I recently has the pleasure of participating in The Mission Table, a conversation with mission leaders about some key aspects of the church's role in God's mission. Be sure to check out the video.
The topic we discussed in this episode was, "Are all Christians Missionaries?" I say yes. I'm in good company, as Charles Spurgeon famously said, "Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter." That's a pretty bold statement, and it's one that has become unpopular over the last few years. Unfortunately, the arguments against using the idea that all of God's people are missionaries seem to be based more on tradition than scripture. Let's look at common arguments for the distinction:
"If you apply the word to everyone, then you minimize the work of those who go to faraway places to share the gospel with people who have never heard."
This isn't necessarily true. Many in the missions world look for ways to prioritize the sending of people to proclaim the gospel to those people who have not heard it. I'm one of those people, and the way we honor those who serve in difficult places isn't by reserving the word "missionary" for them, but by financially supporting them. This is what Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 9:1-18, when he pushes back on the Corinthian church for being stingy in supporting his work.
"To be a missionary, you've got to be crossing cultures."
Of course mission entails crossing cultural barriers with the gospel. But how distant does the culture need to be before it's considered mission? As God's people we are necessarily outsiders. We've been called out only to be sent back in, just as God sent the Son. Our citizenship is in a heavenly kingdom, and we're not from around here anymore. As sent-ones, we live in the tension of taking the universal, unchanging gospel and translating it into the dynamic, sin-filled cultures in which we live. This is the mission of God's people, and it requires us to cross those cultural barriers in order to make disciples. For some of us, that means moving across the world to live among those who have never heard the gospel. For others of us, it means overcoming more familiar barriers to the gospel. Either way, the work is the same.
"Not everyone has the Apostolic (Missionary) Gift."
It is true, of course, that not all Christians are gifted as apostles. But neither to all Christians have the gift of evangelism. Does that mean that we're off the hook when it comes to evangelism? Certainly not! We must take care not to conflate the missionary gifting with the missionary identity of all who are in Christ.
"If everything is a mission, then nothing is/If everyone is a missionary, then no one is."
I'm with missiologist Christopher Wright, who says he hates this old knock-down. If everyone is a missionary, everyone is a missionary. A missionary is "one who has been sent on a mission." Who among us hasn't been sent? Nobody uses the same argument about being salt and light, or about being witnesses. Nobody says, "If we're all witnesses, then none of us are." Is everything a Christian does worship? It should be. Are we all ambassadors? Salt? Light?
"People do all sorts of things in the name of mission."
Let's be clear: all Christians are missionaries, but not all Christians are good missionaries. Much of what is happening in churches in the U.S. is very bad mission indeed. Some of this has to do with millions of American Christians being told that they aren't missionaries (so why should they be expected to act like they are?). The only way to get all of God's people in a consistent posture of gospel proclamation across cultural barriers is to call them back to their sentness.
Despite the well-intentioned efforts of those in the missions world to further narrow the definition of missionary, Christians around the world are realizing that their purpose on this earth is to join God in his redemptive mission. Consider the missional movement of the last fifteen years: God's people, recognizing that something has been missing from their obedience to Christ, rediscover what it means to be on mission. But as they explored the implications of their sentness, the only help they received from the international missions world? "You're not missionaries."
Without the benefit of input from those they had sent out to "the nations," church leaders were left to their own devices in redeveloping their missiology. Using their Bibles and their understanding of culture, missional Christians in the West came to the conclusion that a missionary isn't "someone with apostolic gifting," it's "someone sent on a mission." This applies to all of God's people.
We are all peers in God's mission. We must work in unity in order to be faithful to the Great Commission. This means tearing down the artificial walls between "mission" and "not mission" and calling all Christians everywhere back to their missionary identity in Christ.