This will be something new to the blog. A series written almost entirely by someone other than one of the pastors from Grace. This is outstanding teaching thereby an important series to be read and understood. With The Kosiorek family in France learning to speak French in order to minister in Togo Africa (follow that?) now is an opportune time to shed some light on this part of church life called “missions.”
Kevin DeYoung is the author of this series (originally posted here). Quite frankly he articulates precisely our views on missions and the work of missionaries, so instead of re-writing an inferior version I relented from my strict blog standards and decided to post his article. This will take 4 parts to cover. Do not be scared off by that! I’m breaking the whole into smaller bite size pieces for you to be able easily digest. So enjoy and be filled with a good biblical understanding of missions and mission work.
I hope in this blog to answer one simple question: What do missionaries do?
The question is simple, but coming to an answer is not. In recent years there has been a great deal of conversation in mission literature about what exactly we mean, or ought to mean, by “mission,” “missionary,” or the newer term “missional.” I wrote a book with Greg Gilbert in an effort to throw our two cents into the conversation. The issues are complicated, not least of all because it is no longer self-evident what we mean by words like missions or missionary.
Although Christians use these words all the time, if we were forced to provide a careful definition for them, we would find, I think, quite a diversity of opinion. For some people “missions” means nothing but evangelism, while some ecumenical organizations would rather have mission include every good thing the church might do except seeking the conversion of the lost. Is creation care mission work? What about teaching people to read and write? Or agricultural development? Or medical care? Or digging wells? Or orphan work? What if people do these things in Jesus’ name? What if these activities are part of a broader work or serve as the means to a larger end? Coming to an understanding of what constitutes “missionary” work is not as easy as it sounds.
Let me add a clarification at this point. In asking the question “what do missionaries do?” I am not thinking about the specifics of their day to day lives. I’m not going to try to describe all the particularities of what it looks like and feels like to be a missionary on the field. I would not be the best person to address that topic and it’s not what we find at the end of Acts 14.
I want to approach the question higher up and further back. I want us to think theologically about the tasks, the aims, and the purposes of mission work, and in so doing look at the responsibilities of missionaries. What should the men and women right now serving in the world as missionaries have as their ministry goals? What kind of work should churches expect, encourage, and pray for in their missionaries? What should mission committees and mission budgets look for in determining which mission organizations and which missionaries to support? These are important questions and very practical questions. And they cannot be addressed until we answer the first question: what do missionaries do?
The Beginning of a Definition
If we are to answer that question, we must first have some general understanding of what we mean by the word “missionary.” Obviously, we can’t fully define the word without determining what these people do. But we should at least try to get in the definitional ball park.
At the most basic level, a missionary is someone who has been sent. That’s what the word “mission” entails. It may not appear in your English Bibles, but it’s still a biblical word. Eckhard Schnabel—who, with two 1000 page volumes on Early Christian Mission and a 500 page work on Paul the Missionary, is one of the world’s leading experts on mission in the New Testament—makes this point forcefully.
The argument that the word mission does not occur in the New Testament is incorrect. The Latin verb mittere corresponds to the Greek verb apostellein, which occurs 136 times in the New Testament (97 times in the Gospels, used both for Jesus having been “sent” by God and for the Twelve being “sent” by Jesus). (Paul the Missionary, 27-28)
The apostles, in the broadest sense of the term, were those who had been sent out. Linguistically, this sent-outness is also the first thing we should note relative to the term missionary. It is, after all, the first thing Jesus notes about his mission–that he was sent to proclaim a message of good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Being “on mission” or engaging in mission work suggests intentionality and movement (Paul the Missionary, 22, 27). Missionaries are those who have been sent from one place that they might go somewhere else.
Every Christian–if we are going to be obedient to the Great Commission–must be involved in missions, but not every Christian is a missionary. While it is certainly true that we should all be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have, and we should all adorn the gospel with our good works, and we should all do our part to make Christ known, we ought to reserve the term “missionary” for those who are intentionally sent out from one place to another. It’s important to remember that the church (ekklesia) is by definition the assembly of those who have been called out. Our fundamental identity as believers is not as those who are sent into the world with a mission, but as those who are called out from darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). As Schnabel says about Acts, “[Luke] never characterizes ‘the church’ as an institution that is ‘sent’ to accomplish God’s will. Luke reports that a local congregation ‘sends’ leading preachers and teachers as ‘missionaries’ to other regions (see Acts 13:1-4), but the church itself is not portrayed as being ‘sent’” (Early Christian Mission, 1580). Missionaries, therefore, are those unique persons called by God and sent by the church to go out and further the mission where it has not yet been established.
Part 2 tomorrow.