Posted by: Catherine Weston | December 1, 2014

What is a missionary? Finding categories that fit!

Goheen missionYears ago when we were in training at All Nations Christian College, we were given the task of speaking at a local church about being a missionary.  I remember struggling with the concept, because the term doesn’t actually appear in the Bible.  I recollect that we spoke about being Christ’s ambassadors (from 2 Corinthians 5:20). Back then (in the mid 80s) I wasn’t aware of discussions about the nature of mission/s. Back then we all ‘knew’ it was about proclaiming the gospel to the nations!

Mission (so we understood) involved crossing a cultural frontier, and the usual way in which that happened was to ‘go overseas’ (usually somewhere exotic where the weather was hot).  That was the legacy of the 19th century understanding, when the ‘West’ was ‘Christian’ and everywhere else wasn’t! The only trouble was, Richard and I never made it beyond the UK (see why here). Were we proper missionaries?  Members of the UK church we subsequently joined didn’t seem to think so.  Or at least many didn’t quite know how to place us.  We knew we were crossing cultures with the gospel as we sought to tell international students about Jesus, but we were living at home! We weren’t working for an established missions agency, nor were we working for a church. We never fitted into anyone’s known categories.

I wish I’d had access, back then, to some of the books available now – though maybe I wouldn’t have been ready to appreciate them, being so green and untested in cross-cultural Christian ministry. I’m just coming to the end of Michael Goheen’s new volume ‘Introducing Christian Mission today’, deeply appreciative of the breadth and depth of his thinking in this area.

He has an interesting section on making distinctions in terminology.  So for him: ‘Mission is the whole task of the church to witness to the whole gospel in the whole world…[it] is a comprehensive term that is synonymous with the way many use the term “witness” ’.

If that’s the case, then we are all ‘missionaries’ and we were right all those years ago to speak about being ambassadors for Christ.  It’s for every believer in any and every context in which God puts us to witness in word and deed to the coming reign of King Jesus. On the other hand ‘Missions [with an s] is one aspect of the broader mission of the church … to establish a witness to the gospel in places or among peoples where there is none or where it is very weak’. It doesn’t have to be cross-cultural, though it often is.  It doesn’t have to be away from one’s own country, though it may be.

How about you? Where is your ‘mission field’?

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