Missionaries are not always popular. They are ‘just acceptable’ when they are involved in education, or agriculture or medicine – but when they start preaching the gospel they lose their appeal.
Proselytism is one of the most objectionable terms in our society. Even evangelism is better – and that is not the most popular of words. Amongst the almost unforgiveable sins of a self-satisfied society is the gall of trying to persuade people to change their religion or the arrogance of telling people that they are living the wrong way and need to repent.
Two of the groups who object most vigorously to missionaries and their evangelistic or proselytising ways are those who are living the wrong way and need to repent and those who want a peaceful status quo in society. The first group find the approach of missionaries deeply disturbing. Missionaries are a challenge to everything they hold dear. As it’s always easier to shoot the messenger than listen to the message, they volubly vocalize their objection to the very idea of missionaries. The second group are those whose gospel is tolerant relativism. “It does not matter what people believe provided they leave each other alone”. The national culture of peaceful coexistence is the ultimate good – far more important than integrity, truth, morality or any other concern. “Live and let live” means that nobody should preach anything to anybody – other than “Live and let live”.
But other groups also object to missionaries. Those who believe in the sanctity of culture will not allow anybody to challenge any other culture. Their position is that people have the right to enjoy living by their own culture, whatever it is, and nobody should impose their culture on another. But why should people have to live by their inherited culture without thought and question? And why do they have to live by the savagery of the noble culture? And can you change the savagery without changing any other part of the culture? Can you alleviate ignorance and disease with education and medicine without changing a culture? What if your culture calls upon you to preach to others – is the culture or preaching to be denied because somebody else’s culture is opposed to preaching? Christian missionaries are not imposing a culture on another culture but calling every culture, including their own, to account.
Another group who find missionaries difficult are those who are already at work in the mission-field preaching the same gospel. The arrival of new missionaries can easily feel like a vote of no confidence in the work that they have been doing, often for many years. Sometimes the objection is that the new missionary is not so much criticising the work of the gospel but the organisation or church that is already doing the work. Sometimes the missionary is not coming to preach the gospel so much as to set up a branch of their church from home.
Finally some Christians object to missionaries because they are embarrassed by the attacks that have been levelled by unbelievers on the activity of evangelism. They wish that Christians could live like everybody else, not being too single minded about the gospel, not causing offense to neighbours, not being so different as to stand out for criticism. They wish to be Christian and to go to church regularly but in the same way that they go to tennis regularly or play golf each week – it’s not their sole focus in life but another part of life that they hold in balance and moderation.
But being a missionary is the task of every Christian. A missionary is not somebody who travels overseas, nor somebody who ministers cross-culturally, nor somebody who has given up secular work in order to preach the gospel. The great missionary Paul preached to Jews and made tents to pay for his missionary service. A missionary is somebody whose whole life is determined by a mission; an assigned task.
The word mission comes from the Latin ‘to send’. People are sent on all kinds of missions: military, diplomatic, business etc. Christian missions come from God’s heart sending his Son, and through his Son sending his Spirit into the world. The risen Lord Jesus sent his Spirit to the apostles, sending them into the world to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46-49). As Christians become like Christ, we too are sent into God’s mission. Paul holds his own evangelistic lifestyle up as a model for all Christians to follow, for it imitates the greatest missionary of all; the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1).
Most Christians go on short-term missions – be it beach missions or a parish, university or school mission. But as we move from occasional short-term missions to live permanently on mission, we become missionaries. The title ‘missionary’ is a way to describe our life.
It is relatively easy for paid ministers of the gospel to understand how they are missionaries. Life’s decisions – where they live, what they do, how they spend their time – are all about the ministry of the gospel. It is more difficult, and yet more important, that lay people understand their lives as missionaries. For all Christians share in the great mission of bringing glory to the Lord Jesus by proclaiming the great news of his victory for the salvation of all people. The ministry of lay people is the ministry of God’s great army.
Being a missionary like this is a mindset that once adopted affects all life’s decisions. As missionaries the choice of house, job, how we raise our children, and what we spend our money and our leisure time on, is all determined by fulfilling God’s great commission. The world makes these choices on the basis of profit and pleasure, self-centredness and satisfaction. But the followers of the crucified and risen Christ choose the glory of God and other people’s salvation as the basis for life’s decisions.