Should We Shelve the Word "Missionary"? 5 Reasons the Term May No Longer Be Useful
For many people, the word "missionary" is problematic. How should we respond to God's call to love our neighbors as a new era emerges?
I sat in a bustling café with a rep from a global missions agency last week. As we sipped our coffees, the conversation turned to the major challenges facing the missions world in the post-Covid era. Recruitment is down. Funding is hard to come by. And public perceptions have shifted massively.
I told her, “It’s time to get rid of the word ‘missionary’ from your organization’s name and publications. It’s not the core issue, but it’s one of them. And that word is now more of a liability than an asset.”
She looked a bit shocked. After all, hers was an agency with more than a century of faithful missionary history, and both of us were in agreement that the world is still full of need. To faithfully love our brothers and sisters in other countries would require a new generation of Christians dedicated to being global citizens. That fact was not in dispute.
I just wrote a book called “Subversive Mission”, so I’m an unlikely advocate for ditching the word missionary. But nevertheless here we are. As we move into 2023, I want to suggest that perhaps this word has outlived its usefulness. We need new wineskins. Not convinced? Here’s my reasoning:
Society does not view missionaries with sympathy.
The cases of the two missionaries Jim Elliot and John Allen Chau highlight just how much perceptions of missionary work have changed in the last few decades.
In 1956, Jim Elliot was killed by a spear while attempting to make contact with the Huaorani tribe in Ecuador. He was immediately hailed a hero and a missionary martyr, and was even featured on the cover of Life Magazine. His death galvanized Christians around the world.
Just over sixty years later, in 2017, U.S. missionary John Allen Chau was also killed by a spear as he attempted to make contact with the Sentinelese in the Andaman Islands off the coast of India. The worldwide press almost universally labelled him a fool and a flag-bearer for colonialism. The New York Times quoted critics who called Chau “uninformed, arrogant and self-serving…” His death divided Christians around the world.
These polarized positions represent a generational divide.
Missionary work is now strongly connected with colonialism.
Historically, missionaries have worked both for and against colonialism. William Carey was a notable example of someone who worked against the imperial efforts of England. The East India Company actually had orders to "Stop Carey" and threatened to revoke the sailing license of any ship that gave him passage.
But many missionaries did sweep in with the settlers of England, Spain, and Portugal as they conquered nations across the globe. They encouraged local people to adopt Western clothing, practices, and values—while stealing their land and resources.
As an African believer once complained, “You brought us the bread of life, but it came wrapped in plastic that you shoved down our throats!”
For many, whether it is a fair assessment or not, missionaries are irredeemably linked with colonialism. And that perception makes the term a serious liability in a world where we are ever more aware of injustice and oppression.
Words come and go. Over time they may lose their usefulness.
Perhaps there are better words we can use to describe the vocation of a Christian who seeks to be a humble servant of Jesus in the world.
The word “missionary” is nowhere to be found in the Bible, nor was it used for the first 1600 years of the Christian faith. The word comes from the Latin word mitto, which means "to send." It is the equivalent of the Greek word apostello, which also means "to send." Apostle translates into Latin as mittere and missionem, and these give us the word missionary.
Four hundred years ago, the Jesuits first began to call themselves missionaries, seeing themselves as apostles, those who had been sent out to build the kingdom of God on earth.
But as societal attitudes shift, language also shifts. Just as we no longer use words such as “heathen” or “cripple,” so we need to recognize when a word such as missionary needs to be shelved.
The calling to love our neighbors (near and far) has not gone away, but perhaps there are better words we can use to describe the vocation of a Christian who seeks to be a humble servant of Jesus in the world.
Our understanding of missionary work has broadened.
Much of Jesus’ life and work wouldn’t be described as normal missionary activity. Is providing lunch for a hungry crowd truly missionary work? Is dining and drinking with tax collectors missionary work? How about overturning tables and disrupting injustice?
Perhaps we’ve created too narrow a concept of what a missionary does.
In Ephesians 4, Paul offers a broader spectrum of gifts that were created to serve the world: from prophet to teacher, from pastor to apostle. Having five terms for global service, instead of just one, offers us a much richer picture of the variety of callings people have.
(In Subversive Mission, I outline how each of these five ministry types can be reframed for understanding our unique role in the world, where we often carry more power and resources than the people we serve.)
Many want to engage globally but are paralyzed by the term missionary.
For the reasons above, the term missionary has become an obstacle to many followers of Jesus with a cross-cultural calling. We need a new framework for moving forward that acknowledges the lessons of history, while leaving behind the baggage of the past.
To get past this obstacle, some seek roles as social entrepreneurs. Others apply to join anti-trafficking organizations. These are still “respected” ways to engage in the world. But we actually need a better, clearer framework for engagement that is theologically grounded.
Many Christians have a passionate longing to see God’s love change the world but a distaste for the negative baggage of traditional missions. Most people agree that the world doesn’t need more “white saviors” (or saviors of any color), but it also doesn’t need more apathetic, paralyzed, or disengaged Christians.
As followers of Jesus, are we ready to follow Jesus to the ends of the earth right where we are—from Vancouver to Nairobi, from inner-city Chicago to Phnom Penh?
I hope you will join me in seeking a better way, a more beautiful vision for how we can all bear the light we have been given into the world.
The Better Samaritan blog is produced by the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, a research institute which specializes in resilience and spiritual fortitude. To learn more and apply for a M.A. in Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership, visit our website.
Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International, a grassroots movement of young Christians reaching the world's poorest children. Originally from New Zealand, he has lived and worked for more than two decades in marginalized communities in Asia and North America. He is the author of The Urban Halo and Subversive Jesus.