In my early years as candidate secretary for the Church of the Nazarene, it was all very clear.
Everyone knew who a missionary was. No quibbles, no qualms, no questions. You either were or were not a missionary.
And then, that spooky guy walked in to my office and began to ask me questions. It was the late 1960's, the Cold War was heating up, and he had no appointment. I found out he was from an intelligence agency and his job was to recruit what he euphemistically called "assets." He knew we had missionaries all around the world, people who knew the language, who knew the culture. He wanted undercover agents.
I explained to him that missionaries have never had and would never have anything to do with such activity, and that this was not our purpose in being there. He was crestfallen.
After he left, we began to think about what this meant – about the term "missionary," about how apparently people were starting to see it differently. In the months and years which followed, more questions were raised about the term “missionary.” Distinguished theologian Dr. Mildred Wyncoop, who taught for a time in Japan, began to promote the term “missioner” as a historically acceptable substitute. Other substitute terms were thrown around.
In those early days (and for decades preceding) a missionary was clearly someone 1) called of God, 2) sent by the Church and 3) working in a different culture (and likely a different language and geography). It was assumed it took years to “make a missionary.” Usually the nurturing ground was a local church, formal training included basic courses in Bible and culture, and there was an interview process.
Over the years, although everyone knew missionaries were expected to do everything by being a “jack of all trades,” the broad categories were preaching, teaching and healing. This pattern had been set in place by William Carey in India. One had to be ordained to be a preacher, certified to be a teacher, or recognized as a doctor or nurse to be a healer.
Simple. And no “instant missionaries.” The process was long, arduous and sometimes fraught with disappointment and heartache. But if one succeeded in being appointed, assigned and commissioned as a missionary, then you were a missionary. No quibbles, no qualms, no questions.
There were benefits. The church took care of you, paid a salary, assigned a house, provided an operational budget, had a place for you to retire. Missionaries were viewed with a kind of romance, an attraction that drew people to hear them speak in a local church. Many placed missionaries on a pedestal of respect and admiration. These were, after all, a group of people called of God, approved by the Church, who had left behind the securities of home and family to go into the jungles and deserts and urban streets of the world to preach, or teach or heal the gospel.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. It had two significant parts. One was called a jet airplane. Another was called the middle class. Many people now had time, money and inclination to climb on a jet to travel two or four or eight hours to visit some part of the world. Eventually this morphed into team travel, Work & Witness travel, youth and mission travel, vision team travel. Over time, everyone began to travel everyplace to see everything.
Technology then brought along such things as the Internet, email, Skype. We didn’t even have to bother to get a passport. We could sit at our kitchen table and use a computer screen to talk to our kids, our grandkids, our friends. We could share ideas from Boise to Bombay to Berlin to Bangkok. Geography became less important. Communication became more important.
And then if someone did take a couple of weeks to visit a “mission field,” the pastor introduced them as “our missionaries.” Or, in some cases, our volunteer teams who went to the inner urban areas of our own cities to work or minister became “our missionaries to Times Square” or to Piccadilly Square, or wherever we happened to be going.
So before long, everyone was a "missionary." We got the term “witness” and the term “missionary" all mixed up.
The Biblical term of “everyone being a witness” is certainly true. Each and every one of us is a witness to God’s love and grace, to the redemption of Christ, to the Body of Christ. But is that the same as being a "missionary?” Is it really true that one can become an “instant missionary?”
I don’t think so. This writer still holds to some basic criteria and principles.
That is, a missionary is part of the “sent ones,” someone who is sent to help penetrate new geographical areas where Jesus has yet to be known, or where He has been forgotten. This still means knowing and understanding language and culture and history. This may mean actually staying in a place that is not one's home for an extended, though not permanent, time.
So, a funny thing happened to us on the way to the 21st century. The work got smaller as, at the same time, it got bigger. The world got flatter. Borders got porous in some places, but more impenetrable in other places (and thus the concept of “creative access”). And most of all, the world got more complicated.
And another thing happened, too. All those out-of-the-way missions which the early missionaries helped to start? They grew. They matured. New generations came along. God also called those new generations to go to new areas, now sponsored by their own newly matured churches.
In a word, every place has become a target for mission, and a missionary can come from any place.
So, who is a missionary? Someone called. Someone sent. Someone who stays until the job is done. Someone who moves on when the job is done.
That spooky guy from the intelligence agency surely did raise a lot of questions.
Instant missionary? Well, you decide.
-- R. Franklin Cook served as the director of the Church of the Nazarene in the Eurasia Region from 1989 to 2004. He has served as a missionary in India, and was editor of Holiness Today magazine from 1997 to 2004.
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