There’s an underlying assumption in the Christian church that somehow if you travel overseas and help out in an orphanage that you can assign yourself the designation missionary. Building houses, rescuing girls from trafficking, and equipping villages with clean water are all wonderful acts, but it seems to me that this broad use of the term brings with it widespread negative implications for the entire evangelistic enterprise of the church. In a recent article linked to by the International Missions Board the author provides this definition of mission:
[Mission] is God’s plan that people from every nation, tribe and language will come to saving faith in Jesus through the preaching of the Gospel.
Perhaps that seems simplistic. And in a sense, it is. But it’s also worthy of unpacking and no small amount of ink has been spilled working through the myriad ways in which it can be faithfully achieved. On the other hand, this concise definition is also revealing; not only by means of what it affirms, but by what it deliberately leaves out.
Mission should never be reduced to performing good works. The key work of a missionary must include (one or all of) evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and leadership training, all aimed at making and growing disciples (see Mark 3:14; Luke 9:1-2; 24:27; Acts 8:4-8; 13:13-52; 14:1-23; Romans 15:17-23; 1 Corinthians 9:16; Galatians 1:15-16). With that in mind, here’s the rub: we must be wary of viewing people around the world as charity cases or tourist attractions; the church providing aid alone (however generous and large-scale) will not give people eternal hope. While you’re undoubtedly meeting a significant material need, the hard truth is that the community you are building houses for is made up of living, breathing, human souls who are headed straight to hell unless they come to saving faith, and that faith comes only by hearing the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But our mission isn’t just to do good deeds, but to proclaim.
We can’t witness effectively if we expect others to simply observe our lives and notice Jesus.
They will only see Jesus in us if they hear about him from us.
There is no gospel without words.
– John Piper
Please, don’t mishear the message. Yes, we are unquestionably called to do. We know that faith without works is dead (James 2:14-17). The Apostle Paul tells us clearly that we have been saved in order that we might perform the good works that God has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). More than that, it is through our love for one another that we show the world a glimpse of their Saviour. We are called to care for the sick, to shelter the homeless, to love our neighbour, and to do good in all the ways we can. In doing so, we are being like Christ. But our primary calling – the entire reason for which we exist – is to clearly proclaim the lost and sinful state of humankind, the redemptive work of a loving God, and the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross for the salvation of all who would believe. And for this, we need words.
Having a better developed understanding of what makes a missionary is key to the Church’s commissioning and sending of workers into the world. If we know the hopeless state of the human condition and provide rescue, shelter, or clean water without sharing Christ, then what we’re doing fundamentally isn’t love, and it certainly isn’t mission.
We know that God is building his church. Our responsibility is to keep commissioning, to keep sending, to keep taking the love of the Saviour to every nation, tribe, and tongue through practical, tangible means. And when we’re there, let’s take our example from the Apostle Paul who in all his words and deeds “decided to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified”. In meeting people’s material need in the present, let’s be sure we’re always pointing those same people to the One who can meet their every need for eternity.
That’s a missionary.