Missionaries and Mission

Missionaries and Mission

John at Locusts and Honey called my attention to Mike Lamson’s post Getting rid of “missionary”. Many of my liberal and non-Christian friends are very surprised to discover that I’m not willing to abandon terms like “mission,” “missionary,” and “evangelism.” I think there are two potential problems with simply changing our terminology. First, we can change the term and keep whatever bad behavior was associated with it, in which case we just revisit the issue in a few years to change terms again. Second, we can change the term because we don’t want to keep up with the good behavior that should be associated with the term.

It reminds me of the Bible translation term “dynamic equivalence,” a term that has been abandoned by most writers on Bible translation (I think so, at least; I haven’t done a survey). But to me the term conveys something that needs to be accomplished in the process of translation. I think that many who disparaged the term were actually hostile to what it meant. Finding a more congenial term didn’t make people do better things; it just changed the words, and in some cases I think it allowed people to claim that they were doing a better job of translation while they kept on doing the same old thing.

In the case of missionary and mission we have a set of terms that have acquired some baggage. We have missionaries calling on people to convert or die, we have missionaries following behind armies, or destroying cultures by their bad behavior. But the fact that there are bad missions and bad missionaries doesn’t mean that there are no missions that need to be accomplished, and that we don’t need people to accomplish them. And those people would be missionaries.

I am the son of missionaries. My father is an MD, and my mother an RN, and they served in medical missions both at home (Canada and the United States), and abroad (Mexico and South America). Caring for the sick was a mission for them, and they were missionaries.

As Christians we are kingdom people. As kingdom people we always have a mission, which is to be witnesses. The particular form that may take will be different from time to time. We are not called to convert people, because that is something that the Holy Spirit will do. But the Holy Spirit will do converting around one’s witnessing. Sometimes witnessing is simply a matter of living one’s life. Sometimes it’s a matter of talking. But in all cases it’s a matter of being a kingdom person.

Now obnoxious people have given the term missionary a dirty name, but the kingdom person will still be on a mission, a mission to be the salt of the earth, to be that little bit of leaven that will change lives and communities. I don’t think changing the term is necessary or useful. I think we do need to change our thinking. But as often as not the problem for mainline Christians especially is not that we are too pushy, i.e. we shine our light in people’s faces, but more that we hide such light as we have under a bushel. A sense of mission would be really helpful to many mainline churches.

In fact, I would suggest that this is the one piece of theology that is most decisive in making mainline churches shrink and more conservative or charismatic churches grow. In the mainline we’ve tended to lose any sense of mission, any sense of direction, any sense that we have anything worth sharing.

I’m talking about the incarnation in another series of posts. Isn’t living a life worthy of the incarnation a mission worth taking on? Isn’t helping someone else to find the power of the resurrection in their own spiritual and emotional life a worthwhile mission? It’s not about being pushy or obnoxious. It’s not about being critical or talking down to people. It’s not about threatening them with the fires of hell, which aren’t under your control in any case. It’s simply about having God’s love in your life, knowing that it’s important, and making it real for others who need it.

4 thoughts on “Missionaries and Mission

  1. Henry,

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    I have been proud to call myself a missionary but have also seen that this term is shifting in meaning. There are a large number of people who simply assume that I’m a Mormon when I say I’m a missionary. Strictly speaking, “missionary” does not line up with any biblical category. And another thing I see is that the dividing line between home country and mission field is getting very hard to draw. Is the U.S. a mission field, for example? Most would say it is. So then if literally everywhere is a mission field, is that even a helpful designation?

    Thankfully, I can tell people that I’m a Bible translator which up ’til now has almost entirely positive connotations. I suppose that could change in the future as well.

  2. I have been proud to call myself a missionary but have also seen that this term is shifting in meaning.

    I think of a missionary as a person who is trying to accomplish a mission. There have been many bad missionaries, people whose mission was inappropriate or carried out in an inappropriate way. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad to have a mission and to carry it out.

    In fact, when I teach at churches, I normally ask the pastor ahead of time for the mission statement of the church. Then the question becomes whether they are carrying out that mission and how.

    Emotional manipulation, force, and rudeness are bad ways of carrying out any mission and in my view provide a bad witness for the kingdom.

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