Simple vs. Complex Culture Crossing; or, we are not all missionaries

In a Facebook conversation the other day, Brian Considine asked, about the term missionary,

Lots of stigma too. Maybe it is meant to become archaic since it is not a Biblical term? In a diaspora world, everyone could literally be a “missionary” if it means a strategic cross-cultural worker. Do we really need a special class of Christian or do we need many more Christians engaged in disciplining the nations, in every social sphere, some of whom might be right across the street?

Thinking further about this, I remembered the many times people refer to the “cross-cultural nature” of certain things we are all commanded to do (witnessing, evangelizing or proclaiming good news, and disciple making). Think of the cultures we nearly always have to cross:

  • from male to female, or from female to male
  • across generational boundaries, from younger to older or from older to younger
  • across economic boundaries, from people of one strata to people of another
  • across political boundaries, between people of different political persuasion
  • across educational boundaries, between less/more educated
  • across employment boundaries, between people of different occupations
  • across single to married or married to single boundaries
  • across criminal boundaries, from people with pasts or presents to people without
  • across the boundary from people who converted young to people who are just now being reached

When we say that “you take a meal to an unsaved neighbor and you are instantly ‘a missionary,'” this is sort of the boundary crossing that people are referring to. And, yes, these are definitely boundaries that must be crossed. These natural “in-ethnic-group boundaries” can prevent the Gospel from seeping to 100% of the people group.

The word “missionary” doesn’t appear in the Bible, so there’s no definition there we can go back to. The role it’s linked to is apostle, which comes from the Greek word *apostolos, *from apostellein (to send away), which itself is from apo- + stellein to send. An apostle is one who is sent (not a special rank), and a missionary is one who is on a mission (having been sent). So we can link ‘missionary’ to ‘apostle.’ It’s odd that we should say “all Christians are missionaries” when we do not say, for example, “all Christians are pastors” or “all Christians are apostles” or “all Christians are teachers.”

I think “missionary” is a special function, not a universal command. “Missionary,” to me, ought to be used for the role of one who is (1) sent (which captures the idea of the apostle) and (2) who translates and plants the Gospel within the target culture such that it expands throughout that culture’s natural relationships, and possibly leaps out of that culture to others. We are all to be witnesses, willing to stand for what we have seen and known and been taught. We are all to be disciple-makers, even if only in our own homes. We are all evangelists, ready to share the Good News of the Hope we have been given. But we are not all missionaries, just as we are not all pastors or teachers or the like. And that’s okay.

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