Sometimes it’s tedious work to discuss things. This is much moreso the case when dealing with “junk drawer” words. You know that drawer in your house where you put everything that doesn’t have a place? The same thing often happens with words. Divergent opinions will try to fill the same word with divergent opinions until it’s hard to define a particular word because nearly everyone using the word has divergent opinions about what the word actually means.
Sometimes this is intentional, like with the terms “emerging” and “emergent.” Proponents of these terms have very loudly called for dialogue over concrete definitions, intentionally keeping the definitions of such terms fuzzy to say the least. That’s fine and good for those within the “dialogue,” but quite frustrating for anyone outside wanting, maybe not to enter, but at least understand what’s going on inside.
Other times words attain junk drawer status by more unintentional means. In these cases, many people will agree that the word is good, but again, divergent opinions, well, diverge, thus making the use of a word like “missional” sometimes difficult. It has become, what Ed Stetzer calls a “wiki” word, something anyone feels the right to edit. Stetzer goes on to say that the word “missional” is “like a Rorschach Test for many people.” So should we just throw the word out (read Ed Stetzer’s three-part series here, here and here for more on the history of the term)? I don’t think so.
For many (myself) included, missional means participating in the mission of God (missio Dei), understanding that we are sent (John 20:19-21) to all kinds of people (Matthew 28:18-21) with a message (Luke 24:45-48) empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-8).
In this sense, then, every believer is called to “missions.” If we are to make disciples of all nations, it’s shortsighted to set our binoculars off in the distance without starting at our doorstep. The mission field begins at our doorsteps. But many radically oppose the idea that all believers are missionaries. Consider Abraham Piper’s wonderfully concise post entitled: “Saying every Christian is a missionary can be downright offensive:”
Telling missionaries to India, for instance, that I’m also a missionary is like telling bereft parents I relate because my dog died.
Piper clearly sees a demarcation between some believers when it comes to missions. In his mind, some are missionaries and some are not and to say otherwise is “downright offensive.” Breaking cultural bonds in a foreign country with and for the Gospel is missions while doing it at home is not. But the issue is clearly muddy as the comments to that post demonstrate. If we’re all sent, then how is it that some are missionaries and some are not? Could it be that we have simply professionalized what we’re all called to do? There seems to be some consensus in the comments of Piper’s post that once you have to move a certain distance, make certain monetary sacrifices and learn another language, then you’re a missionary. But what about us? What about my family and I? We moved to another state to plant a church and reach a specific people. Are we missionaries? Are we at least “missional”? I’ve been told to my face “no.”
It seems to me we’re drawing lines where Scripture doesn’t over a word Scripture doesn’t use. While I appreciate Piper’s zeal to hold in esteem those who might make sacrifices many of us do not, I question his approach. At what point does someone “become” a missionary and who sets the criteria? And aren’t foreign missionaries doing in a foreign land what we’re all called to do anyways?
I wonder if part of the difficulty of the discussion is that we have professionalized what every believer is called to do. I have the utmost respect for those who are called to go to foreign lands. Many of my good friends have been called to the foreign missions field. But I have come to see foreign missions as an extension of missions in general. The “mission field” is those who don’t know Christ. “Missions” is the task of infiltrating a culture with the Gospel and that begins at home and extends exponentially across the globe.
I suppose that my questions for Abraham and others are: “how far do I have to go to be a missionary”? What sacrifices do I have to make before being considered a missionary? Is moving across several states enough? Who says? Should we distinguish here between “missions” and “foreign missions”? Is that even helpful? What significance, if any, is it that the U.S. now receives more foreign missionaries than we send? What is the relationship between “missions” and “evangelism” (In my mind, missions lays the groundwork for evangelism but that can be for another post)?
I’m not trying to attack Abraham or others, I’m just trying to wade my way through the mire. As a pastor planting a church, I use the word “missional” (read why here) and I encourage our people to think of their everyday lives as mission field. Am I wrong in doing so? In my mind, this goes beyond just encouraging people to “share the Gospel,” but to apply missionary tactics to everyday life. Could it be that we are all missionaries, just not foreign missionaries? What do you think?