platt’s Radical and John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad! for helping me become more enthralled with God and his mission.
While all these arguments are certainly helpful and vital toward a more robust Great Commission obedience, one more argument could continue to help unite theory and practice.
God’s universal Church on earth today, particularly the North American Church, needs to be reminded of the universal missionhood of the believer. This segment of the universal Church does not need to be taught that every Christian is a missionary, because the term is culturally misconstrued and distorts both God’s universal call to mission and his specific call to missions. Rather, the North American Church needs to be reminded from a biblical foundation that all believers are called to be on mission for God, both home and abroad, both generally and specifically.
With regard to words like “servanthood” and “priesthood”, the word “missionhood” is a neologism used to describe the centrality of mission in Christian identity. Whereas a word like “missional” might emphasize an essential Christian characteristic or quality in adjectival form (Wright 2006, 24)1, “missionhood” seeks to describe mission as an essential matter of fact for the Christian.
All true born-again Christians are called to mission. We are all called to be “commissionaries”, to live in obedience to God in accordance with the Great Commission. George W. Peters, in stating this about the Church, could also have stated this about the individual Christian:
A church that does not recognize the primacy of missions deprives herself of the most intimate relationship with her Lord, fails to identify herself with the primary purpose of God, robs her membership of the deepest experiences of the Holy Spirit, and denies the world the greatest blessings the Lord in grace has provided. She ceases to be truly Christian. (1972, 350)
Johannes Blauw echoes Peter’s belief in the centrality of mission in identifying the true Church: “The result of the theology of the Old and New Testament points more and more in the direction of the universal and missionary character of the Church” (1962, 10).
Neologisms like “missionhood” and “commissionary” become necessary when current words available are not able to fully convey intended meanings. Chronicling the recent neologisms in the English language, John Algeo states,
A community is known by the language it keeps, and its words chronicle the times. Every aspect of the life of a people is reflected in the words they use to talk about themselves and the world around them. As their world changes—through invention, discovery, revolution, evolution, or personal transformation—so does their language. Like the growth rings of a tree, our vocabulary bears witness to our past…As English speakers went on meeting new situations and developing new manners and morals, the vocabulary of English went on changing too. (1991, 1)
Our changing world has produced reformatted messages that better communicate the unchanging mission. Words and phrases like missio Dei, “mission”, “missions”, even “missional” and “missiology” have become commonplace in Christian theory and practice because they are a reflection of the people of God trying to better communicate the purposes of God.
In many ways, Christianity is still growing into a fuller understanding of God’s mission. Topics like globalization and contextualization cause many mission-concerned Christians to constantly reinvent the wheel. In other words, Christians are always thinking about the common adage, “the methods change, but the message always remains the same.” Books like Ed Stetzer’s MissionShift and David J. Bosch’s Transforming Mission describe historical and contemporary movements and developments within Christianity concerning mission.
The recent emphasis on a word like “missional”, as well as the ongoing devaluation of a word like “missionary”, has caused many Christians to rethink how one might convey the centrality and importance of actively participating in God’s mission. For example, Michael Horton states, “The word ‘missionary’ sounds antiquated—and to some people, arrogant or even violent” (2011, 83). J. Andrew Kirk believes the word is too controversial and should possibly be abandoned altogether (2000, 23).
Properly Redefining Terms
Fascinating and beneficial research and explanation has surfaced within the past half-century regarding words like missio Dei, “mission”, and “missions”. These words have helped the Christian community to better define their purpose in the world with God and for God. Properly defining terms in mission is essential to properly practicing the mission.
As Stetzer states, “How we define mission today determines to a great degree how we’ll do missions today and tomorrow” (2010, 2). In light of this, all Christians must be instructed and/or reminded about their active and participatory role in God’s mission, while some Christians need to be guided into a better understanding of their missionary calling. This is why the Church must continue to affirm the universal missionhood of the believer, calling all Christians to live as commissionaries, while pleading for a continued, called-out, set-apart work of the missionary.
1. Wright defines missional as “simply an adjective denoting something that is related to or characterized by mission, or has the qualities, attributes, or dynamics of mission.”
Algeo, John. 1991. Fifty Years among New Words: A Dictionary of Neologisms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Blauw, Johannes. 1962. The Missionary Nature of the Church: A Survey of the Biblical Theology of Mission. London: Lutterworth Press.
Bosch, David. 2005. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Groeschel, Craig. 2010. The Christian Athiest: Believing in God but Living as if He Doesn’t Exist. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Hirsch, Alan and Lance Ford. 2011. Right Here Right Now: Everyday Mission for Everyday People. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Horton, Michael. 2011. The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
Kane, J. Herbert. 1986. Understanding Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
Kirk, J. Andrew. 2000. What Is Mission? Theological Explorations. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
McLaren, Brian. 2004. A Generous Orthodoxy. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Ott, Craig and Stephen J. Strauss. 2010. Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Peters, George. 1972. A Biblical Theology of Missions. Chicago: Moody Press.
Platt, David. 2010. Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Multnomah Books.
Piper, John. 2010. Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Stetzer, Ed and David Hesselgrave. 2010. MissionShift: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millennium. Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Publishing.
Wright, Christopher. 2006. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity.
Greg Wilton, PhD, serves as a bi-vocational pastor in South Louisiana, but will be moving to Southeast Asia in 2013. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
EMQ Apr 2013, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 134-135. Copyright © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ.For Reprint Permissons beyond personal use, please visit our STORE (here).