Who in their right mind would have the audacity to publicly admit disagreement with the Prince of Preachers—Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892), in a Ph.D. seminar at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of all places? Well, I did. The quote that the professor used was, ‘Either every Christian is a missionary or an imposter.’1 As liberally as we quote Spurgeon in evangelical circles, it is probably safe to assume that we frequently quote him out of context, which was indeed the case in this situation.2 But the quote from Spurgeon reflected a popular sentiment today that claims every Christian is indeed a missionary. Such a statement demonstrates a naïve view of the missionary calling.
Calling every Christian a missionary makes almost as much sense as calling every Christian a pastor or a preacher. Pastors who sense an inexplicable compulsion to proclaim the Word month after month, year after year, would likely argue that in addition to Christ-like character and Scriptural competence, any pastor who wishes to endure to the end in ministry must carry some internal, weighty burden of a God-wrought calling to preach the Word. The same is true for those whom God truly calls to be missionaries.
We may assume too much when the sense of calling that a would-be missionary describes is mainly an interest in some foreign culture/country. A bleeding heart and a world map are not enough. There are differing philosophies about what exactly the missionary call is supposed to be. We should equally consider and examine these various beliefs about the missionary call. And, the Scriptures must have the final say.
First, we should admit that God does not call all Christians to be missionaries. Every Christian cannot be a missionary, nor should be. Christians can 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? Missiologist J. 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).3
According to Kane, missionaries go to different cultures or cross geographical boundaries in order to preach the gospel. Similarly, some contemporary missionary-theologians have helpfully defined a missionary as:
Someone who intentionally crosses boundaries for the purpose of communicating the gospel to win people to Christ, discipling new believers, planting churches, training biblically qualified leaders, and ministering to the whole body of Christ in holistic ways. The boundaries that must be crossed may be linguistic, religious worldview, geopolitical frontiers, socioeconomic, and so on. Most of the time we mean that this individual must go from one culture to another.4
These scholars also, for the sake of clarity of terms, differentiate between mission and missions:
Mission (singular) is meant to be broader in its scope to refer to the intentional and overall purpose and goal of the church. Thus, discussions or debates about the mission of the church concern that which Christ has charged his church to do in the world. Missions (plural) refers to all the many ways that churches see to carry out their mission in the world in actual missions efforts to reach and teach the peoples of the world for Christ’s sake.5
A missionary, then, is clearly not a person who just reaches out to his neighbor in his homogenous neighborhood. Such a person is obediently witnessing to their immediate surroundings for Christ, which should be part of the evangelistic ministry of any local church. But being a witness and being a missionary are two different categories—the former being the general responsibility of all Christians, and the latter being the special charge of a ‘sent one’.
1. Charles H. Spurgeon, ‘A Sermon and a Reminiscence’, Sword and the Trowel (March 1873), as cited on http://www.spurgeon.org/s_and_t/srmn1873.htm.
2. The full context of Spurgeon’s quote indicates that if Spurgeon would have spoken in contemporary terms, he would have likely maintained that every Christian is an evangelist or an imposter. Consider the immediate context: ‘Every Christian here is either a missionary or an impostor. Recollect that. You either try to spread abroad the kingdom of Christ, or else you do not love Him at all. It cannot be that there is a high appreciation of Jesus and a totally silent tongue about Him. Of course I do not mean by that, that those who use the pen are silent: they are not. And those who help others to use the tongue, or spread that which others have written, are doing their part well: but that man who says, ‘I believe in Jesus,’ but does not think enough of Jesus ever to tell another about Him, by mouth, or pen, or tract, is an impostor.’ Spurgeon, ‘A Sermon and a Reminiscence.’
3. J. Herbert Kane, Understanding Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974), 28.
4. Zane Pratt, et al., Introduction to Global Missions (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 3-4.
5. Pratt, et al., Introduction to Global Missions, 3.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Founders Ministries. Used with permission.