Is the Term ‘Missionary’ Past Its Sell By Date?

This post is tangentially linked to my (as yet unfinished) series on whether or not the West should still send out missionaries (1, 2).

In a comment on the first part of the series, David Ker wrote:

You know I’ve struggled with being called a missionary. I’ve even questioned why my sending organization calls us missionaries.

Interestingly, I came across an article in a secular newspaper that talks about SIL, the organisation with whom David works in South Africa. The article focusses on the production of the Ethnologue, a catalogue of the world’s languages, but also touches on the issue of the use of the term ‘missionary’.

But if Ethnologue’s working method hasn’t changed in the last half-century, the image it projects to the outside world has. The Grimes had no objection to calling themselves missionaries, but Lewis’s generation is squeamish about the label. “The stereotype is not one we want to own,” he says. “We describe ourselves as linguists, translators, development workers, and we do it as a faith-based organisation and out of a Christian motivation.”

I know that in the UK, the term missionary carries with it a number of connotations which are far from positive and people are increasingly shying away from it. That being said, I’m not sure that we have come across an alternative that can easily be used in its place.

I think it is important to note that there is nothing particularly sacred about the term missionary. It doesn’t have a particularly long history in the Church. As long as Christians are witnessing to Christ and making disciples, it doesn’t particularly matter what term is used to describe the activities.

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

7 thoughts on “Is the Term ‘Missionary’ Past Its Sell By Date?

  1. Switching labels from “student” to “missionary” been much more of an identity crisis than I expected. Why does a cross-cultural Christian worker who’s salary is paid by friends and churches in the US need a special label?

  2. For a long time, it was a title of pride within the church (small ‘c’) – like, the most holy of Christians is a missionary.

    Now it’s a thing of relevance – that term seems to imply irrelevance.

  3. I don’t self-identify as a missionary and I’m trying to avoid the term when talking to our supporters. I’m proud of the work I do and I try to honor Christ in everything but I’m not sure whether we are in fact the privileged class of Christian that our churches have made us into.

  4. A point that deserves to be mentioned here is that the term “missionary” denotes intentionality; everyone, including the person who self-identifies as a missionary and those who calls others missionaries, knows that the missionary is intentionally committed to disciple-making. Secondly, the term denotes one who is sent out by a church body or agency. Other people (“Christian workers” and other terms) aren’t either intentional or sent out or both. They may to a lesser degree be committed or intentional about that effort. And they might just have gone out on their own. These are not minor issues. In my personal assessment, the term went wildly out of fashion in the mainline church but has (thankfully!) been resurrected and revitalized because the church is rediscovering its explicit mission-sending call.

    Related to this is another force that shies away from thinking of people as missionaries, that part of the Christian body opposed to those who seek to bring non-Christians to faith in Christ (the “liberal” or “social action” side of the church). They want missionaries to be drubbed out of existance because they are opposed to the FUNCTION of missionaries.

    As one committed to world evangelization, I want to uphold the function of missionaries (not necessarily the term). I also do not want us to lose the sense that there are those explicitly “sent out” by Church bodies or agencies. There *is* a distinct difference to those so sent out vs going out on their own or just finding themselves in cross-cultural situations.

    1. I’m not sure that I agree with your definition of the componants of meaning of the word ‘missionary’. Perhaps this is a US/UK thing, – two people seperated by a common language and all that!

      I also struggle with your description of ‘the “liberal” or “social action” side of the church’. I’m not sure what you mean by this, but social action has always been a part of God’s mission – demonstrated most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus, himself. A commitment to world evangelism does not mean that we don’t have a commitment to justice, peace making and service.

  5. I love the comments above – great thoughts. I’d like, however, to add another wrinkle into the discussion.

    We use alternative terms especially for those who are working in restricted access environments. For political, cultural and/or religious reasons, the term “missionary” is often a killer – both figuratively as well as, unfortunately in some cases, literally. When the sent-one gets labeled “missionary,” it’s all over – relational ministry is shut down and severed, they are rejected by the community and in some cases – such as what happened to friends of mine last year – ejected from the country, and then of course there are those who pay the ultimate sacrifice with their lives, too – such as happened to several various associates in these past few years .

    To be addicted or fixated on keeping a term such as missionary for the sense of familiarity or comfort of the sending church is counter to what the sending Church is to be doing, namely, sending and supporting those who are called to long-term service among the unreached. We as Believers must not insist on utilizing labels “within” our local churches thinking these are safe communication environments. They’re not.They’re public and very porous (especially with not only websites but cell phones tweeting, posting pictures and videos, etc, too) . Additionally, our language within the church does intentionally and unintentionally train participants how to speak; they will go out and speak what they hear inside. In fact, we want them to do that. So, we must use language “inside” the church that is acceptable “outside” as well.

    This issue is not for a small number of workers, either: Significant swaths of the earth and unreached peoples are in restricted access environments. This is the front lines of cross-cultural work – not with those who are already believers, but with those who have not heard and aren’t going to hear unless someone from the outside comes into their world to tell them.

    And finally let me affirm what has already been mentioned as well, that the term “missionary” has so much baggage attached to it isn’t just an issue for those who are overseas or even local but working with another culture group. It’s got too much baggage in the minds of our own home societies as well. Thus, no matter how useful it might have been in the past, I see it as having outlived it’s usefulness. Plus, as it is not mandated by Scripture, we are free to change it as needed. Indeed, we need to change it in order to continue to be and to increase our effectiveness in being obedient to the Great Command, which applies to everyone despite their role inside or outside the “church” setting.

  6. We could literally spend all our time debating terminology, of course. In many places the term “Christian” raises all kinds of alarm bells. Many who serve among Muslim populations avoid it. Instead, they speak of becoming a follower of Jesus. “Missionary” doesn’t work there either. As long as we are clear on the calling of God to be part of His mission to the world, the terminology is irrelevant.

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