In the morning I learned that Jessica, my former student now living in India, had typhoid, and still she was joyfully looking forward to discipling her new Indian friends that evening. Her extraordinary commitment and sacrifice resonated with my definition of a “missionary.” I knew that she had just spent her birthday separated by thousands of miles from her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. I thanked God for her and asked Him to be her constant companion and help.
Right now I’m listening to another woman that several decades ago had given witness to a call to overseas mission service, but shortly afterward got married and now for years has lived within a five minute drive of her parents and sister in her home town. She’s giving a lengthy explanation of how she considers that she still has fulfilled her missionary call even while living in her hometown, surrounded for all these years by family and friends and celebrating life daily with them. To me it feels like rationalizing, especially as I think about what Jessica is doing today.
Nearly every day I have students in my intercultural studies classes tell me that they have been thinking recently about going back to their hometown here in North America instead of serving God abroad. After all, North America is a mission field too, they remind me.
For several years, we have been told that local churches could be better stewards by supporting “national missionaries” instead of sending North Americans to faraway places. Today there is a constant stream of “nationals” speaking in our local churches and supported as our missionaries. Most of them in reality are what we used to call “evangelists” and “church planters.” While these ministries should not be minimized, most do not represent cross-cultural outreach endeavors that also are crucial to the expansion of our Lord’s kingdom.
A couple of days ago, one of my faculty colleagues proclaimed as he came into the room that another missiologist, referring to himself, had just arrived. In reality, this scholar’s specialization is what we used to call “church growth,” but now he along with many of his colleagues has embraced missional language. Never mind that some (perhaps many) have never lived abroad, nor mastered another language, nor spent countless holidays separated from family and one's home culture, nor struggled with physical afflictions such as typhoid or malaria or hepatitis.
While I celebrate the fresh realization that all churches ought to be missional, still the co-opting of missiological terminology to refer to what we used to call “evangelism and church growth” makes me wonder how pleasing this general picture is to our Lord. I suspect that He would be very disappointed to discover that while growing numbers of his followers are now calling themselves “missionaries,” only a few North Americans today are leaving their home cultures and families and friends for a lifetime of serving Him among the multitudes of unreached people groups that are lost for all eternity and without a single witness for hundreds of miles around. Furthermore, the number of "missionaries" going to those peoples is disproportionatly small, to an embarrassing extreme, when compared to the growing number of others here in North America that also call themselves "missionaries."
For my part, I’m inclined to reserve the term “missionary” for Jessica and others like her who are serving our Lord in far away cultures and places. This is not meant to minimize the commitments and efforts of thousands of others that are extending our Lord’s Kingdom nearer to home. Rather, it is to celebrate and champion the obedience of those like Jessica that are willing to leave their family, friends, home, and everything familiar to serve Jesus.