Is the very best missionary not a missionary at all?

John Lambert sent me this article by “Jamie the Very Worst Missionary” (thanks, John!), asking what I thought of it. I thought about posting in the comments on the article, but then decided I’d post here instead, because I think it’s a useful lesson for all of us.Overall, I appreciate the article’s tone. The basic idea is: if you want to make a difference in the lives of people, get training and prepare to make a long-term investment. And I totally agree with that. But in the middle of the piece she says this:

Can I be totally honest here? I don’t think the world needs anymore social justice missionaries. We’ve had our fill of well-intentioned, but ill-equipped volunteers. Over the last 20 years, our sincere and valiant efforts to love mankind have wasted enough money, disenfranchised enough people, and created enough dependency to last a lifetime. Retrospect has shown us we can do better. We don’t need anymore missionaries. We need actual teachers, and social workers, and business wo/men, and midwives, and therapists, and pastors, and farmers, and caregivers, and on and on and on… Because we have the greatest impact when we, specifically, send the right people, to do the right job, in the right place.

This is where I think she makes a category mistake. She’s defining a “missionary” as not an actual teacher, social worker, business person, etc. I disagree.

I think the primary difference in definition of a “missionary” is this: they are attempting to cross a cultural boundary to plant the Gospel in such a way that it grows up within a community.

The primary problem I see with short-term missions is they mostly impact peopleindividuals. The work of long-term missions is to impact a people group. Missionaries – long-term missionaries – have platforms by which they proclaim the Gospel in order to plant reproducing discipleship processes. 

The platform of the missionary determines the slice of the community that he or she is working with. It is possible to be a missionary and a teacher, business person, midwife, therapist, farmer, caregiver… just look at the lives of people like William Carey, Mother Theresa, and other ‘heroes’ (not to mention the lives of “ordinary” missionaries such as those with my own organization: we have sports coaches, teachers, businesspeople, etc). 

The platform determines the field within the area. We do the best we can to bless the community through the platform. We are the best coaches, teachers, doctors, businesspeople, farmers, and the like, that we can be. Being a missionary is not an excuse to do a shoddy platform job. In fact, how well we do the platform job can impact all the other aspects. 

Through the platform we proclaim the Good News. This can be done in any number of ways. But if the platform is the field in which we sow the Good News (the audience amongst whom we proclaim), then proclamation is both a task and a filter as we search for ‘people of peace’ – the seekers of the Good News. (I’ve covered this in Early Adopters.) 

Having identified People of Peace, we work through them to start a disciple-making process that reproduces, can scale to fill the whole field, and can endure. (This is the idea behind Church Planting Movements or Disciple Making Movements.) 

Jamie wants us to send the right people to do the right job in the right place. If those people are being sent, they are “apostles” (sent ones). If they are going to do a job, then they are being sent “on a mission” – thus, our term missionaries. 

To me, if they are crossing a cultural boundary and doing a job that results in the Gospel being planted in a reproducible manner, then this for me is the very essence of the missionary task. All Christians are responsible to be evangelists – announcers of good news; to be disciple-makers; and to be witnesses. These are commands given to every Christian. Not every Christian, I think, is intended to be a missionary – someone who does these three functions in a cross cultural setting, to impact the whole of a people. If you want to be a missionary, then you need to make a commitment and get training and support.

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