What is a Missionary?

June 18, 2009 | President's Slice
By Joe Hale

It seems like such a simple question.  I was visiting a church not long ago, and from the pulpit came these words:  “God has called every one of us to be missionaries.” In another church I noticed as I was leaving the auditorium in large black letters over the exit:  “You are now entering the mission field.” Semantics can be tricky and certainly confusing.  While there is some truth in the above statements, the reality is that, if every believer IS indeed a missionary, there is no real distinction between a missionary and a witness, and, in fact no one is a missionary.

These broad generalizations can be confusing, but so can the overly-analyzed “missiological” approaches on the other extreme; Terms such as “TentMakers,” “BAMmers” (business as mission, or now sometimes called “BATters”…business as transformation), E1, E2, E3 evangelists, “workers,” nationals doing in-country cross-cultural work, etc., are used to describe what used to be call “missionaries.” One could spend a lifetime trying to figure out what should be relatively simple.  No wonder there’s so much confusion over this important subject.

J. Herbert Kane, a known missiologist and former professor at Trinity Evangelical Theological Seminary, wrote, “It is impossible to come up with a scientific definition of the term missionary that will meet all the conditions and satisfy all the demands. It is possible to punch holes in any definition on which we might settle. 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), and who have crossed geographical and/or cultural boundaries (Acts 22:21) to preach the gospel in those areas of the world where Jesus Christ is largely, if not entirely, unknown (Ro 15:20). This definition, though by no means perfect, has the virtue of being Biblical.”

I tend to think that “being a missionary” is a matter of the heart as much as it is physical location.  I’ve seen folks who fit all the definitions, but were clearly missing the “heart factor.” For clarity’s sake, if we want to use the term to identify those working cross-culturally, we do need to acknowledge some sense of “calling,” a sense of “being sent out” to represent both Christ and His Church, and a sense of living by faith--trusting God to use you to influence those who need Christ toward Him, both in lifestyle and in word.  So, I like being called a “missionary” by this definition:  One called by God to be sent out by His Church into a cross-cultural environment to influence others towards Christ, living by faith and having the influence of salt (imbedded influence) and light (intentional witness).

Another question that I’ve often been asked is “Is NICS a mission agency or an educational agency?” This is an important question that relates to everyone who joins our staff.  As NICS seeks hundreds of educators to join our ministry, it must be clear that we are not simply seeking professional and qualified teachers; international schools around the world are already full of these professionals.  I’ve met many people in professional cross-cultural ministry that seem reticent to call themselves “missionaries.” But in contrast, I sometimes find that those classified as “missionaries” get the idea that such an identity somehow diminishes the need to excel in the area of professionalism.  There should be no such struggle.  For those doing mission work in professional fields, such as education, it is so important that there is no dichotomy between professionalism and “doing missionary work.” It is insulting to the Gospel to use one’s identity as a “missionary” to be anything less than the very best one can be professionally.  Additionally, it is insulting to education to wear the “missionary” hat while being inferior in any way professionally. 

Our desire as an agency is to see our staff motivated by a heart to love, serve, and reach folks, but do so in such a way that the highest level of professionalism is exhibited.  My wife, Ann, grew up in 4H, and I love their pledge:  “I pledge my head to better thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living to my club, my community, my country, and my world.” As Christians, we can embrace all of these in our mission work, culminating with “to my God!”


Kane, J. Herbert.  Understanding Christian Missions.  Baker Book House, 1974. p. 28.


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