by Larry Sharp
The author shares why terminology can be limiting and occasionally harmful—and why it may be time we shifted our thinking.
Photo courtesy SIM
My wife, Vicki, and I have been career missionaries for over forty years.
Being a missionary has been my identity, both overseas in Latin America and in my executive position in North America. Churches and individuals have supported us throughout this journey. And now I must admit that I don’t want to be called a “missionary” anymore.
Does this mean I have become apostate? Does it invalidate the “call” I had more than forty years ago? Does it mean I have forgotten that all of our supporters consider Vicki and me as “sent ones”? (John 20:21). Do I no longer care to share Jesus with the 2.5 billion unreached?
None of the above! I am still a witness of the truth of the gospel. I am a follower of Jesus and still learning. I do my part to bring others to follow him as well. However, after twenty-one years living abroad and nineteen years as a vice president with CrossWorld, I don’t want to be called a missionary anymore. What has happened to this much-endeared term? Why do I think many of us should disassociate ourselves from it?
The Matter of Integrity
More than seventy countries of the world, representing about sixty percent of the world’s population, do not grant visas for missionaries. Thus, “missionaries” in these countries try to hide that identity, while on home ministry they trump this identity. Something here lacks integrity.
A simple solution might be to devote our energies to the forty percent of the world which is accessible. Fine and good; however, our problem is that we are then ignoring the call to the unreached areas as equally destined to hear the gospel message (see Rev. 7:9).
In fact, Bob Roberts, Jr., in his book, Glocalization–How Followers of Jesus Engage a Flat World, suggests that there are no closed countries today; rather, many nations are closed to our methods. Indeed, any follower of Jesus can go anywhere and help people or create value for the community. Their message is their life and their service, and the context in which they minister is their vocation (2007a, 105).
So if being a missionary in a country that says “no missionaries allowed” is not a good example of having integrity, what shall we do? Roberts explains it this way: “Faith as a program is intrusive…faith as a lifestyle and principles to live by is powerful and engaging.” He goes on to say that we make a mistake when we start with ecclesiology: “We should start with Christology…if you focus on the mission, churches will follow, but if you focus on churches, mission often gets lost” (2007b).
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 with people. It therefore makes sense to go where the people are—the workplace. It is where we can be witnesses and make disciples. We are not proselytizing and we are not planting Christianity. We are called instead to be a “blessing to the nations” (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8-9). We are contributing to the community and at the same time we are the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus.
This is an honorable way to make disciples in the Middle East, Central or South Asia, or elsewhere. We are not “missionaries”—we are teachers, business persons, engineers, researchers, aid workers, medical professionals, community developers. All of these have a real identity which people recognize and validate, and we do our craft as a follower of Jesus in a needy place. In short, the terms of engagement change.
The Matter of Credibility
A review of the Wikipedia website definition of “missionary” does not exactly do us a favor. To most of the world, “missionaries” are identified with a religious group and includes a strong suggestion of proselytism. The context is one of intent to convert. Is this the message we want to send while trying to live like Jesus in the Muslim world, post-Christian Europe, or Hindu India?
Journalist Eliza Griswold spent seven years investigating the relationship between Christians and Muslims. In reflecting on the 10/40 Window metaphor, Griswold writes,
… Muslims do not understand Christian proselytizing. Even the most conservative Christian evangelists I know understand that in preaching to others…it is giving that person who’s hearing the message a choice. It’s not about forcible conversion. That message does not reach the Muslim world at all. Muslims understand conversion to be linked to imperialism…they hear the 10-40 window as the obliteration of the Islamic world. (Christianity Today 2010)
Griswold also explains why evangelism is sensitive for Muslims:
…it is tied to the idea of Western imperialism. The two are the same to Muslims; they appear to be deliberate attempts to undermine their power and individual and collective identity, to wipe Islam off the world map. They believe Christian proselytizing to be cultural genocide…and that’s why they respond so aggressively to it. However, we know that…missionaries did not understand themselves as agents of imperial powers, and many times they understood themselves to be working against those forces. But the message never reached Muslims. They see the Christian West as a monolith. (Christianity Today 2010)
Jesus said, “Be my witnesses.” He did not say, “Go and be missionaries.” A witness has to be credible (i.e., have the ability or power to inspire belief). Perhaps then the starting point in building relationships is to not identify ourselves as “missionaries” or professional clergy. Even in places where it is legal to have such an identity, people often put us in a box and expect us to have religious answers and live the life of a cleric.
Recently, my wife and I moved across the country. In an attempt to make friends and learn about the community, Vicki went to a women’s gathering where everyone was asked to introduce themselves with this thought in mind: “I could teach someone to…” Thinking it would be interesting to others, Vicki said, “I could teach someone to speak Portuguese”—a true statement after twenty-one years in Brazil. However, with that statement, she identified herself as a missionary and noticed a distance from others in the group. She was placed in a box. It was not the best way to start a relationship, even with Christian women.
Let’s say you live in North America and a Muslim moves in next door. While mowing your lawn, you see him outside and introduce yourself. You soon ask him what he does for a living. He responds, “I have been sent by my Middle Eastern imam to be a missionary in this city.” What would you think? How would you feel?
When we look at the Gospels, we see that Jesus met people at their point of need or context—he fed the hungry, healed the blind, taught lessons and parables, and provided wine at a wedding. These were starting points to conversations which linked him to deeper spiritual matters.
We too must somehow identify with new acquaintances. This can happen in different ways. I have identified myself as a Canadian, teacher, father, husband, member of my church, and person who loves to fish. These descriptors identify me and provide links for conversation. All are true and contribute to building relationships. Identities which are true give us credibility. In many places, to be known as a missionary is not a credible start. It is a disconnect; instead, we need to identify in ways that work for the other person.
The Matter of the Sacred/Secular
Admittedly, pastors and missionaries hold an elevated position of spiritual authority and status in our churches. They are the ones tasked with carrying out the Great Commission. This does not sound like the Book of Acts, the first century, or most of Christian history for that matter. There is an unfortunate bifurcation which divides the Body of Christ. This is a modern form of ancient Gnosticism which dichotomizes the sacred and secular.
Historically, the gospel has spread because persecution scattered believers (Acts 8); however, the believers did not have their support package from First Baptist of Jerusalem. They took their skills in order to survive as they dispersed. Throughout the centuries, the Nestorians, Moravians, Mennonites, Basel Mission, and many others have done likewise.
Max Weber summed up the reformation with a treatise stating that “the purpose of the reformation was to make us all monks” in reference to the priesthood of believers. William Carey easily connected making disciples in India with medicine, steam engines, savings banks, and education.
Surely, we in the missionary industry do not believe we are going to get the job done with professional “missionaries” alone. How then is it possible to transform our world in a manner similar to how it happened in the first century? In the twenty-first century it is likely to be similar—through the spreading out of all people to the whole world taking their primary skills to less-inviting places. These workers have a valid identity and a credible answer for why they are there. Only then will the gospel be present in dark places.
Those in the pews are involved in countless work settings. Their jobs grant them access to people and places most religious professionals will never encounter. The new rule of engagement is that one hundred percent of all believers can and should be involved in mission.
Dallas Willard notes, “Holy people must stop going into ‘church’ work as their natural course of action and take up holy orders in farming, industry, law, education, banking, journalism with the same zeal previously given to evangelism or to pastoral and missionary work” (1990, 214).
In the world of “missions”, we must entertain more talk and action with the Business as Mission (BAM) or tentmaker practitioners.
I just returned from an Asian country where our BAM consultants helped an architect from California buy a boat-building company with all Muslim and Hindu workers. He is operating it with kingdom values and as a way to build relationships with all thirty employees and the community. We interviewed the employees, and several referred to the camping trips the boss sponsored in which they spent the night on the beach talking about God and spiritual things.
You can call it missionary work or marketplace evangelism—or you can just call it what Jesus told us to do. But this architect is not a missionary in that country; instead, he is a businessman and a witness to the truth of the gospel. Plus, he is doing it with integrity and credibility. It should not be surprising that I recently received an email saying that his first employee just came to faith in Christ.
I have friends who are involved in all of the following types of work:
• Water biologist operating an NGO in East Asia
• Medical professionals addressing human need in central Asia
• Factory owner providing jobs in China and elsewhere
• Baseball coach in East Asia
• Operator of a photography business in South Asia
• Operator of an agribusiness in Eastern Europe
• Entrepreneur opening his third business in Asia
• Engineer in the Middle East
• Coffee shop manager in Central Asia
All are considered “missionaries” by the mission committee of their home churches, but to me they are just friends and professionals with a skill. They are simply people being witnesses and making disciples of Jesus in countries where few people know our Savior. Each live in countries which will not grant missionary visas.
There is still a need for professional, cross-cultural, religious workers. Sometimes these people can be called “missionaries”; however, an increasing number of today’s people must abandon the word because it conjures up images of those who may lack integrity and credibility. The term may also cause division in the Body of Christ.
So who are we? Who am I? Shouldn’t we have a clear identity which will give us credibility worldwide while also calling the entire Body of Christ to share his gospel? Kingdom professionals can live in some of the highest-risk countries because they honestly bring their skill to the country. Simultaneously, they can live out the gospel and testify to the grace of God in personal conversations.
Even professionals who never move abroad can bring their skills, spiritual gifts, and experience to benefit the spread of the gospel. Many business consultants who have applied his or her skills in IT, management, finances, or marketing to struggling missional businesses in the 10/40 Window now feel just as much a part of the Great Commission as those actually living in the Middle East or Asia. They are using their gifts to make disciples by mentoring and coaching BAM businesses.
In his book, A Better Way, CrossWorld president Dale Losch refers to the “925 Window”: 9 a.m. – 5p.m. defines the reality for most people today and that is where the gospel must be lived out (2011, 16-18). This is also where it will make the most impact in the coming decades—both in North America and in the most unreached places in the world.
Griswold, Eliza. 2010. “The Line Where Religions Collide.” Accessed April 1, 2012, from www.christianitytoday.com/ct2010/december/16.30.
Losch, Dale, 2011. A Better Way—Make Disciples Wherever Life Happens. Kansas City: Crossworld, Inc.
Roberts, Bob, Jr. 2007a. Glocalization—How Followers of Jesus Engage a Flat World. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
_____. 2007b. “We Aren’t About Weekends.” Accessed April 1, 2012, from www.christianvisionproject.com/2007/01/we_aren’t_about_weekends.html.
Willard, Dallas. 1990. The Spirit of the Disciplines. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Larry Sharp graduated with Bible, business, and education degrees (PhD, University of Calgary) and has served with CrossWorld since 1972 in education and leadership roles in Brazil and the U.S. He is vice president of business partnerships in the U.S. and lives in Oregon with Vicki, his wife of forty-three years.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 478-484. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.