What is a Missionary? 

We all have an idea of what a missionary looks like. But have you ever stopped to think of what a missionary truly is? How would you define a missionary?  

Would you define a missionary as “someone who crosses cultural barriers to share the Gospel and make disciples” or as “someone who leaves everything behind and goes overseas to serve God in a foreign cultural context?”

A missionary is someone who goes beyond their natural environment and into a new one. They are immersed in the culture, ready to share the Good News of Jesus. Missionaries are cross-cultural Christian workers who share the love of God by serving and working among the local community, contextualizing the Gospel, and making disciples. 

Wherever God calls us to serve, we have the opportunity to live on mission for Christ through our careers. 

Bethany Global University has over 75 years of experience equipping people to explore this calling. Are you Interested in learning more about where an intercultural ministry focused degree can take you? 

You can read about our different degree paths here, and apply for a lifetime of impact.  

Defining a Missionary: One Who “Goes” 

A missionary is someone who “goes” into a new context, whether that is in their home country or abroad. A missionary is not geographically defined by going overseas but by crossing cultural barriers. This means that a missionary is someone who “goes” to live in a foreign country or “goes” through cross-cultural barriers such as language, culture, and beliefs. 

One definition states, “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). It is for those who have crossed geographical and/or cultural boundaries (Acts 22:21) to preach the gospel in areas of the world where Jesus Christ is largely, if not entirely, unknown (Rom. 15:20)” (5).

Defining a Missionary: Immersed in Culture

When you become a missionary, you learn how to immerse yourself in a culture that is unlike your own. To be effective, you must communicate with people in a way they understand. This comes from cultural understanding.

Without a proper definition of culture, our view of a missionary is incomplete. Before we define the term “missionary” we must first understand the context in which a missionary is found.  

What is Culture? 

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). 

Defining Cross-Culture 

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 occurs when you engage with a person from a culture outside of your own. This is often the view Christians take when it comes to defining a missionary. To be engaged in cross-cultural mission work does not mean you must go overseas. Numerous people groups within the U.S. have not yet heard the Gospel. Refugees, immigrants, and new U.S. citizens are uprooted, sometimes rejected by their own country, and often feel lost, abandoned, and alone. 

Cross-cultural missions can take the form of visiting with a family from East Asia or the Middle East and inviting them into your home for dinner. As you engage in conversation, become acquainted with them, and share your interest in their culture, you begin to slowly build trust. This may be the start of a beautiful relationship that provides the opportunity for you to introduce them to Jesus.  

In this simple act, you do not cross borders or the sea, but you embody the heart of a missionary. There are hundreds of Christians in the United States who are living missional lives by witnessing to those around them. While not everyone is called to be an overseas missionary, everyone is called to make disciples and take part in the Great Commission, no matter where they live in the world. 

Cultural Context 

“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 means you will live among people whose language you do not understand and whose customs are completely foreign to you. To fully immerse yourself in their lifestyle, you must learn why people believe and act the way they do. During that process, you are deeply invested in the people around you. You are curious to understand their perspective on God, the universe, and people’s role in society.  

Your intention as a missionary is to share the Gospel with the people you meet. To accomplish that, you must understand the culture you are in so that you may present the gospel in a culturally understood way. Only then, will you make disciples who will make disciples. 

Check out our ultimate guide to unreached people groups, including some facts on culture. 

Defining a Missionary: A Cross-Cultural Worker 

The world is more diverse today than ever. There are over 500 people groups within the U.S. alone, with over 100 people groups who have never been reached with the Gospel. 

Leaving the country to be a missionary is no longer the only option to engage with unreached people groups. Christian missionaries are being sent to people groups who live within the United States. The largest Somali population in the United States is in Minnesota, and Latinos are the prominent ethnic group within the state of California.  

Christians who live in diverse areas can do cross-cultural ministry and be considered “missionaries.” This is because the term “missionary” focuses more on crossing cultural borders than physical ones. 

Though this looks different from the traditional view of a missionary, urbanization has made this a relevant and needed role in Christian outreach. Due to urbanization, missionaries are not only being sent to tribes, villages, and small towns. Today there are hundreds of missionaries being sent across the world to urban and developed cities.  

Defining a Missionary: Carrier of Good News

The Good News a missionary brings with them is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The Bible states, “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 vital component of a missionary. A missionary is the messenger of the Good News to all people– one who takes the name of Jesus where it has never been heard before. When taking the Gospel to a different country you must learn about the culture and traditions so that you can share it in an effective way. This is known as contextualizing the Gospel. 

Contextualizing the Gospel

“Contextualization involves an attempt to present the Gospel in a culturally relevant way” (4).

This means that we do not change the Gospel, instead, we explain itl in a manner that can be understood in any culture and society.  

Consider how Jesus spoke to His audiences. He used people, places, and timelines in His stories based on the knowledge the people already possessed. To us, the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 is remarkable, but to the original audience, it was unheard of. It was outrageous and undignified. 

In a culture that treated its elders with high respect, the Jewish people would never imagine a father running to greet his wayward son. This cultural understanding adds impact to the Biblical story and highlights God’s truth in deeper ways.  

When going into another country or culture as a missionary, you must consider the surrounding way of life. Tactics vary in each culture, religion, and people group. There are thousands of diverse beliefs that do not fit within one formula of contextualizing the Gospel. 

By presenting the Gospel message through the local people’s lens of understanding, they better relate to and understand it. This results in greater transformation, simply due to the method of presentation.  

Defining a Missionary: A Disciple-Maker 

Another distinction is that while a missionary is defined as working in cross-cultural contexts, they are also individuals who prioritize discipleship. Missionaries build relationships by investing in the hearts of the people in front of them. The missionaries’ perspective on ministry is for long-term transformation, which varies from other cross-cultural efforts such as short-term evangelism. 

Evangelism is certainly a tactic that long-term missionaries use, however, unlike evangelists, missionaries live in an area for the long haul.  
In discipleship, a missionary lets the love of Christ shine through their daily actions, through consistent, vibrant friendships. This love of God is what transforms lives through the Gospel.

Defining a Missionary: One Who Serves 

A missionary seeks the holistic transformation and benefit of a community. Many missionaries bring the gospel through education, business, midwifery and medical missions, intercultural ministry, and community development. 

Missionaries serve the needs of others and seek well-being for them physically, relationally, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. 

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, Bethany Global University (BGU) graduate

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 International

Steps to Becoming a Missionary

If you’re considering a career in missions, the first step is pursuing a platform and network for ministry.

Here is just one route you can start with!

  • Joining a training school like Bethany Global University (BGU). BGU is a fully accredited Christian university focused on intercultural ministry and missions. As part of our program, you will earn your undergraduate degree, go on a 13-month Global Internship, and specialize in your preferred field of study.