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Are All Christians Called to Be Missionaries?

Paul Shaddick asks this question on his Facebook page, but the system only gives 250 characters for the response – which is no where near enough!

I’m not sure why Paul asked the question, but I’m not sure that it gets to the heart of the issue. Far too often, the idea of missionary springs from the Great Commission in Matthew 28 – we are to be missionaries because Jesus sends us into the world. In The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, Chris Wright talks about the great comission:

…Les defensible has been the massive continuing practice in many missionary circles to go on and on building the massive edifice of Christian missionary agency on this one text, with varying degrees of exegetical ingenuity. If you put all your apologetic eggs in one textual basket, what happens when the handle breaks?

What happens, for example, if all the emphasis on the word Go in much mission rhetoric is undermined by the recognition that it is not an imperative at all in the text but a particle of attendant circumstances, an assumption – something taken for granted? Jesus did not primarily command his disciples to go; he commanded them to make disciples. (pp.34, 35)

He goes on to raise a number of serious questions about the use of this text to defend our current practice and experience of missions. There is a great tendency within the Evangelical world to find proof texts which bolster the things we do and the way we act, but this is a dangerous practice.

Talking of proof texts, Wright quotes the great missionary theologian David Bosch:

I am not saying that these procedures are illegitimate. They undoubtedly have their value. But their contribution towards establishing the validity of the missionary mandate is minimal. This validity should not be deduced from isolated texts and detached incidents but only from the thrust of the central message of both Old and New Testaments. What is decisive for the Church today is not the formal agreement between what she is doing and what some isolated biblical texts seem to be saying but rather her relationship with the essence of the message of Scripture.

In other words, we should be looking to the whole message of Scripture to guide us, not just one or two texts. So where does this get us with the question of whether all Christians are missionaries?

The constant theme which runs through the Bible is that God is seeking to bring reconciliation and wholeness back to his creation following the fall. Immediately after the fall, Adam and Eve hide in the Garden, but God comes looking for them. He chooses Abraham and tells him that through him all nations will be blessed. Later on the Father sends the Son and the Spirit to earth to bring atonement and a knowledge of God. It is worth noting that the key use of the word apostolos (to send – the Latin equivalent mittere gives us the English words mission and missionary) is of the Father sending the Son and Spirit – not of God sending the Church into the world. To briefly sum up the message of Scripture – God is on a mission! Any sending of Christians or the Church is only a part of the much bigger mission that God himself is engaged in. God is on a mission, and it is our privilege to join him. We don’t do mission for God, we do it with him.

When we use the word missionary it becomes something that Christians do – a job title, or job description. This is safe and comfortable. Mission is a thing we do at times, and something that can be left to the professionals if the going gets tough. Some people GO – the rest of us can stay behind and pray and give. But, this just isn’t what the Bible story is getting at. God is on a mission and we are called to be followers of this missional God. Mission isn’t something we are to do, it is what we are. To ask whether All Christians are called to be missionaries is a bit like asking whether all dogs should have four legs.

The tragedy is that our church and mission structures very often don’t give a primacy to mission and make it an add on. Perhaps a follow on question for Paul to ask would be how can we equip and enable all Christians to play their part in God’s mission?

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6 replies on “Are All Christians Called to Be Missionaries?”

Thanks Eddie – Just the kind of response I had hoped to provoke! The reason I asked the question is that I am increasingly uncomfortable with the word “missionary” in the way in which it is usually used. I am not convinced that mission (or proclamation for that matter) is a vocation to which only some are called. As Chris Wright has shown so well, God is on a mission, he has sent Christ into the world and all Christians by definition must be his followers.

I agree with everything you say here, about God being on a mission, and us being invited to join him. Hoewever, I chose my 250 words on facebook to be a bit provocative. As you say, “missionary” is an English word about something the church does, and so long as the church (in my experience) fails to recognise (let alone support) the co-missioning of people to be part of God’s mission, I assert that we are not all missionaries.

So either we need to change the meaning of the word, or we need to change the behaviour of the church-as-organisation.

Okay, after reading the whole post I think I’m with you. At first I thought you were of the camp which believes that only few are called to be a witness. And that’s just not so. (Toward the end of your post it became clear that you don’t believe that way.) Now, this absolutely does *not* mean we are all called to Timbuktu. But—and I must stress this since most “missionaries” don’t even do this much—we *are* all called to reach out to those around us, whatever country we happen to occupy. As you said so plainly, the main emphasis of the Great Commission isn’t the going, but the discipling.

In Matthew 28, (The Great Commision), is Jesus talking to his disciples, or is he talking to “all” Christians? And how do you know? If you answer this mail, would you please back up your answer with scripture.
Thank You

John, in Matthew 28:20 Jesus tells his listeners, the eleven disciples, to teach others “to obey everything I have commanded you”. In other words, all of Jesus’ commands to his disciples, including the words of this Great Commission, are to be taught as commands to successive generations of believers, and so are binding on all Christians.

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