As I seek to find and mentor missionaries to America I perceive that one of the pitfalls in America as a mission field is that we, Christians in America too easily turn to Christian celebrities and clichés to make sense of our disorientating dilemma. One cliché that deserves critique is, “Every Christian is a missionary.
Yes, I believe the New Testament clearly teaches that the Great Commission is for all who believe in Jesus’ Resurrection (Matthew 28:18-20.) We do that in a variety of ways which include praying, serving one’s neighbors, giving sacrificially, and witnessing to the power of Jesus to change lives. Yet, I do believe the Bible teaches there are specific spiritual gifts given to individual believers to empower their acts of service to build up the body of Christ. I believe one of those gifts is a missionary gift. When all the gifts are being utilized the body represents the full glory of our Lord. When some of those gifts are not utilized the body does not fully display the Lord’s glory to the world.
To explain this perspective let me tell of teachings I listened to many years ago from older and wiser missionaries than myself.
I was a senior at Harding College in the spring of 1989. I sat in our missionary in residence, Monte Cox’ home for African Missions Fellowship. Our guest was Allen Avery. He was in Romans 12 discussing spiritual gifts. The text reads,
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (Romans 12:1-7. New International Version.)”
Allen made several points that have always stuck with me. First, he mentioned that we find our spiritual gifts in humble service. We relinquish our agendas. Then they are affirmed by the body of Christ. As such our gifts are for the purpose of building up the body. I remember Allen explaining each of the gifts listed. He made the point that this was not an exhaustive list of spiritual gifts, but an example. Then he spoke directly to us as young people interested in African missions. He told us the only way to discover our gifting was to go and try. Then if we found that in our service our gifts were affirmed by the body we knew what they were. We needed to tryout our missionary gift in the upcoming summer’s short-term mission’s trip to Africa.
After that trip I went to graduate school at Abilene Christian University. One of my favorite missions’ professors was Ed Mathews. Once he asked us missions’ students where the word “missionary” was in the New Testament. He had us stumped. Then he spoke words that kept me going through the darkest days of my missionary career. He told us that most English translations had no word of “missionary” in them, but the Latin Vulgate did have the word, “missio.” It meant one sent with a message. Then Ed told us that in the Greek New Testaments the word “apostolos” from which the Latin translation gave us “missio.”
Then Ed was both theological and very practical. Our religious heritage believed that Jesus chose 12 apostles and then Paul to be the founders of the faith. Their writings during the First Century became our inspired New Testament. None of us could dare take on the name apostle to describe our ministry hopes. To do so would have been blasphemous.
Ed told us that in the days of the New Testament the word “apostolos” had a rather ordinary meaning. It meant one sent with a message. It could mean things such as an ambassador or emissary. True, the New Testament age gave “apostolos” a new meaning of eternal authoritative words. Yet, Ed proposed that some of the times that “apostolos” was used in the New Testament were rather ordinary meanings of one being sent as a messenger of Jesus to make disciples, develop new churches, and usher in new Kingdom possibilities.
Ed counseled us that some of us would carry this sacred and distinct responsibility to go to new places sent by the Holy Spirit to initiate new movements of God. We’d go in humility. Our journey would be difficult and painful. Many would scorn us. Yet, we had this specific missionary call. In the darkest of our days when our cultural home seemed like a safe and faithful option we must remember that our missionary gift dare not be squandered in generalities.
I dug in the text. Ed had a point. Then I lived through dark days abroad. Then I returned to my passport home and saw a nation in need of missionaries. Thankfully, now we’ve got .https://www.biblegateway.com/
If you take a look here are some texts that are worthy of consideration:
“Am I not truly free? Am I not an emissary of the Liberating King? Have I not personally encountered Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work, my mission in the Lord? Even if others don’t recognize that I am His emissary, at least you do because you are the seal, the living proof that the Lord commissioned me to be His representative.
Let me speak in my own defense against those keeping themselves busy picking me apart. (1 Corinthians 9:1-3. The Voice)”
“Not all are emissaries, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Or teachers? Or miracle-workers? (1 Corinthians 12:29. Complete Jewish Bible.)”
“Are they all missionaries? No. Are they all preachers or those who speak for God? No. Do they all do powerful works? No. (1 Corinthians 12:28-30. New Life Version.)”
“Are all members gifted as emissaries? Are all gifted with prophetic utterance? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? (1 Corinthians 12:28-30. The Voice.)”
"What I am doing now, I will keep on doing. I will do it to stop those who say they work as we do. Those men are false missionaries. They lie about their work. But they make themselves look like true missionaries of Christ. It is no surprise! The devil makes himself look like an angel of light. (2 Corinthians 11:12-14. New Life Version.)”
“Peter, messenger of Jesus Christ, sends this letter to the exiles of the dispersed tribes (in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia), whom God the Father knew and chose long ago to be made holy by his Spirit, that they might obey Jesus Christ and be cleansed by his blood: may you know more and more of God’s grace and peace. (1 Peter 1:1-2. Phillips.)”
From: Peter, Jesus Christ’s missionary.
To: The Jewish Christians driven out of Jerusalem and scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia Minor, and Bithynia. (1 Peter 1:1. The Living Bible.)”
“This letter is from Peter, a missionary of Jesus Christ. I am writing to those who were taken away from their homeland and are living in the countries of Pontus and Galatia and Cappadocia and Asia and Bithynia. (1 Peter 1:1. New Living Version.)”
” Peter, an emissary of Jesus the Anointed One, to God’s chosen people living as aliens scattered among the unbelievers in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. (1 Peter 1:1. Voice.)”
A common contemporary American Evangelical teaching in most churches is on discovering your spiritual gifts. It seems to me that one gift that is being neglected in our present day is the missionary spiritual gift.
If in the New Testament a missionary gift were to be more utilized what would it look like?
(When in doubt remember the classic, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’ or Ours by Roland Allen, and start asking the question, “What would Paul do?”) In Acts 13 we read,
“Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:1-4. New International Version.)”
Thus it seems that out of worship, teaching ministry, and service to the local church some will be set aside as missionaries. They then should be sent out by the Holy Spirit through the local church with prayer and fasting to begin new movements of Jesus’ disciples.
In some situations we may hear an audible voice of the Lord, but in most it is largely just the sanctified common sense of the church which notices those with gifting in teaching, initiating, and culturally competency who are selected and sent.
Some may ask why I find it such a big deal to take issue with the cliché that all Christians are missionaries. After all, I do acknowledge that all Christians should be about the Great Commission.
I find this matter of great significance first because the task is so big and God’s people are generally doing so poorly. There are still a multiple of people groups in the world with no messenger from Jesus. There are also many areas of the world that have a Christian witness but do not have enough Christian personnel or resources to make a substantive Gospel impact. These types of arguments have traditionally been made about missions outside of the West. Now we can make them about the West. There is broad consensus that the West is socially Post-Christian. The results are tragic and in some cities even secular media sources are now bemoaning neighborhoods of church deserts. To address such an overwhelming task we must find those who are the most spiritually equipped for the task. If we believe in the Holy Spirit we must assume He is equipping some and our local church is tasked to discern, nurture, send, and support these missionaries.
Second, though there are a multiple of Christian commands to be obeyed some of us are given extra skill in their execution. For instance, we all should worship the Lord yet some are more skilled as corporate worship leaders. We all should steward our resources. Yet some are skilled as treasurers and accountants. We all should shepherd our community. Yet for some this is distinct role in our local body. If we unnecessarily blur the lines between commands and gifting we minimize the gifting and leave our local body anemic. Thus if every Christian is a missionary in practice then no Christian is really a missionary.
Third, though we can easily make the argument that nothing is impossible with God and His resources are immeasurable yet He only entrusts us with measurable resources and people. We are tasked to be good stewards. Then as we steward well He multiples (For further reference see The Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30.) Thus there must be priorities of time, personnel, and resources which local churches make. If we do not discern and prioritize church deserts will grow. Not only are these results disastrous for the task of evangelism. These results are disastrous for the unity of the local church. With no discernment of gifting and little support of the gifted fierce partisan competition develops in local church bodies and Christian unity declines. Conversely, with discernment and good stewardship the Lord will entrust more measurable resources and personnel to our stewardship.
Some who are reading this blog are seeing a pitfall of pride in those who claim to have the missionary gift. I concur with your appraisal of pride. In fact, Allen Avery’s early Biblical counsel would be to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought (Romans 12.) Some of us have even seen church leaderships that are filled with lording lunacy. They have a supreme leader called an apostle who is accountable to no human. He likely has a big chair at the front and a psychological profile of him would say he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder. That level of arrogance has no place in the missionary gift and call. It’s extremely dangerous to assume one with a missionary gifting has a New Testament apostle’s spiritual authority.
Instead if we look back to master missionary Paul we see a missionary gifting is one of humility, constant learning, and flexibility. Occasionally, a missionary may counsel the powerful. Yet many times he simply bounces around borders and government bureaucracy. Occasionally, a missionary may have an exceptional skill to know other languages and cultures. Yet, for most it is a discipline that is nurtured. Occasionally, a missionary can successfully execute a master plan. Yet, for most good missionary principles are constantly flexing for new and rapidly changing circumstances.
There is little human glory for most gifted missionaries. Yet the tasks of global evangelism will not be adequately addressed without them. I’m convinced the Bible teaches that all Christians are responsible for fulfilling the Great Commission. I’m also convinced that the Bible teaches that some Christians are given a missionary gift to be sent by the Holy Spirit to make disciples, start new churches, and usher in new Kingdom possibilities. Can we now discern who those missionaries are in our local churches, nurture their gifting, and commission them for the awesome tasks of our season in eternity?
As master missionary Paul writes,
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news! (Romans 10:14-15. New International Version.)”