“…and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written,
“Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”” (Ro. 15:20,21)
The title of this post is a question that we have heard a couple of times as we talk to people over the last two weeks. Most people have some idea of what they think it means to be a missionary. It could be a vision of someone freeing children from oppressive slavery, bringing medical expertise to areas where there is none to bring healing, or even simply bringing the message of Jesus Christ to a tribe in the middle of the Amazon. Some also may even have a negative understanding of what it means to be a missionary. But what is the reality behind what a missionary does? I hope to begin to answer that question here.
To begin with, I quoted the book of Romans as the basis for what a missionary does. As Christians, we are called to preach the Gospel of Jesus, make disciples, and baptize new believers (this is known as the Great Commission and can be found in both Mark 16:15,16 and Matthew 28:18–20). But as Paul says in the Romans passage, some are called to preach the Gospel where Jesus has not yet been named so that every tribe, tongue, and nation will be represented in Revelation 7:9. And as you read the book of Acts or any of Paul’s letters, you can see that he spent his life doing exactly what he desired to do–travelling to various strategic cities within the Roman Empire to fulfill the Great Commission. This often involved bridging cultural gaps to make the message of the Gospel clear to his listeners (think of Paul at the Aeropagus in Acts 17). It involved winning the trust and respect of the people receiving the message. It even involved facing dangers not normally encountered by the average church member.
But that was Paul. What do modern missionaries do? Largely, the idea is the same–even if the methods are different. Whether the missionary is acting in the capacity of a pilot, a physician, or a church planter, missionaries seek to use their skills and training to build bridges of love to people that have not yet heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These bridges allow the missionaries to credibly share that message with the people they are living and working among, helping them grow in their faith and ability to follow Jesus. The goal is to help new believers get to a place where they can begin to pastor healthy, multiplying churches in their communities. Once that is achieved, many missionaries hand the reigns of the church over to the new, indigenous pastor and being the work over again in a new location.
Missionaries function very much like we all do here. They reach people in the work place. They build and pastor churches. They build relationship and use them to share the Gospel. The difference is that a missionary will cross cultural boundaries to do this. Sometimes the boundaries are as easy to cross as moving from the suburbs to an inner-city neighborhood where the population is largely comprised of people from other cultures. Other times it involves moving 1/2 way across the world. The bottom line is that, as the Apostle Paul wrote, the Gospel is being preached among people where Christ has not already been named.