Etymology of Missions & Missionary


Written by Madeline Peña

Jesus never said to become a missionary, He said to “go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). So, why is “missionary” and “missions” such a commonly used Christian phrase? What does it mean, and where does it even come from? These are valid questions and we will give the answers in this post.

Where did the word “missionary” come from? When the Bible was translated into Latin, the word that Christ used when sending out the disciples to preach the Gospel, is “missionem” meaning “act of sending” or “mittere,” meaning “to send.” “Missionem” was later translated into English as “missionary.”

Now that we have answered the main question, let’s explore how we got the answer. First, we’ll outline the definition, just so we’re all on the same page. Then, we’ll delve deep into the fascinating history of “missions” and “missionary”

Defining the Words; Missions & Missionary

Jesus left us with the Great Commission and missions is how we respond. But He never clearly gave a word for those who follow this command. There are actually many definitions of “missions” and “missionary”. We will offer a few definitions that best exemplify these words.


Latin was one of the most powerful languages in all the world. The Roman Empire used Latin, and then the language heavily influenced the rest of the nations under Roman authority. English was a language that was influenced by Latin as well, believe it or not. Many Latin words have come into our modern English language and this is the case for our English word of “missions”.


“From the Latin is mittere and missionem;  mittere means to, “to release, let go; send, throw,” and missionem means, “act of sending, dispatching; a release, a setting at liberty.” 

This Latin definition can be linked to the very beginning of the word “missions.” It comes from the translation of the Greek “apostolē” which means “a sending.” The apostles are ones who have been sent and commissioned to achieve a purpose from God or a special purpose concerning faith.

“An organized effort for the spread of religion or for the enlightenment of a community.”


This definition of missions is suiting because not only does it touch on the need to spread Christianity, but also the enlightenment that communities gain from Christianity. It has been shown historically that where missionaries are, quality of life is raised. That is because God wants His people to live in peace, therefore missions can cause peace in the world.

“To form a viable indigenous church-planting movement.”

— The Lausanne Congress of 1974

The word indigenous here touches on the fact that missions go hand in hand with the “unreached”. Many indigenous people groups were unreached, however, today that is changing due to the globalization of the world. Church-planting is appropriate for the definition of missions because many missions are associated with churches.

“One who is to witness across cultures.”

— Thomas Hale

This definition, although short, is straight to the point. As we learned before, missions is about going. This typically involves some sort of shift in culture. Even if a “sent one” stays in their own country, they should still encounter a culture-change during their mission. This definition also encompasses the aspect of missions which is witnessing. When doing missions, Christians are to witness about the Gospel to those who have never heard the good news of Christ.


As we will see, the definition of “missionary” is largely influenced by what the word “missions” means. This is why we have defined missions before moving onto the missionary section. Now we will better understand the importance and impact of the word, missionary, by reading the definitions and explanations.


“A person undertaking a mission and especially a religious mission.”


This definition gives the insight that a missionary is someone on a mission. It is important to know how Marriam-Webster defines “mission” if we are going to understand their definition for a missionary. They say that a mission is “a specific task with which a person or a group is charged, a body of persons sent to perform a service or carry on an activity, a ministry commissioned by a religious organization to propagate its faith or carry on humanitarian work” (Marriam-Webster.com).

“One who is sent on a mission, person sent by ecclesiastical authority to labor for the propagation of the faith in a place where it has no indigenous organization.”


The missionary is the one who is sent from a higher established organization. This organization should follow the Great Commission of Jesus for it to be a true Christians mission group. Then, the missionary is to take the faith of the united group (Christianity) to a place where there is no natural establishment of Christianity.

“A person sent by a church into an area to carry on evangelism or other activities, as educational or hospital work. A person strongly in favor of a program, set of principles, etc., who attempts to persuade or convert others. A person who is sent on a mission.”


Thankfully, this definition highlights the importance of evangelism for the missionary. Evangelism is one of the most important jobs for a missionary, alongside converting, teaching, preaching, and discipling. This definition also establishes the fact that most missionaries are accomplishing humanitarian work. This is for the sake of loving others through physical and emotional needs. Here, we find that the missionary is passionate and vocal about their faith.

The History of the Words; Missions & Missionary

“The roots of missions, Christians have believed, lie in God’s active outreach to humanity in history.”


Missionaries have been around for over 2,000 years. We know this because the first missionaries to be the “apostolē” (the sent ones) were in the 1st century, during Jesus’ life. Right before Jesus left Earth, He commissioned His followers to go out into the world for the sake of His name and for the sake of the Gospel.

Missionaries were dispersed all throughout Europe during the 1st century and on. During these first 15 centuries of history, the word “missions” really started to take form. These missionaries were willing to adapt to new cultures and to never bow to the current ruling government, but only to God alone. This gave the missionaries identity in both Jesus as a leader and in the fact that missions was cross-cultural. This is why in the 16th century, so many missionaries were willing to go out into the new continents of the unexplored world.

During the 16th century, the Jesuits (who are Catholic priests), sent members into various parts of the world. This was happening during the great colonization and expansion of European nations. The Jesuits were technically the first to convert non-believers into believers that called themselves “missionaries,” due to their Latin roots.

These Catholic missionaries built churches or central buildings that were called “missions.” These missions were for religious purposes and for the purpose of converting others to Christianity. The missions were strongly correlated with churches themselves, and this is why we use the word “missions” still to this day.

Following the Jesuits, the Protestants started sending missionaries. The Protestants, although Christian, had very different beliefs than the Catholics. Once the Protestants started sending missionaries, there was an explosion of missionaries going out around the world. Today, they are many more missionaries who fall under the name of Protestantism, rather than Catholicism.

This is the history of the word “missions” and “missionary”, the origins of the words, and the definitions of them. We hope that this knowledge continues to spark a passion in you for the great, big, grand picture of what the Lord has been doing in the history of our world through missionaries.

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