January 28, 2019
We all have that idea of what a missionary should look like.
But have you ever stopped to think of what a missionary actually is?
Take a moment and think of how you would define a missionary in your own words. What would it be?
Your definition could be similar to these definitions:
“A missionary is someone who crosses cultural barriers in order to share the gospel and make disciples.”
Or, “A missionary is a person who leaves everything behind and goes overseas to serve the Lord in a foreign cultural context and share His love with others.”
These are good definitions, but let’s dive a little deeper into what is a missionary and look at what these definitions imply.
Defining a Missionary: Immersed in Culture
Before we define a missionary, we first need to look at the definitions of culture, including cross-culture and cultural context. Though these terms sound very similar, they vary in their definitions. Without a proper definition of culture, our view of a missionary is going to look different.
Culture can be summed up as:
“Shared customs, values, social institutions, belief systems, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or social group in a certain place or time” (1).
When you become a missionary, it is important to learn how to immerse yourself in a culture that is unlike your own in order to reach the people with the gospel. This is part of what it means to be an effective missionary.
How you carry that out will vary depending on where you are in the world, which is why we need to look at the definitions of cross-culture and cultural context to understand why this is important.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines cross-culture as,
“Dealing with, relating to, or offering a comparison between two or more different cultures or cultural areas.”
Cross-culture happens when you engage with a person from a different culture aside from your own. This is often the view most Christians take when it comes to defining a missionary.
To be engaged in cross-cultural mission work does not mean you have to go overseas. There are several people groups within the United States who have not heard of the gospel and are all in need of a Savior. Refugees, immigrants, and even the new US. citizen, are all people who are uprooted, rejected by their own country, and feel lost, abandoned, and alone.
Cross-cultural missions look like visiting with a family from East Asia, the Middle East, or South Asia, and inviting them into your home for a homemade dinner.
As you engage in conversation and get to know them and are interested in their culture, you begin to slowly build trust within a beautiful relationship that may provide the opportunity for you to introduce them to Jesus, who promises to give them hope and everlasting life.
There are hundreds of Christians in the United States who are living missional lives and witnessing to those who cross their path. While not everyone is called to be a missionary, everyone is called to make disciples and take part in the Great Commission, no matter where we live in the world.
This term can be defined as,
“Cultural context looks at the society the characters live in and at how their culture can affect their behavior and their opportunities” (2).
Cultural context can also be described as,
“Past experiences, perception, and cultural background that greatly affect the way people talk and behave” (3); including the values and attitudes that shape their belief system and influence their lifestyle.
To engage in a cultural context to the full extent means that you will live among a people whose language you do not understand, and whose customs are completely foreign to you.
To fully immerse yourself into a people’s lifestyle, you will have to learn why people believe in certain traditions or deities and begin asking why they live the way they do. During that process, you are also deeply invested in the people around you, curious to understand their perspective on God, the universe, and man’s role in society.
As a missionary, your intention is to share the gospel with the people you meet. In order to do that and see lost souls come to Christ, you have to first understand the culture you are in so that you may present the gospel in a culturally appropriate way. Only then, when you contextualize the gospel, will you make disciples who will make disciples. This is what makes an effective missionary.
Check out our ultimate guide to unreached people groups, including some facts on culture.
Defining a Missionary: Carrier of Good News
As we continue to narrow in more closely on defining what a missionary is, we must also take into account the good news a missionary brings with them: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
– Romans 5:6-11
This is the most important component for understanding what a missionary is. A missionary is the messenger of the good news to all people, and one who takes the name of Jesus where it has never been heard before. Thus, when taking the gospel to a different country you must learn about the culture and traditions so that you can share the gospel in a way that will be impactful upon the hearers.
This is known as contextualizing the gospel.
Contextualizing the Gospel
“Contextualization involves an attempt to present the Gospel in a culturally relevant way” (4).
For example, consider how Jesus spoke to His audiences. He used people, places, and timing of His stories based upon the facts and knowledge the people possessed.
To us, the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 is a great story, but to the original audience, it was unheard of, outrageous, and undignified. In a culture that treated their elders with high respect, the Jews would have never seen a father run to greet his wayward son.
When going into another country as a missionary, you must take the surrounding culture into account when sharing the gospel. This will greatly vary in each culture, religion, and people group, as there are thousands of diverse beliefs that do not mesh within just one formula of contextualizing the gospel. By bringing the gospel message into the understanding of the people you are talking to, they will be able to better relate to and understand it based on how you share the message.
Defining a Missionary: One Who “Goes”
“In the traditional sense the term missionary has been reserved for those who have been called by God to a full-time ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4), and who have crossed geographical and/or cultural boundaries (Acts 22:21) to preach the gospel in those areas of the world where Jesus Christ is largely, if not entirely, unknown (Rom. 15:20)” (5).
A missionary is not geographically defined by going overseas, although, that is where a large portion of unreached people groups reside. Instead, the distinction is crossing cultural barriers.
This means that a missionary is both someone who “goes” overseas to live in a foreign country and “goes” through cross-cultural barriers such as language, culture, and beliefs.
Defining a Missionary: Making Disciples
Another distinction is that while a missionary is defined by working in cross-cultural contexts, they are also someone who builds relationships by investing into the heart of the person in front of them through one-on-one discipleship, and not open evangelism.
To be clear, a missionary is not a social justice worker or an international humanitarian worker who travels the world. Neither are they evangelists.
While humanitarian efforts look for ways in which to make the world a better place to live and desire to be an agent of change, they are not looking for spiritual transformation and spiritual growth. And, an evangelist is always looking for growth and transformation, but there is usually no follow up on the conversation about Jesus or any level of discipleship.
This doesn’t mean that missionaries are anti-evangelism. A person with a missional mindset can develop a heart for the nations by serving in their own city and sharing the gospel to every person they meet, but that doesn’t mean that they are a missionary because they are missing an important factor: discipleship.
In discipleship, a missionary has the opportunity to let the love Christ shine through their daily actions. As they continue building relationships, that love shines through their lives into the lives of the people they are discipling and God transforms their lives through the gospel.
The point is that a missionary is one who goes and makes disciples. While not everyone called to be a full-time missionary overseas, every Christian is called to participate in the Great Commission through prayer and discipleship.
How does Culture, the Gospel, “Going”, and Making Disciples all fit into the definition of a missionary?
“A missionary is someone who loves and follows Jesus wherever they are while showing His love to others in the way they live.”
– Jasmine, senior
As followers and lovers of Jesus, we are all called to be disciple makers. A missionary is someone who goes further than that and crosses cultural barriers in order to share the gospel. Here is the final definition of what is a missionary:
“A missionary is a disciple-maker who has to cross multiple cultural barriers in order to make the gospel known to a person who does not know Jesus.”
– Steve Eliason, Missionary Preparation Coordinator with Bethany Gateways
Read our post on How To Know If You Are Called to Missions.