For some people “missions” means nothing but evangelism, while some ecumenical organizations would rather have mission include every good thing the church might do except seeking the conversion of the lost. Is creation care mission work? What about teaching people to read and write? Or agricultural development? Or medical care? Or digging wells? Or orphan work? What if people do these things in Jesus’ name?
Acts 14:19-28 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they remained no little time with the disciples.
I hope in this blog to answer one simple question: What do missionaries do?
The question is simple, but coming to an answer is not. In recent years there has been a great deal of conversation in mission literature about what exactly we mean, or ought to mean, by “mission,” “missionary,” or the newer term “missional.” I wrote a book with Greg Gilbert in an effort to throw our two cents into the conversation. The issues are complicated, not least of all because it is no longer self-evident what we mean by words like missions or missionary.
Although Christians use these words all the time, if we were forced to provide a careful definition for them, we would find, I think, quite a diversity of opinion. For some people “missions” means nothing but evangelism, while some ecumenical organizations would rather have mission include every good thing the church might do except seeking the conversion of the lost. Is creation care mission work? What about teaching people to read and write? Or agricultural development? Or medical care? Or digging wells? Or orphan work? What if people do these things in Jesus’ name? What if these activities are part of a broader work or serve as the means to a larger end? Coming to an understanding of what constitutes “missionary” work is not as easy as it sounds.
Let me add a clarification at this point. In asking the question “what do missionaries do?” I am not thinking about the specifics of their day to day lives. I’m not going to try to describe all the particularities of what it looks like and feels like to be a missionary on the field. I would not be the best person to address that topic and it’s not what we find at the end of Acts 14.
I want to approach the question higher up and further back. I want us to think theologically about the tasks, the aims, and the purposes of mission work, and in so doing look at the responsibilities of missionaries. What should the men and women right now serving in the world as missionaries have as their ministry goals? What kind of work should churches expect, encourage, and pray for in their missionaries? What should mission committees and mission budgets look for in determining which mission organizations and which missionaries to support? These are important questions and very practical questions. And they cannot be addressed until we answer the first question: what do missionaries do?
The Beginning of a Definition
If we are to answer that question, we must first have some general understanding of what we mean by the word “missionary.” Obviously, we can’t fully define the word without determining what these people do. But we should at least try to get in the definitional ball park.
At the most basic level, a missionary is someone who has been sent. That’s what the word “mission” entails. It may not appear in your English Bibles, but it’s still a biblical word. Eckhard Schnabel—who, with two 1000 page volumes on Early Christian Mission and a 500 page work on Paul the Missionary, is one of the world’s leading experts on mission in the New Testament—makes this point forcefully.
The argument that the word mission does not occur in the New Testament is incorrect. The Latin verb mittere corresponds to the Greek verbapostellein, which occurs 136 times in the New Testament (97 times in the Gospels, used both for Jesus having been “sent” by God and for the Twelve being “sent” by Jesus). (Paul the Missionary, 27-28)
The apostles, in the broadest sense of the term, were those who had been sent out. Linguistically, this sent-outness is also the first thing we should note relative to the term missionary. It is, after all, the first thing Jesus notes about his mission–that he was sent to proclaim a message of good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). Being “on mission” or engaging in mission work suggests intentionality and movement (Paul the Missionary, 22, 27). Missionaries are those who have been sent from one place that they might go somewhere else.
Every Christian–if we are going to be obedient to the Great Commission–must be involved in missions, but not every Christian is a missionary. While it is certainly true that we should all be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have, and we should all adorn the gospel with our good works, and we should all do our part to make Christ known, we ought to reserve the term “missionary” for those who are intentionally sent out from one place to another. It’s important to remember that the church (ekklesia) is by definition the assembly of those who have been called out. Our fundamental identity as believers is not as those who are sent into the world with a mission, but as those who are called out from darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). As Schnabel says about Acts, “[Luke] never characterizes ‘the church’ as an institution that is ‘sent’ to accomplish God’s will. Luke reports that a local congregation ‘sends’ leading preachers and teachers as ‘missionaries’ to other regions (see Acts 13:1-4), but the church itself is not portrayed as being ‘sent’” (Early Christian Mission, 1580). Missionaries, therefore, are those unique persons called by God and sent by the church to go out and further the mission where it has not yet been established.
The Case for Acts
We are coming close to getting back to Acts 14:19-28 and answering the question “what do missionaries do?” But there is one more preliminary step we must take before landing in this text. I need to make the case that the book of Acts is the best place to look for the answer to our question, and that the end of Acts 14 in particular is an especially helpful place to look. It wouldn’t be fair to answer our question about missionaries from the book of Acts and from Acts 14 unless there is good reason to think this book and this text means to answer this sort of question.
Let’s start with the book. Acts is the inspired history of the mission of the church. It is meant to pick up where Luke’s Gospel leaves off—which is with Jesus’ command that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” and with the promise that he will send the Holy Spirit to clothe the disciples with power from on high so they can be his witnesses (24:47-48). The same narrative is in view in Acts 1 as the church is gathered in Jerusalem waiting for the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4). This second volume from Luke will describe what those commissioned at the end of the first volume were sent out to accomplish.
Don’t miss the significance of Acts 1:1: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (emphasis added). In other words, Luke’s Gospel dealt with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and now (by implication) this book of Acts will deal with all that Jesus continues to do and teach. We must never forget that we do not replace Jesus on earth, or even partner with him in the strictest sense. The work is still his, and Jesus is still the one working. Our role is to bear witness to the person and work of Christ. That’s really the point of Acts: to show the apostles as Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (1:8). Acts 1:8 gives us the Table of Contents for all 28 chapters in the book of Acts. The apostles will proclaim Christ through these expanding geographic areas, all the way to the uttermost parts of the earth. Acts is–quite explicitly–a book designed to show the advance of the gospel mission in the world. We have every reason, then, to think this is the book that can help us answer the question “what do missionaries do?”
And we have good reason to think this passage in Acts 14 is an especially good place to get an answer to that question. At the beginning of Acts 13 the church at Antioch, prompted by the Holy Spirit, set apart Paul and Barnabas “for the work to which I have called them” (v. 2). The next verse says, “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (v. 3). This isn’t the first time the gospel is going to be preached to unbelievers in Acts. It’s not the first gospel work Paul and Barnabas will do. But it is the first time we see a church intentionally sending out Christian workers with a mission to another location. Paul and Barnabas travel to Cyprus, and then to Pisidian Antioch, and then to Iconium, and then to Lystra, and then to Derbe, and from there back through Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch, and then to Perga, and back to Antioch in Syria. This completes Paul’s first missionary journey. So Acts 14:19-28 is not only a good summary of Paul’s missionary work, it’s also the sort of information Paul would have shared with the church in Antioch when he returned (v. 27). These verses are like the slide show or the power point presentation Paul and Barnabas shared with their sending church: “This is how we saw God at work. Here’s where we went and what we did.” If any verses are going to give us a succinct description of what missionaries do, it’s verses like these at the end the missionary journey in Acts 14.
A Three-Legged Stool
We see in these verses—and in particular in verses 21-24—the three legged stool of mission work. Luke gives us the apostolic model for missionary service and that model has three parts:
- New converts – “when they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples” (v. 21)
- New communities – “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church” (v. 23)
- Nurtured churches – “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith” (v. 22).
To be sure, Christian missionaries may be more active in one aspect of this work rather than another. But all mission work must keep these three things in mind. If the apostles are meant to be our models for what missionaries do—and as the sent-out ones tasked most immediately with the Great Commission, there is every reason to think that they are—then we should expect our missionaries to be engaged in these activities and pray for them to that end. The goal of mission work is to win new converts, establish these young disciples in the faith, and incorporate them into a local church.
Schnabel describes the missionary task with an almost identical set of three points.
- “Missionaries communicate the news of Jesus the Messiah and Savior to people who have not heard or accepted this news.”
- “Missionaries communicate a new way of life that replaces, at least partially, the social norms and the behavioral patterns of the society in which the new believers have been converted.”
- “Missionaries integrate the new believers into a new community.” (Paul the Missionary, 28. Cf. Early Christian Mission, 11)
Evangelism, discipleship, church planting—that’s what the church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to do, and these should be the goals of all mission work. Missionaries may aim at one of these components more than the other two, but all three should be present in our overall mission strategy. The work of discipleship and church planting cannot take place unless some non-believers have been evangelized and some of them converted. At the same, we cannot leave new converts on their own once they come to Christ. They must be grounded in the faith and taught what it means to turn from sin, flesh, and the devil and follow Jesus. And if our missionary work only focuses on evangelism and discipleship, without a vision for the centrality of the local church, we are not being faithful to the pattern we see in Acts where conversion always entails incorporation. Missionary work is a three-legged stool: if we are missing any of the legs, the ministry will not be healthy, stable, or strong.
Of course, in saying that all missionaries should be engaged with these three components, I am not suggesting that the strategy is always simple and straightforward. We have to be patient and flexible in aiming for these goals. It make take years to learn a new language and win a hearing with the people you are trying to reach. You may be a doctor or nurse or teacher or business person or agricultural expert by trade. And yet, your bigger, longer-lasting goal is to win people to Christ, get them rooted in their faith, and make sure the new indigenous church is firm and established. In today’s world, reaching the least reached people takes risk, creativity, and patience. Acts does not give us just one way to do mission work.
But it does show us the work missionaries do.
On the one hand, we want to avoid the danger of making our mission too small. Some well-meaning Christians act like conversion is the only thing that counts. They put all their efforts into getting to the field as quickly as possible, speaking to as many people as possible, and then leaving as soon as possible. Mission becomes synonymous with pioneer evangelism.
On the other hand, we want to avoid the danger of making our mission to broad. Some well-meaning Christians act like everything counts as mission. They put all their efforts into improving job skills, lowering unemployment, digging wells, setting up medical centers, establishing great schools, and working for better crop yields—all of which are important and can be a wonderful expression of Christian love, but aren’t what we see Paul and Barnabas sent out to do on their mission in Acts.
I have no doubt God gifts some of us and calls some of us to care for orphans in other lands, or help people develop better sanitation practices, or help sick people with very little access to medical care. We should celebrate these callings. Full stop. With our full support. We may even give financially so that Christians can go and love their neighbors in these extravagant ways. And at the same time, without denigrating this good work in slightest, we must conclude from Acts 14:19-28, and from the entire book of Acts, that the church’s mission and the work of our sent-out missionaries is something more specific. Those demanding a “revolution” in our understanding of mission “away from the traditional missionary focus on winning people to faith in Jesus Christ, concentrating rather on a ‘holistic’ understanding of Jesus’ claims” do so without strong textual support (see Early Christian Mission, 1580-81). We see over and over in Paul’s missionary journeys, and again in his letters, that the central work to which he has been called is the verbal proclamation of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (Rom. 10:14-17; 15:18; 1 Cor. 15:1-2, 11; Col. 1:28). Paul sees his identity as an apostle—as a sent-out one—to be chiefly this: he has been set apart for the gospel of God (Rom. 1:1). That’s why in Acts 14:27 the singular summary of his mission work just completed is that God “had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.” Paul’s goal as a missionary was the conversion of Jews and pagans, the transformation of their hearts and minds, and the incorporation of these new believers into a mature, duly constituted church.
In their book Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission, Andreas Kostenberger and Peter O’Brien describe what it would look like “if the apostolic model is to be followed by missionaries in the contemporary scene.” The work of these missionaries would begin with the winning of converts, but it would not stop there.
Forming believers into mature Christian congregations, providing theological and pastoral counsel against dangers arising from inside and outside churches, strengthening believers both individually and corporately as they face suffering and persecution, so that they will stand fast in the Lord, all fall within the scope of what is involved in continuing the mission of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. (268)
So what do missionaries do? They preach the gospel to those who haven’t heard. They disciple new believers in life and Christian doctrine. And they establish these disciples into healthy churches with sound teaching and good leaders.
A Few Implications
Let me finish by suggesting a few implications which follow from this answer and then make one final observation from the text.
Implication #1: Those currently serving as missionaries should consider whether Paul’s priorities are their priorities. I’m not trying to single out any specific missionaries who may come across this post. But as a general diagnostic tool missionaries would be helped by considering whether their aims look like Luke’s summary of Paul’s aims at the end of Acts 14.
For some, this may be a gentle reminder and encouragement to stay the course and keep doing the good work they are doing. For other missionaries, it may mean a serious re-evaluation of their priorities. Perhaps they’ve wandered from their charge, maybe lost sight of their original aims and goals. Any of us can experience mission creep or mission drift. It happens in businesses. It happens in churches. It happens in schools. And it happens on the mission field. You have one set of purposes in mind when you land, and then years later you’ve veered off into something else entirely.
Implication #2: We should aim with our missions budget to support missionaries who have for their goals the things we see in Acts 14:21-23. There is certainly a place for Christians to support all manner of good works, development programs, and initiatives designed to work for human flourishing. Many of us will choose to support these ventures personally from our own finances. A few of them may even be in the church budget as a kind of diaconal ministry toward those in our community or for those in need around the world. But when it comes to supporting missionaries in the mission budget, we ought to expect that they are aiming for, praying for, and working for the same things that describe the mission of Paul and Barnabas in verses 21-23. The work of the sent-out apostles should bear a strong resemblance to the work of our sent-out missionaries.
We are finite creatures with finite time, finite resources, and finite abilities. Therefore, our mission strategy must have priorities. This means first of all, we want to support godly men and women, mature in their faith, and like-minded in their theological convictions.
Second, this ought to mean we look to support those doing work in the three areas of missionary activity we see in Acts—evangelism, discipleship, and church planting.
And third, once the first two points have been firmly established, I believe every church should keep two further questions in mind. Where is the greatest need? What are our greatest strengths? These two question won’t make all the hard decisions easy, but they give us a place to start making hard decisions.
Paul’s goal was to reach as many people as possible with the gospel. He made no distinction between men and women, slave and free, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, majority or minority. He wanted all to hear of Christ and was eager to go where Christ had not been named (Rom. 15:17-23). Considering almost three billion people have no access to the gospel and there are still 7000 unreached people groups, we should be especially burdened to send missionaries and support missionaries where Christ is least known.
And along with this priority of greatest need, I believe it’s wise to consider our greatest strengths. What abilities and interests do we have in our church? What do we have a track record of doing well? In what places do we already have strong ties? Where has God opened a door? Theses are the sort of secondary questions we would do well to ask, provided the fundamentals have been established.
Implication #3: You should consider whether God is calling you to be engaged in this work, should the church be willing to send you out. I know this post has been heavy on definition and precision and explanation, but perhaps you find your heart exploding with joy and purpose and resolve at thought of gospel-centered, gospel-saturated, gospel-purposed mission work. Maybe you are sitting at your computer thinking, “That’s exactly what I want to do with my life. I want to be report back to this church someday that through my witness God opened a door of faith to the nations.” There is a tremendous need, and we have a tremendous gospel. Could it be that God is calling you to be one of those who connects the two? Talk to your elders, talk to your missions committee, talk to your pastor, talk to a mature friend if you think you might be one of these missionaries we’ve been talking about.
A Final Word
I would be remiss if I didn’t direct your attention to the end of verse 22 in closing. We read there that Paul and Barnabas strengthened the souls of the disciples, encouraged them to continue in the faith, and also informed them that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. A key aspect in their discipleship plan was preparing the people to suffer. And who better to prepare them for Christian endurance than the Apostle Paul? Here we are at the end of just the first missionary journey and we’ve already seen Paul threatened, attacked, stoned, dragged out of the city, and left for dead. If the call to be a Christian is a summons to carry your cross, how much more the call to be a missionary?
In some ways, we have it easier today than Paul and Barnabas did. Travel is easier. Communication is easier. Medical care and hygiene are better. But in other ways, the work of a missionary is even harder. Most of today’s missionaries have a far great cultural gap to cross in their ministry than Paul did in his. Paul didn’t have to learn a new language. He traveled within the borders of the Roman Empire. He ministered among those who shared something of the same educational system and same political tradition, even if the religious history was very different at times. Sending an American to Indonesia or a Korean to Eastern Europe or a Brazilian to West Africa will likely mean greater cross-cultural pains than even Paul knew.
In the end, of course, it’s not terribly fruitful to compare missionary work in one century versus another. If we are faithfully proclaiming the gospel to those who do not know him, there will be challenges. There will always be the promise of tribulation and the possibility of even worse.
Which means we must be prepared to suffer if we go and be ready to support those whom we send. Missionaries are just like other Christians. They have marriages that need help and kids that need help and conflicts that need help. They are not super heroes. They are servants—servants of God, servants of others, and servants of the word.
It’s that last point that may need recurring emphasis in our day. Missionaries must be first and foremost people of the word. They must know it, believe it, announce it, and teach it. That’s why they go. That’s why we send. For how will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? (Rom. 10:14-15).
Kevin DeYoung has been the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan since 2004. Kevin blogs at the Gospel Coalition; this article is reprinted with his permission.