What is a Missionary? - Radical

What is a Missionary?

Even though so much of the world needs a missionary, there seems to be a lot of confusion today about what a missionary is or does. Some claim that every Christian is a missionary. Others claim that one must move to another country to be considered a missionary. 

Defining Missionary

Every follower of Christ has been sent out by Jesus to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). At the same time, there is evidence in Scripture that some Christians were uniquely sent out from the church for a particular purpose. Paul, for instance, describes his calling this way: 

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while. (Romans 15:18–24)

Using this passage, as well as other truths from Scripture, let’s define the term missionary as follows:

A missionary is a disciple of Jesus set apart by the Holy Spirit, sent out from the church to cross geographic, cultural, and/or linguistic barriers as part of a missionary team focused on making disciples and planting a church (or churches) with the goal of spreading the gospel among unreached peoples and places.

Set Apart by the Spirit, Sent Out from the Church

At the most basic level, a missionary is a “sent one” who goes out from the church in the power of the Spirit as a representative of Jesus. In this sense, there is some overlap between a missionary and an apostle. We are reminded of the way Paul and Barnabas were sent out from the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1–3).

A missionary is a disciple sent from the church to cross cultural barriers focused on making disciples and planting a church.

The church laid hands on these two men and sent them off in a way that they didn’t do for everyone else in the church. So Paul (who is sometimes called Saul) and Barnabas were given a role that was different from other Christians at Antioch. These men are both called “apostles” in Scripture (Acts 14:4), and they were set apart by the Holy Spirit and sent out from the church for a particular task. 

Crossing Geographic, Cultural, or Linguistic Barriers

Paul and Barnabas traveled from Antioch to different cities and regions to proclaim the gospel. Likewise, in Acts 22:21 Paul recounts Jesus’s call on his life, and he describes it in geographic and cultural terms: “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” The phrase “far away” implies crossing geographic barriers, while going “to the Gentiles” requires crossing cultural barriers. Similarly, in the passage cited above, Paul says he ministered “from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum” (Romans 15:19). So there is clearly a sense in which a missionary crosses barriers—geographic, cultural, and/or linguistic—for the spread of the gospel. However, that doesn’t mean all of these barriers must be crossed in order for someone to be considered a missionary. 

A missionary may cross a geographic barrier without needing to learn another language. When Paul was on his missionary journey, he wasn’t necessarily learning new languages, but he was crossing geographic and cultural barriers. On the other hand, some missionaries must cross linguistic barriers for the spread of the gospel. They do extensive training in language and culture acquisition in order to clearly communicate the gospel to certain peoples. In one way or another, a missionary is crossing barriers for the spread of the gospel.

To Make Disciples and Plant a Church (or Churches)

The work of a missionary involves evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and leadership training, all aimed at seeing disciples made and churches planted. Notice that this is a specific task. Missionaries should not be sent to do all sorts of random ministries around the world. 

Paul made disciples (evangelism and discipleship), gathered them into churches (church planting), and then appointed elders in the churches (leadership training). This summarizes the missionary task, and each part is important. The missionary task is not only evangelism as if our only goal is to lead someone to Jesus and then quickly move on to the next person or location. Nor is the missionary task only about individual disciples; we want to gather people into healthy churches. And those churches should be led by qualified elders, or pastors (1 Timothy 3:1–7), which means we must identify and train church leaders. Given these various priorities, how should a missionary team spend most of its time? In short, the state of the church determines our strategy for mission.

If there is no church among a particular people or in a particular place, then making disciples and planting a church is the first priority. In places where the church already has a presence, missionaries should work to strengthen, equip, and mobilize existing churches to join in the mission of spreading the gospel until Jesus is known, enjoyed, and exalted among all peoples and places.

David Platt

David Platt serves as a pastor in metro Washington, D.C. He is the founder of Radical.

David received his Ph.D. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of Don’t Hold Back, Radical, Follow MeCounter CultureSomething Needs to ChangeBefore You Vote, as well as the multiple volumes of the Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary series.

Along with his wife and children, he lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area.

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