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Missions 101

What is a Missionary Call? (Part 1)

Nov. 27, 2012By: Evan Burns

In this post and the next one, the uniqueness of a missionary call is being discussed.

So often the sentiment among some Christians is that every believer is a missionary.  All too often zealous missionaries with good intentions will try to call people to missions by making believers feel guilty and sway many into going overseas.  The definition of a “calling” should be examined.  We may assume too much when all we have is an interest in some foreign country.  There are differing philosophies about what exactly the missionary call is supposed to be.  These various beliefs about the missionary call should be equally considered and examined.  And, the Scriptures must have the final say. 


First of all, it should be understood that not all Christians are called to be missionaries.  Every Christian cannot be a missionary, nor should be.  Christians dismiss the urgency and global vision of the Great Commission by saying we are all missionaries in our neighborhood and to be such is the extent of their part in the church’s missionary mandate.   Indeed, being a witness in one’s neighborhood is part of being evangelistic, but it does not fill up the missionary mandate.  So what is an acceptable definition of a ‘missionary?’  Herbert Kane has suggested a helpful definition: 

In the traditional sense the term missionary has been reserved for those who have been called by God to full-time ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4), and who have crossed geographical and/or cultural boundaries (Acts 22:21) to preach the gospel in those areas of the world where Jesus Christ is largely, if not entirely, unknown (Rom 15:20).[1]  

According to Kane, technically missionaries go to different cultures or cross geographical boundaries in order to preach the gospel.  A missionary, then, is not a person who just reaches out to his neighbor in his homogenous neighborhood.  Such a person is being an obedient witness to evangelize his immediate surroundings for Christ, which should be part of the evangelistic ministry of his local church.


It is helpful to make distinctions between full-time missionaries and lay-leaders.  We must distinguish between a general practice in a church and a unique, specific gift that God gives to a select few.  For example, all Christians should evangelize and witness in some way or another, but only some are given the gift of evangelism.  All Christians are supposed to give financially, but there are some who are given a special gift of giving.  Likewise, Christ gave the missionary mandate to the local church but only some are given a special missionary call to be sent and go make disciples of all nations.  “The verb apostello has the idea of being sent, and from it comes the word for ‘apostle’ (apostolos), which means ‘sent one.’”[2]  Our English word, “missionary”, comes from the Latin missionem, meaning “mission” or “act of sending”, and mittere meaning “to send”.  Not all Christians can be ‘sent ones’ since the term implicitly requires some who are responsible for the sending.  All Christians are to witness for Christ, but not all Christians are called to a full-time, specially gifted missionary work.  “All Christians are to be missionary-minded in obedience to the Great Commission, but not all Christians can be missionaries in the proper bibilical sense of the word.”[3]  We cannot all just leave with no one staying behind to support. 

When we say that all Christians are missionaries, whether we want to or not, we create excuses for people not going to the mission field or for not sending those with the genuine missionary call.  “If our only concern is to witness where we are, how will people in unevangelized areas ever hear the gospel?  The present uneven distribution of Christians and opportunities to hear the gospel of Christ will continue on unchanged….  In reality the idea that every Christian is a missionary is a ‘cop out.’”[4]  Such an attitude neglects the responsibility for the more than 2.5 billion unevangelized people in the world. 

[1] Herbert Kane, Understanding Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974), 28.

[2] C. Gordon Olson, What in the Wolrd is God Doing?, (Cedar Knolls, NJ: Global Gospel Publishers, 2003), 10.

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] Ibid., 12.

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