What is a missionary? Silly question. We all know what a missionary is, don’t we? We have missionary prayer meetings. We get missionary newsletters. We read missionary biographies. A missionary is, well… a missionary.
And yet, nobody seems to be able to tell me just what we mean when we call a person a missionary. There are some Christian workers whom we would all recognise as missionaries. I’m thinking of people sent out by churches to places where there are no churches. They are sent to preach the gospel, to make disciples, to baptise, to plant churches.
It would all be simple if the word ‘missionary’ were kept for such workers. But the fact is that among people who are known as missionaries, such pioneering church-planters are a small minority. Most of the people who are labelled missionaries today are sent to places where there are already established gospel churches. And the majority are not involved in church planting. Rather, they’re involved in a wide variety of other valuable ministries, in some cases ‘spiritual’, in others ‘practical’.
So a girl is encouraged by the church she attends in the UK to move to Sweden. There are plenty of evangelical churches in Stockholm and no one suggests that she should be planting another. Her work will be, let’s say, with an organisation dedicated to evangelising and mentoring students. But her home church in the UK refers to her as their ‘missionary’ and treats her accordingly.