June 30, 2021 | View All Stories

What is a Missionary?

As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. – John 17:18

As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. – John 20:21b

The term “missionary” has its origins in the Latin word missio (“to send”). Although the word missionary does not appear in Scripture, the act of commissioning and sending disciples into the world is clearly taught throughout the Bible. John 17:18 and 20:21b summarize the biblical focus. These passages record the words of Jesus as He first prayed to the Father and then commissioned the original apostles to take His message to the world. The word apostle means “sent one.” 

But, sent where? to do what? 

Jesus sent His disciples into the world to preach, teach, and demonstrate the gospel. The gospel is God’s gracious offer of salvation in Jesus and the proclamation of His kingdom’s sovereign rule over all creation. Because the gospel is for all, the world must therefore include every place and every people. 

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world [every place]  as a testimony to all nations [every people group], and then the end will come. 

– Matthew 24:14

More than a century ago, Scottish evangelist and teacher Oswald Chambers (1874–1917) helped to clarify the meaning and role of a missionary. 

A missionary is someone sent by Jesus Christ just as He was sent by God. The great controlling factor is not the needs of people, but the command of Jesus. The source of our inspiration in our service for God is behind us, not ahead of us. The tendency today is to put the inspiration out in front — to sweep everything together in front of us and make it conform to our definition of success. But in the New Testament the inspiration is put behind us, and is the Lord Jesus Himself. The goal is to be true to Him — to carry out His plans. – “What is a Missionary,” My Utmost for His Highest devotional for October 26

Traditionally, American Christians have thought of missionaries as specially called and trained people from America (or Canada, England, Australia, etc.) sent to minister in another needier and more impoverished part of the world. In other words, we foreigners are sent to them, the natives. Unfortunately, this perception has often carried a sense of cultural superiority that seeks to speak rather than listen and to instruct rather than serve. 

Yet, over the past half-century, the primary role of missionaries to foreign parts has changed dramatically from leadership to servanthood. In contrast, the role of native missionaries has risen to the forefront of global missions. 

The effectiveness of native missionaries has been proven repeatedly in places as diverse as Brazil, Serbia, Israel, Uzbekistan, Nepal, Myanmar, and China. ANM receives daily communications from many of our 351 native partners in 115 countries. Our partners testify to the challenges and victories in the lives and ministries of the nearly 11,000 missionaries representing them on the field. One thing is clear. God has called and equipped these faithful men and women to take the gospel to their own and nearby peoples. 

Native missionaries are well acquainted with the peoples, languages, cultures, and religions in their places of ministry. Nevertheless, like the foreign missionaries that preceded them, they also must step across cultural boundaries and learn new languages to reach the remaining unreached people groups in their regions. 

So, when you ponder what it means to be a missionary, first think about God’s plan and purpose to reach every place and every people with the gospel, and then consider the native missionaries that God has called to the front lines to proclaim it. You can learn more about how to pray for native missions and missionaries by clicking here.

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Eric Vess

Eric is ANM's International Communications Director.

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