What Is A Missionary?
This history of Christian missions can be traced back to the earliest days of the church. After establishing the gospel in Jerusalem, the first believers took the gospel to nearby regions—like Judea and Samaria—before traveling to the limits of the known world (Acts 1:8).
Since those early days, we’ve become pretty familiar as Christians with what missionaries do. But there’s another question we need to consider: What is a missionary?
Admittedly, it’s easy for our minds to blend what a missionary does with what a missionary is. But there’s a lot of value in asking, What is a missionary? That’s because what a missionary does is really just a reflection of who a missionary is.
Understanding the differences among missionaries
Before looking at the common qualities required for missionaries, it’s helpful to understand that there’s diversity in this important Christian ministry. In His wisdom, God has wired each of us differently with various gifts and abilities. The church is complex, and we need everyone filling their role—even if those roles are different from our role.
But even within a particular role—like being a missionary—God has provided variety. For example, missionaries come in different ages and genders. Young and old, male and female all have a part to play. Likewise, some missionaries serve in short-term contexts, while others make missions a career. Some are called to specialized ministries like medical missions, and some serve in more traditional avenues like preaching and church planting. And, of course, some serve in one part of the world, while their peers might minister on the other side of the planet.
So, God doesn’t expect everyone to be the same. That’s important to know. Now that we’ve seen that missions is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, we can do a better job of answering the question, What is a missionary?
So, What Is a Missionary?
Differences aside, Scripture makes it clear that the answer to “What is a missionary?” includes several necessary traits. Because of the nature of the position, these qualities transcend all the differences mentioned above: gender, age, specialty, duration, or location.
If you believe God may be moving you toward mission work, either full-time or short-term, this checklist will help you know what a missionary is and where you fit into God’s plan for sharing His message around the world.
1. A missionary has a personal relationship with Jesus. Admittedly, this may seem obvious, but it can’t be ignored. Missionaries are called to be ambassadors for Christ, His representatives sharing His gospel around the world. But you can’t be an ambassador for Jesus without having a personal and vibrant relationship with Him. To be His missionary, you must be one of His followers.
2. A missionary has a calling from God. One important thing that sets missionaries apart from other believers is the unique calling Christ has put on their lives. For example, the apostle Paul, probably the greatest missionary who ever lived, was set apart by God to be His voice to the Gentiles even before coming to Christ (Acts 9:15-16). When the time came for his first missionary journey, the Holy Spirit specifically singled him out with Barnabas for the work (Acts 13:1-3). When you think about the question What is a missionary?, you must consider the calling of God on your life.
3. A missionary has a passion for the lost. Of course, this should be true of every Christ follower. Whether we are called to go overseas or to work in an office building, each believer should have a heart for people who don’t know Jesus. But missionaries are driven by a desire to share Jesus with others. Their passion moves them to leave their comfort zones and set up shop in an unfamiliar and, in some cases, dangerous context. They ache for those who have not embraced Jesus as Savior and will set almost anything aside to make Him known in the world.
4. A missionary has an enduring faith. As noted earlier, missionaries are wired to run into uncomfortable and illogical situations. That’s because they have placed their faith in Christ alone. They count on Him to give them the courage to complete the job He has called them to perform, and they trust Him to supply their needs in His way and in His timing (Philippians 4:19). What’s more, they know that this life is not all there is, so they believe He will carry them through every difficult situation until He eventually brings them home. For missionaries, the “well done” at the end of the road (Matthew 25:23) is worth anything they endure on earth.
5. A missionary has a unique capacity for flexibility. The old joke says that if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes because it will change. In a sense, that’s the same attitude missionaries need to adopt. In a foreign culture, things can change in a heartbeat. As a result, missionaries must be ready to adapt at a moment’s notice. This becomes easier when you remember God is in control, but flexibility is a key life skill when it comes to being a missionary.
Grow Where You’re Planted
In some sense, the answer to “What is a missionary?” can be answered by a close look in the mirror. When Jesus gave the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), He was giving it to every believer. We are all called to share the gospel, whether it’s around the world or across the street.
That means we have a responsibility to grow where we are planted. As God works in your heart and helps clarify His calling on your life, start right where you are. Look for opportunities to develop the characteristics of a missionary in your own backyard, in your Jerusalem.
After all, sharing Jesus is what missions is all about. It’s what a missionary does, and it’s what a missionary is.