Counting people who are sent is difficult, party because of the security issues, and partly because of how we define and describe sent-ness. This observation will center around this latter aspect.
As followers of Jesus we are all sent into the world, and in that sense we are all missionaries. But using this definition when counting would simply mostly be equating total missionaries to total Christians.
When someone asks how many missionaries there are in the world, it helps to ask what they mean by that, so we know what answer to give that accurately answers the question. Caleb Crider mentioned once about how we flip between identity, role, function, behavior and profession when discussing missionaries. That intrigued me, and it’s been helpful to me to think about these different aspects, and ponder which one a person means when they ask, “How many missionaries are in there in the world?”
- Identity – “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is” – As a believer, I *am* a missionary, I am sent into the world
- Role – the function assumed or part played by a person or thing in a particular situation – I am a missionary in my neighborhood
- Function – an activity or purpose natural to or intended for a person or thing – the missionary task
- Behavior – the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others – I look for people of peace, and invite them…
- Profession – a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification – I am a professional missionary
When I ask people what they mean, mostly, their ideas center around profession, role and function, and sometimes around behavior. So typically, there are three distinguishing marks I look at in terms of counting:
- First, profession – that someone is a ‘professional missionary,’ it’s their full-time job from which they derive their income. (This could in some cases include people who derive income from methods like teaching or business development or the like if those are ‘platforms’ or ‘strategies’ for how they work as a professional missionary.)
- Second, I usually distinguish between those who are ‘home missionaries’ (they work in their country of birth or perhaps passport country) vs. ‘foreign missionaries’ (they work in a different country). We sometimes call this foreign missionaries vs. national workers. I also distinguish—although this pretty much overlaps—between ‘near and same culture workers’ (same/related language and culture) and ‘cross-cultural’ (completely different culture or language from that of their birth).
- A third and final distinguishing issue is the length of service. This is usually comes down to “short term” (intending only a few weeks at most), “mid term” (just a few years—1 to 4) and “long term” (those who intend to serve longer). This is a bit challenging because there are people who intend to serve long term, but haven’t yet and may not. If we only count as long term those who have served more than 4 years we can miss out on substantial trends. But it’s challenging because of course not every agency collects intention or reports it.
Again, not everyone would agree with the value of these distinguishing marks. All I’m noting here is: when you’re counting missionaries, or anything, it’s important to define what you’re counting, and what you aren’t, so you get real apples-to-oranges comparisons.