There are a multitude of ways to delineate missions and the missionary task. My definition is more functional than flashy. “Missions is the purposeful transfer of the responsibility for the gospel to those who do not yet bear that responsibility.” This somewhat simplistic definition presupposes several intrinsic aspects of missionary activity. First, there must be evangelism of the lost. Clearly, transfer of gospel responsibility is impossible with people who are yet unsaved. Second, there must be discipleship of believers. In order to transfer any sense of responsibility for the gospel, converts must be discipled toward a biblical perception of life as God intends it to be lived. Third, some level of ministry training must be provided to those discipled. Whether it be accomplished formally or informally, the missionary must mentor those he is serving in the practice of gospel reproduction.
This definition also emphasizes the fact that missionary endeavor should be purposeful. It should begin and end with definite objectives and measurable goals. Overwhelmingly, missionaries are characterized by faithful daily ministry activity. Often, however, the same missionaries demonstrate a lack of clear understanding about how their role as an outsider should be transferred into the hands of the local followers of Christ. Belief that local believers are best suited for ministry among their own people should be a foundational aspect of every good missionary’s thinking.
My definition of missions, moreover, extends beyond the enduring evangelism, discipleship and training of a targeted people. It encompasses the reality that “missionized” people should themselves become missionaries. For a number of years, I have been involved in teaching missions to followers of Christ in various “missionary receiving countries.” These countries often still have many unreached peoples themselves, but are producing faithful disciples who are eager to share in the responsibility for making Christ known among the “foreign” peoples of the earth. Recently, I taught missions seminars to several different groups of believers in a restricted access nation in Asia. Along the way, I had some interesting discussions with various Christian leaders who are involved in an assortment of ministry activities within the burgeoning church movement there. I spoke with a number of house church leaders, several American missionaries, the leaders of whole networks of congregations within a large city or region, and a few men who could best be called evangelists.
I asked the same question of each man: “What are the prospects for sending missionaries from among your people to unreached peoples in other places.” Many of those questioned told me that efforts were either already underway or that they were eager to begin sending missionaries. Others told me that sending missionaries would not be feasible until the church in that country became more developed in its ability to provide theological education and organizational structure. I found all of my conversations to be informative and helpful. But I was left with lingering disquiet about why some leaders could not wait to send missionaries while others wanted to put the brakes on such an endeavor. While I completely agreed with those in this Asian country who told me that there was a great need for more evangelism, discipleship and training among their own people, I disagreed that ministry must be sequential geographically. In other words, I do not believe that we must finish reaching and growing our own before we can focus on sending missionaries.
What was most telling for me, however, in all of these aforementioned conversations, was the fact that those who were least enthusiastic about sending missionaries were those who were most influenced by Western missionaries (or who are Western missionaries). Somehow, the sense that THIS was the mission field overshadowed the sense that God’s kingdom must be spread around the globe. That brings me back around to my definition of missions. Missions is the purposeful transfer of responsibility for the gospel to those who do not yet bear that responsibility. Until our missionary efforts result in missionaries being sent from among the very people we are serving, we have not completed the task of missions. We must avoid the tendency to view structural, educational, and organizational development within the missionary endeavor as an end in itself, rather than as a means to the end of making Jesus the Object of worship worldwide.