If everyone is a missionary, then no one is.
If “my mission field is the ground beneath my feet,” as some have said, then why should we expend the energy or resources to go to a foreign land and learn a new language and culture? In fact, it would be a waste of resources to do so when there is such low-hanging fruit in one’s homeland where you already know the language and customs, and the Bible is already accessible.
It is true that all Christians are disciple-makers. This is the essence of the Great Commission, given to all Christians (Matthew 28:18–20). Of course, that is not all we are, but disciple-making is essential to who we are. However, not all disciple-makers are missionaries. Missionaries are a subset of disciple-makers who make disciples in foreign places, particularly among people groups who do not have self-sustaining churches.
Christians have important reasons for specifying “missionaries” over against “disciple-makers.” If we believe that anyone who proclaims the gospel anywhere is a missionary, we run the risk of neglecting the task of disciple-making in foreign places without gospel access.
With this definition in mind, we must recognize that we have a great need for missionaries to proclaim the gospel in places that do not have access to the gospel. Missionary work is not easy. But sometimes we make missions look even more difficult for ourselves because of misconceptions about what missions is. When these misconceptions are corrected, you may find yourself much more fit for missions than you thought.
1. Missions exists because poverty does.
Since the late twentieth century onward, an assumption appears to have arisen among American Christians that missions exists because poverty does. It is not something I hear proclaimed overtly — after all, it is an assumption. It is just subconsciously accepted to be true. This fallacy works itself out in two ways.
First is this wrong thinking that missions always involves material poverty, or to put it another way, if an area is not impoverished, they do not need missionaries. This, in part, may explain why there are so few missionaries in the country with one of the largest unreached people groups in the world: Japan. Since there is no need for hunger-reduction or microfinance programs, then there must be no need for missionaries. False! Many unreached peoples are not impoverished. But without Christ, they are profoundly hopeless.
The second way this fallacy works out is the notion that when anything is done in the name of Jesus and has something to do with relieving poverty, then, by definition, missions is happening. This leads to terms such as “inner-city missions” — helping poor people in large, American urban centers; “short-term missions” — doing a trip for some service project to the poor; and other self-contradictory terms such as “domestic missions.”
As John Piper has written, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t” (Let the Nations Be Glad). And missions is about foreign cultures and lands, so juxtaposing “domestic” and “missions” is nonsensical in America without crossing cultures. This has nothing to do with placing a value judgment on ministries to the poor within one’s culture in the U.S. or anywhere else for that matter. It is to point to the practical implications: if missions is about taking care of poor people regardless of whether they are reached or not, then the unreached will not be reached.
A typical objection I hear when I point this out goes something like this: “It’s a real sacrifice to live and work in the crime-ridden inner city of Chicago; it’s harder than living in Africa — inner city missions is real missions.” This objection has nothing to do with strategy or precision in definition; “missions” unfortunately has morphed from a strategic, practical term into a category of honor.
2. Only humanitarians can be missionaries.
The second fallacy, closely associated with the first, is that being a missionary is a profession, or at least a limited set of professions. Here is how the logic goes: if we believe the fallacy that missions is mainly about humanitarianism or poverty relief, then only certain people qualify as missionaries, such as disaster relief workers, physicians, nurses, or food program managers.
However, do we think this way in our local efforts to make disciples at home? Of course not. If we are thinking strategically about our vocations, almost any job can become a significant point of engagement with the lost where relationships can be built, hospitality shown, the gospel shared, and, finally, disciple-making done with those who become saved.
If we think this way about our disciple-making efforts in our home culture, why would we assume this could not be the case in foreign missions? In fact, the difference between jobs in missionary contexts and those at home is that in foreign missions, the job will likely be the primary way of getting in to the target country.
For instance, Muslim countries will not issue missionary visas. However, there are some Arab countries which aggressively recruit Americans with certain professions such as petroleum engineer or physician or schoolteacher or even high-end chef. They have no use for hunger relief project directors or microfinance program administrators or seminary graduates. Missions-minded American Christians with “private-sector” vocations have wide open doors to some so-called “closed” countries.
3. Missionaries are spiritual giants.
The third fallacy, which I briefly addressed earlier, is that the title “missionary” is, necessarily, a high spiritual rank. There is nothing in the definition of missions that implies a spiritual hierarchy among missionary and non-missionary disciple-makers. Missionaries are simply disciple-makers in foreign places, particularly among people groups who do not have self-sustaining churches. Now, they are certainly different in that they require more resources to do this task since, in their foreign context with no churches, they face the unique disadvantages of being culturally illiterate and lacking Christian fellowship. However, these disadvantages have nothing to do, necessarily, with relative spiritual maturity.
This fallacy may discourage some to consider missions because it implies that a high degree of spiritual competence is needed to earn the title missionary. For instance, suppose a person considering missions thinks, “Fine, I’ve got a skill set that will get me in to an unreached country, but I’m am not a spiritual giant. I can’t be a missionary.”
My response is that if there is absolutely no missionary among a people group, then even a minimally competent disciple-maker is substantially better than none at all. He would be the best disciple-maker in the entire country!
You May Be More Qualified Than You Thought
So, you may be far more qualified than you think both in terms of spiritual fitness (or lack thereof) and vocational usefulness for the very specific task of missions. Whether you are still in school and pursuing a “secular” degree or have completed your formal education and are working in the “marketplace,” I hope you can see that your vocation may not only not be an obstacle to missions but may very well be the unique key to unlock the door to a particular “closed” country unreached by the gospel.