Missionary, evangelist, witness: which are we?

I recently ran across this story about Yuan Longping, an 87-year-old Chinese scientist who “is developing a new high-yield strain of rice that can grow in saltwater paddies.” The work is intriguing, but even moreso to me is this: insofar as I can tell, he’s not a farmer–he’s a scientist.

He’s not working to be a better farmer: that is, to better use existing knowledge of how to farm rice where it’s always been farmed. Instead, he’s taking what works in one environment, and adapt it into another.

It is a common yet significant category mistake to confuse missionaries with evangelists. Whenever we say “I’m a missionary to my neighborhood” (or city, or job) we might be making a mistake of semantics. Or, we might be making a very dangerous confession.

To get an idea, let’s consider different scales of focus. Someone who sees themselves as…

  • A witness will tend to be concerned about the representation of Christianity that they give to their co-workers, neighbors, and what not. Many “witnesses” I’ve met are chiefly concerned with learning enough to give a “ready response” when they are asked about their faith.

  • An evangelist will tend to concern themselves with the person immediately in front of them, to whom they are presenting Good News. I’ve met people who say “I’ve got a gift of evangelism;” they talk about intentionally going door to door, or actively sharing their faith with people they run across (from the checkout girl at the grocery store to people they meet on the job).

  • A pastor will tend to be concerned with the “flock” they are discipling. Pastoral approaches differ, but they lean toward the side of the congregation, and away from the rest of the community. Many pastors will be focused on their church members and the members’ immediate oikos (friends and family).

  • A parish priest (to use a different, less Protestant term) might be leaning toward the whole of the community, not just his congregation–but still, they will primarily be tending to people who have an affinity with the church.

What about someone who is an “apostle” or a “missionary”? That is, someone sent to the community as a whole, and most especially to those who are not yet in the church?

The role of the missionary is a strategic role. It is a calling to actively make sure everyone in a community has the opportunity to hear the Gospel–not just the people who ask us about the Gospel, or who we “happen to run across” in the course of our normal day, or who darken the doors of the church building. The missionary intentionally makes sure that those especially who are cut off from normal access to Christianity receive time and attention. Let us not say “I’m a missionary to my city” when we are really saying “I’m called to be a witness” or “an evangelist.” If we truly are called to be a missionary to our community, then we need to start thinking and acting like it. The apostolic role is as different from the evangelist as the Chinese scientist is from the Chinese farmer. The role of the Chinese scientist in the story above was to get rice out of existing rice paddies and into a new context–saltwater paddies. Once that’s done, other farmers will come along and perfect the farming of rice in saltwater paddies, making it efficient and spreading it and industrializing it.

Yes, every Christian is called to evangelize and make disciples. Whether I am an apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher, evangelist, I don’t get out of that. Yet the “gifts” – apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher, evangelist – each have different roles in the process of evangelizing and discipling a people. A missionary (apostle) may evangelize or even make disciples from time to time. But this is not their primary function. They do these things in the course of their goal/function/objective: to initially bring the Gospel into a place where it is not, to plant it there and encourage it to take root, so that what grows up are the first fruits: prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and more apostles to send to more places.

The local church, once planted, is “the local farmer.” It is primarily the local church–not the apostle–who spreads the Gospel throughout the place once it is planted. The work of the apostle is to see the local church started so that this work can be done.

I love the story of Jesus calling the disciples: “Come, and I’ll teach you to be fishers of men.” He wasn’t calling them to catch more fish. He wasn’t going to teach them to be better fishermen. He wasn’t calling them to be his assistants while he caught fish, or even while he caught men. He was going to teach them to be fishers-of-men.Similarly, the apostle must occasionally fish-for-men himself or herself, but the primary job of the apostle is to fish for fishers-of-men.When we say missionaries need to be better evangelists, or better pastors, or better at social justice, or whatever, I think it is to miss what missionaries ought to be.

  • When we say we are going on a short-term mission trip to share the gospel and win the lost, are we confusing the work of a missionary with that of an evangelist? (Really, should be a short-term evangelism trip?)

  • When we say we are going to be missionaries to our neighborhood – are we speaking of the missionary strategy of planting the Gospel in our community, or do we mean “I’m going to go over and share this tract with my neighbor”?

If you’re going to be a missionary to a place, then be a missionary – embrace the strategic aspects. Get yourself a copy of Tradecraft. Think about how everyone in the place will be reached. One missionary couple or team, with a strategic focus, can reach thousands and even tens of thousands – not just their immediate neighbors. Be the missionary God is calling you to be!

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