by Rex McDowell, Sr.
You have heard it dozens of times. A missionary comes to your church and pours out his heart about God’s heart for reaching the whole world. The Spirit stirs your heart. Then the pastor, before taking the offering, comments, “We can’t all go to foreign fields, but we are all missionaries right where we are.” There it is: Everyone is a missionary. It sounds spiritual, doesn’t it? But is it true? And what fruit often grows from it?
"Missionary" In The Normal Sense
No doubt the pastor means that every follower of Jesus is to be a witness for Jesus to the people around her, wherever she is. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men”? Weren’t His final recorded words, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses”? And doesn’t reaching the whole world include reaching this part of the world where I live? Absolutely! So if that is what “missionary” means, the well-intentioned pastor’s statement is true: Everyone is a missionary.
A missionary is a Jesus follower whose following has led him to share the gospel across cultural, and maybe language and geographic, barriers.
But does “missionary” mean this type of witness? You can answer that question easily by asking another: When the pastor announces that a missionary will visit your church, whom do you expect to come? Joe Witness from next door? Of course not. You expect the missionary to be a Jesus follower whose following has led him to share the gospel across cultural, and maybe language and geographic, barriers. He is making disciples in a “nation,” or ethnic group, other than his own. If we stretch “missionary” to cover all witnessing, both within and across cultures, we will have to coin a new term to describe those whom God has chosen to take the gospel where it has not yet gone. So in this usual sense of the term, it is not true that everyone is a missionary.
You're Not Off The Hook
This is not just an interesting semantic debate. Notice the frequent, though unintended, fruit of the “everyone is a missionary” approach. The Spirit has deeply stirred my heart by the missionary’s message. I am seriously reflecting on my responsibility to the Great Commission: What would God have me to do? Then I hear, “Everyone is a missionary.” Aha! I am already a missionary, fulfilling my whole missions obligation right where I live; so I don’t need to concern myself with the rest of the world. That task belongs to those like the speaker whom God has called to that work, and I know He hasn’t called me. I’m off the hook!
This attitude produces a deadly paradox...[where] I can remain completely comfortable while ignoring the 2.9 billion people who have no meaningful possibility of knowing Christ.
This attitude produces a deadly paradox. On the one hand, missions becomes an either/or affair. I am either a missionary or not. I am not; therefore, I can safely wash my hands of any responsibility for reaching the whole world with the gospel. On the other hand, the pastor just said I am a missionary; therefore, I can forget about cross-cultural missions with a salved conscience. My “missionary” work where I live is all God asks of me. Both lines of reasoning lead to the same result: I can remain completely comfortable while ignoring the 2.9 billion people who have no meaningful possibility of knowing Christ.
Isn’t something wrong with this scenario? Can any Jesus follower rightly ignore the huge multitude still waiting for the gospel? “Jesus follower” answers that question. Jesus is all about the gospel—first, by providing it through His death and resurrection (Philippians 2:5-11); and second, by spreading it to the entire human race (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). If Jesus is going to all the world with the gospel, and I am following Jesus, guess where I will go? Duh! And witnessing at home, though indispensable, is not enough. Home is not the whole world.
A Missional Perspective
To follow Jesus, then, must I become a cross-cultural missionary? Not necessarily. But I must follow Him in His passion to reach the whole world! I must, therefore, embrace world evangelism as my reason for existing, and I must be serious about finding and fulfilling my direct, personal part in accomplishing that mission. I will constantly ask Jesus, “What will it take from me to get Your worldwide job done?” I will investigate opportunities for me to advance missions. And I will get busy now doing what I find to do—just as Jesus did! In this sense, it is true: Everyone is a missionary! To avoid confusion, though, perhaps we could say that every Jesus follower is missional; that is, she orients her entire life around completing the Great Commission.
As you become intentional about missional living, do not be surprised if God leads you to become a missionary in the cross-cultural sense.
As you become intentional about missional living, do not be surprised if God leads you to become a missionary in the cross-cultural sense. But never let not being a missionary in that sense excuse you from being truly missional. That’s who Jesus followers are.
So the next time you hear, “Everyone is a missionary,” be sure you understand it correctly. Yes, every Jesus follower is a witness, sharing the good news of full salvation with the people she knows or meets. No, not every Jesus follower is gifted to effectively communicate that gospel cross-culturally or to take it where it has not yet gone. But definitely yes, every Jesus follower is missional, orienting his life around God’s Great Commission, asking continually, “How can I best contribute, personally and directly, to getting the gospel to every person?’ and then living out the answer God gives him!
To investigate opportunities to advance missions, stay tuned for our next article: Let’s Repeal and Replace “Go or Give or Pray”!