What Is A Missionary?


What is a missionary?

Missionary"Missionary" is derived from missio, a Latin word that means "sending." A missionary is a Christian who is sent and obeys Jesus' command to "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). Apostle Paul was a missionary, as were Silas, Barnabas, Apollos, etc.

Supported Missionary vs. Tentmaker

A supported missionary is financially supported by other Christians directly, through a church and/or a mission board. A vocational missionary, also known as a “tentmaker,” is financed by his or her labor, as the Apostle Paul was at times during his missionary journeys.*

Indigenous vs. Cross-Cultural Missionaries

An indigenous missionary goes to another region of his or her country to share the Gospel with non-Christians among his or her own people. A cross-cultural missionary goes to a different country/culture to share the Gospel with non-Christians. About two-thirds of the world's missionaries are indigenous; one-third are cross-cultural (e.g., John Allen Chau).

Who isn’t a (cross-cultural) missionary?

A "missionary" who doesn't share the Gospel isn't one. For example, a Christian doctor who goes abroad to provide free medical care but does not share the Gospel is a humanitarian, while a Christian teacher who goes abroad to teach the children of missionaries and draws a salary is an expatriate, neither a missionary nor a humanitarian.

The discussion below focuses on supported cross-cultural missionaries (“missionaries”) but many of the issues raised also apply to tentmakers.

What is wrong with missions and missionaries today?

1. There are too few missionaries

The world's 800 million Protestants field only about 150,000 missionaries, including the 63,000 fielded by the 140 million American Protestants. The 15.2 million Southern Baptists, who comprise the largest American Protestant denomination, fields 3,500 cross-cultural missionaries, woefully few compared to the 71,000 "missionaries" fielded by the Mormons, who number a comparable 15.9 million (see International Mission Board and Mormon "Missionaries").

2. Too few missionaries go to the frontlines

Of the world’s 16,562 people groups, 6,741 people groups have yet to be "reached" (evangelical Christians are under 2%) with the Gospel. In 1999, only 10% of the missionaries were reported to be working among unreached people groups while 90% work among the already reached people groups (source: Winter and Koch, Finishing the Task, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 1999, p. 543).

3. Not enough money is given for missions

American Christians spend 96% of their offerings in America, mostly within their own churches, and 4% on foreign missions. For every $1 it spends on missions of any kind, both domestic and foreign, one large Protestant denomination spends $5 to pay the interest on their church building mortgages. According to World Evangelization Research Center, annual church embezzlements by top custodians exceed the cost of all foreign missions worldwide.

4. The money given for missions isn't reaching the frontlines

Of the money given for foreign missions, 87% is spent on people who are already Christian, 12% on work among the already-evangelized but non-Christians, and 1% on work among the unevangelized and unreached people (source: Mark Baxter, The Coming Revolution: Because Status Quo Missions Won’t Finish the Job, Tate Publishing, Mustang, OK, 2007,  p. 12). Ninety percent of all foreign mission funds is used by cross-cultural (Western) missionaries, who do 10% of the pioneer missions work, while 10% of all foreign mission funds is used by indigenous missionaries, who do 90% of the pioneer missions work (Bob Finley, Reformation in Foreign Missions, Xulon Press, 2005, pp. 178 & 244).

5. The supposedly most-fit Christian soldiers avoid missions

Armies send young men into battle. Mormon "missionaries" are 18-24 year olds. By contrast, 97% of Christian college graduates choose secular careers, with only 3% eventually ending up in full time ministry and very few of them in the mission field. Most seminarians aspire to pastor a (mega)-church at home, while the few who go to the mission field typically return after one tour and leverage their rounded-out resumes to pastor a church at home (see Master of Divinity).

6. Too many missionaries are unqualified

Some have zeal but are spiritually or mentally unprepared, emotionally or socially immature, physically or culturally unable to adapt. Others go not to serve but to avoid labor or poverty, for the adventure or prestige, or to restart after divorce or broken relationships. Many are unsaved.

7. Too many missionaries do little or nothing

The majority of cross-cultural missionaries stay in large cities with Western amenities and schools for children. Some of them live on support but do nothing to serve God, while others minister to each other in expatriate churches teeming with missionary families, hosting Bible studies for each other, counseling each other, teaching each others' children, etc. Only 1/4 of the cross-cultural missionaries from North America do missions work (e.g., preaching, teaching, church planting, Bible translation), while 3/4 do administrative and support work (e.g., agricultural, community or literacy development, medical or relief efforts, aviation). The average Western missionary spends only 3% of his or her time sharing the Gospel (source: K.P. Yohannan, Come Let's Reach the World, 2004, pp. 35 & 63).

8. Too many missionaries who do something do more damage than good.

Most of those who do preach and teach, preach and teach a false gospel (e.g., Four Spiritual Laws), which leaves the hearers hell-bound and resistent to the Gospel when later exposed to it. Too many churches and even Bible schools founded by missionaries abroad teem with unsaved "rice Christians" who attend for the free food, education, shelter or other material benefits, and fade away when the the handouts diminish or cease.

9. Too many missionaries rely on fundraising instead of faith and prayer

As mentioned, the Apostle Paul worked at times to provide for his own needs, as well as those of others.* At other times, he received support.** He raised funds for the Christians in Judea who were suffering through a famine*** but never raised funds for himself, and neither did any other missionary in the Bible.

Today, missionaries constantly ask, request, beg for money, which tends to flow to those who beg the loudest or are the most connected to family and friends with money. Too many missionaries spend more time, energy and money on fundraising than on sharing the gospel, while mission boards hire professional salespeople and even incentivize them with commissions.

10. Too many missionaries exaggerate

The less the missionaries do in the field, the more they exaggerate, including through photos and numbers, to raise funds. Mission boards also exaggerate, including through photos, figures and obsolete facts, to raise funds. According to World Evangelization Research Center, some 250 of the 300 largest international Christian organizations regularly mislead the Christian public by publishing demonstrably incorrect or falsified progress statistics.

* After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them. So, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 18:1-4)

* "Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" (Acts 20:34-35)

** "Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only. For even in Thessalonica you sent aid once and again for my necessities. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account." (Philippians 4:15-17)

*** "Moreover, brethren, we make known to you the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia: that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality. For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing, imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints... For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack - that there may be equality." (2 Corinthians 1-4, 13-14)