Is every Christian a missionary?
It turns out this is not an easy question to answer—it’s kind of a loaded question whose answer really depends on how you use the term “missionary.”
Some people use the term conventionally and by “missionary” they mean those who answer the call of God and go to foreign lands to advance the gospel. In this view, everyone is not a missionary, but only those who leave home. We need to be careful to emphasize everyone’s involvement in advancing the gospel. If those in this group somehow begin using the term in such a way that God’s own “mission” in the world is only for those who go far, far away and those who stay home are somehow failing to advance the gospel where they are, then the church will be harmed and Christians will be in danger of holding a Christianity that is disconnected from God’s purposes in the world.
More recently, some use the term “missionary” to mean anyone who enters into God’s mission to save his people in the world. In this view, every Christian is a missionary and missionary activity is what all Christians following Jesus do as they go about their lives. We also need to be careful here to have a category for those whom God has scattered to live and evangelize in far off places. If those who use the word “missionary” more broadly fail to do so, then the church will be harmed and Christians will be in danger of overlooking those Christians whom God has gifted to help lead the church in advancing the gospel.
In the Bible, some of God’s people were especially called out to advance the gospel in new areas. A Christian like this should lead all of God’s people as they advance the gospel—much like the one gifted with service should lead all Christians as they serve.
Some say, “Yes, everyone is a missionary,” while others say, “No, everyone is not a missionary.” But the term “missionary” is an extra-biblical term that has been coined to help label biblical concepts. So, let’s examine the biblical concepts because our obedience to those are most important.
God the Father has saved his people, the church, from among all the peoples of the world. All of us as believers have heard the gospel and were raised to life by the pouring out of the love of God into our hearts. We then received the Holy Spirit and were simultaneously incorporated into the fellowship of the Spirit. By virtue of this incorporation, we have been uniquely prepared to fellowship not just with God but with one another. So, whenever Christians live together in fellowship, we constitute local churches that display the gospel through our lives and worship. The church is Christ’s Body, uniquely prepared by God in Christ and equipped with the power of God’s indwelling Spirit for acts of service toward one another and our neighbors, both here and abroad.
Christ’s Body—the church—works. Churches are outposts of the coming Kingdom of God. Until that Kingdom fully comes, God wants the church to express submission to the reign of King Jesus in all peace while laboring to advance his rule throughout all creation. The book of Acts shows that God’s continued activity in the world is for this purpose. God wants his people to worship him in purity, unstained by the world, to live with one another in love, and to proclaim his gospel everywhere.
And God has not left us alone to accomplish this task. Through the Spirit, he has equipped us to do what he wants, and through the Spirit’s indwelling he transforms us slowly, gloriously into the image of Christ. What’s more, this Spirit has gifted to the church servants who help his people know where and how to act. He has also given to each of us spiritual gifts so that we would find our “fit” in this comprehensive work.
God has done all of this, and he continues doing all of this, so that his greatness will fill the earth. He will not rest until he has saved a people for his great name, a people from every tribe and tongue and nation. We call this God’s “mission” in the world, the work he’s determined to accomplish.
This mission is ultimately God’s, even as it’s designed to be worked out in and through God’s church. Everyone who follows Jesus as Lord is commanded to make disciples of Jesus. To be sure, our opportunities of service will vary. We all have our apportioned times and places vocations that are to be stewarded within the context of specific “stations” of our lives (e. g., family, singleness, church membership, citizenship, etc.).
Though our specific situations may vary, the calling to be a disciple never does: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). After Jesus was raised from the dead, he charged his followers to join his mission by proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God across land and sea to every people group on the earth. Every barrier that exists between humans is overcome in Christ; thus the gospel of Jesus destroys barriers of class, ethnicity, gender, religion, geopolitics, language, shame, and fear so that humans can be fully reconciled to God and to one another.
Regardless of the labels we use, let’s all determine afresh that we will follow our Lord and Savior to do our part in God’s mission. As we obey him, we will all cross barriers of some kind with the gospel. God will uproot some of us from where we are so that we can obey him by carrying the barrier-crossing gospel to where it is currently unknown. In conventional usage, though those who stay and those who go are both obedient in advancing the gospel, only the latter have been called “missionaries.” But both are necessary. Think about it: if the redemption accomplished by Jesus is so radically great that its effects are to authoritatively blow down the barriers to every nation of the world, then I should also certainly cross the street to share the gospel with the family in my neighborhood that is hard for me to love.
“Missionary” is simply an extra-biblical term that has linguistic roots in the idea of “being sent.” It has been coined to help label biblical concepts. The church must preserve and teach these biblical concepts. Whether that concept is the conventional idea of crossing cultural and linguistic barriers in order to make disciples of all people or the missional idea of all Christians making disciples wherever they are, we should not use labels in such a way that either of these biblical concepts disappear.
Instead, let’s follow Jesus faithfully and obediently. Let’s follow him in our homes, across our streets and to the poorest and most overlooked in our cities, to the most unreached and most difficult places in the uttermost parts of the earth.
This post written by Ken Caruthers at https://www.9marks.org/article/is-every-christian-a-missionary/ and used by permission of 9Marks.org. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.