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Is "Missionary" a Dirty Word?

by Mark Silvers
in Blog, Mark Silvers
Why we say disciple-maker instead.
Courageous men and women like Hudson Taylor and Amy Carmichael have given the word missionary a rich heritage; but that heritage also has a flip side: the harsh sting of Western colonization that often went hand-in-hand with the proclamation of the gospel.

In our world...

Missionaries were once able to get a religious visa to live and work in almost any country. Today nearly 40 percent of the world’s countries reject missionaries and no longer even grant religious visas. In many of these least-reached areas of the world, missionary is now a dirty word. Call yourself a missionary and you’ll be ostracized, at best; at worst, you may face deportation, imprisonment or even death.

Are those reasons not to obey Jesus’ command to go? Certainly not. I acknowledge that there is a cost in following Christ and that persecution isn’t necessarily the result of using the word missionary, but rather, the result of great spiritual warfare happening behind the scenes.

But let me ask, “What’s in a name?” Shakespeare suggested, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” If we call a missionary by another name, wouldn’t we still pursue and accomplish the same task? If we rid ourselves of a term that’s offensive to those we’re trying to reach, might we, perhaps, also find greater welcome into their lives?

You see, all I ever wanted to be was a missionary, but if calling myself a missionary hinders the work, then what’s that name really worth to me? I’d rather be called by any name that would allow me to share the hope of Jesus with people I meet.

In our churches...

This word missionary has, perhaps unintentionally, caused a dichotomy between people in ministry and those out of it. Have you ever felt like a second-class Christian because of this? As if missionaries hold an elevated status that you’ll never reach? When Christ gave us the mandate to make disciples of all nations, did He ever intend this word to carry so much weight?

Author J. Herbert Kane, in his book Understanding Christian Missions, says, “The word missionary comes from the Latin word mitto, which means ‘to send.’” If we use Kane’s definition as a starting place, would it be heresy for us to replace missionary with another word that might help tear down the dichotomy between those in professional ministry and those in other professions within the church?

We know that all of God’s people, no matter their profession, are commanded to go and make disciples of all nations. But we believe we have failed to send them unless they quit their jobs, go to seminary and plant churches.

What if we replaced missionary with a biblical word that applies to everyone, like disciple-maker? After all, “make disciples” is what we are all commanded to do. And what if we sent them as they are — as businesspeople, teachers, engineers, lawyers and doctors? People from all professions living like Jesus in their workplaces and neighborhoods among the least-reached. Different people and different professions, but all making disciples.

True, missionary isn’t inherently a dirty word, but we need to weigh it carefully before we use it. We mustn’t allow a term to hinder the effectiveness of disciple-makers among the nations; and we shouldn’t allow a word to elevate an elite class that sidelines everyone else in the Body of Christ from the Great Commission.

We greatly admire those who have faithfully served under the missionary banner, but in today’s world, we must strive to break down any man-made barriers to the spread of the gospel.

M Silvers Blog ImageMark Silvers served with Crossworld in the Philippines for 10 years and joined the home office staff as Director of Mobilization in 2009. Mark’s driving passion is the goal of reaching the the 2.9 billion people in the world today with no access to the gospel. Reply to Mark.

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