A Christian missionary is a person who dedicates his or her life to fulfilling the Great Commission: to preach the Gospel, baptizing and making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). Often, the missionary will spread the Gospel while performing a practical service, such as working at an orphanage or providing medical care.
Traditionally, missionaries reach out to those beyond their native culture, whether that be a different country or a different demographic within the same country. Some rescue children in India, some go on short trips to build houses and teach children in Mexico, and some sit at a computer and write articles that people all over the world can read online.
History gives us several examples of missionaries. All of the apostles travelled and spread the Gospel, including Paul, Peter, and John. Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsie were missionaries to fellow prisoners of Ravensbrook concentration camps. Eric Liddell, the Olympian immortalized in Chariots of Fire, was the son of missionaries to China and later returned there as a missionary. Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and others were killed on the missions field in Ecuador by a tribe of Quechua Indians who later came to Christ.
There are as many different types of jobs in missions as there are in normal life. Some are translators, some pilots, and others help trafficking victims recover.
Whatever their support function, the primary job of a missionary is to draw people closer to Jesus. Missionaries may start by becoming familiar with the people and the culture. They then need to word the Gospel message so that the locals can understand their need for the saving work of Jesus' sacrifice. Once locals become believers, they must be discipled, trained, and even educated to become pastors in their community. In some cultures, this can happen in a few years, but in many, it takes several generations to see any change.
Missionaries can go anywhere. Some, like Amy Carmichael, move to a new country and never look back. Others, like countless students, go for just a week. When we typically think of missionaries, we tend to imagine families going to Africa or brave souls heading to China. But missionaries also move from the suburbs to the inner city. Or even work in ministries in their own hometown. With the development of the internet, it's possible to reach millions with the Gospel without leaving your house.
The life of a professional missionary is a difficult one. First come years of training that cover theology, the local culture, and whatever secondary job they'll be responsible for. In the field, they must apply all they learned while taking care of their families in what can be a hostile environment. Often, missionary-kids are sent away from their parents to boarding schools. When the family finally returns home on furlough, they have no house, no car, and still need to travel around the country, talking to churches and praying God will lead believers to provide financial support.
Missionaries face danger, as well, since most places in the world are not welcoming to Christianity. Missionaries can get ignored in Denmark and killed in India. As Jesus told His disciples, "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles" (Matthew 10:16-18). Paul testified to the truth of the hardships in Romans 8:36 when he quoted, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered."
It takes a particular type of person to choose to spend a lifetime reaching those who desperately need Jesus but don't want to learn about Him. Missionaries must be very certain that Jesus means more to them than worldly things, and bringing others to Jesus is more important than comfort. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus says, "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Missionaries are passionate people who are able to take this verse and apply it to others; they strive to not fear those who can kill their own body when the souls of others are at risk.
A Three-Legged Stool
Acts 14:19-28 is not only a good summary of Paul’s missionary work, it’s also the sort of information Paul would have shared with the church in Antioch when he returned (v. 27). These verses are like the slide show or the power point presentation Paul and Barnabas shared with their sending church: “This is how we saw God at work. Here’s where we went and what we did.” If any verses are going to give us a succinct description of what missionaries do, it’s verses like these at the end the missionary journey in Acts 14.
We see in these verses—and in particular in verses 21-24—the three legged stool of mission work. Luke gives us the apostolic model for missionary service and that model has three parts:
- New converts – “when they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples” (v. 21)
- New communities – “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church” (v. 23)
- Nurtured churches – “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith” (v. 22).
To be sure, Christian missionaries may be more active in one aspect of this work rather than another. But all mission work must keep these three things in mind. If the apostles are meant to be our models for what missionaries do—and as the sent-out ones tasked most immediately with the Great Commission, there is every reason to think that they are—then we should expect our missionaries to be engaged in these activities and pray for them to that end. The goal of mission work is to win new converts, establish these young disciples in the faith, and incorporate them into a local church.
Schnabel describes the missionary task with an almost identical set of three points.
- “Missionaries communicate the news of Jesus the Messiah and Savior to people who have not heard or accepted this news.”
- “Missionaries communicate a new way of life that replaces, at least partially, the social norms and the behavioral patterns of the society in which the new believers have been converted.”
- “Missionaries integrate the new believers into a new community.” (Paul the Missionary, 28. Cf. Early Christian Mission, 11)