Christianity 201

September 6, 2021

Terminology: Missionaries or Workers?

Today we’re back for a third time at Disciple All Nations. The author is teacher, administrator, pastor, missionary, researcher, college professor and writer Russ Mitchell. This first appeared in the spring of 2020, and clicking the header which follows will get you there. (For those of you in missions, there’s an excellent article there on June 15th you should check out.)

Is it Time to Put the Term “Missionary” to Rest?

Recently I read Amy Peterson’s book Dangerous Territory, which chronicles her two-year adventure as a Christian English Teacher in Asia, which she self-critically subtitles “my misguided quest to save the world.” Early on I was struck by Peterson’s aversion to the term missionary. She shares:

“Despite my sincere and passionate desire to change the world for God, I hated that term –missionary—for all the connotations and baggage trailing behind it. I dreaded being aligned with the long history of abuse that educated westerners commonly associated with “missions” – destruction of indigenous cultures in the name of Christ, introduction of foreign diseases, wars in the name of evangelism. …I was terrified that I might accidentally live into this horrific, ethnocentric, imperialistic tradition.” (pages 18-19)

Peterson’s remarks reminded me of research findings of the Student Volunteer Movement 2 (renamed Global Mission Mobilization Initiative in 2019). Through interviews with young people around the world they too discovered an aversion to the term “missionary” for many of the same reasons Peterson lists. In addition, young people either viewed missionaries as “super saints”  – a measure they could never attain – or as cultural misfits, something they never wanted to become. Sensing that the term “missionary” was a hindrance to mobilizing students for service, SMV2 championed “message bearer” as a replacement for “missionary.”

I have also noticed that sending organizations avoid the use of “missionary” for practical reasons.  As many work in limited access countries where local governments do welcome foreign Christians, the term “workers” is preferred. Here are two personal examples.

Earlier this year my wife and I led a group of students to Central Asia. Our local hosts warned us to never use the M word in any of our communications. Otherwise the security of the entire work could be jeopardized. Also a few years ago, when reviewing our sending organization’s website, I was shocked to discover that the term “missionary” was not to be found anywhere on our public website! Upon inquiry, I learned that this was intentional.

So, I wonder, it is time to put the term “missionary” to rest? And if so, what shall replace it?

I was nurtured in a theological tradition that championed calling biblical things by biblical terms. How does missionary” fare? First, nowhere in the scriptures does the term “missionary” occur. So, it is not a biblical term. “Missionary” comes from the Latin verb, missio, to send. This is a semantically equivalent to biblical term, “apostle”, which literally means “sent out one.” Theological considerations, however, commonly restrict the use of “apostle” to leaders in the first century church. It is prudent to not go down that path.

Is there biblical alternative to “apostle” or “missionary?”

I believe there is, and it is a term that already is finding broad usage: worker.

Jesus tells his followers in Luke 10:2 (NIV), “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Consider too the parallel passage in Matthew 9:38.)  Here we see an early instance of people being sent out into the harvest field and the term used is worker.

Paul in his letters refers to numerous people as “fellow workers” or “co-workers” among whom are Urbanus (Romans 16:9), Timothy (Romans 16:21), Titus (2 Corinthians 8:13), Philemon (Phm. 1) and Stephanus (1 Corinthians 16:16). In the case of Stephanas, we see an even broader use of the term: “Now I urge you, brothers—you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints— be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer (1 Corinthians 16:16 ESV). Also, when writing Timothy Paul also uses “worker” in a general sense. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV).

The term “worker” also eschews “super saint status.”  A saying of Jesus reminds us, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). “Workers,” then, are not super saints. They have only been obedient. They have done their duty.

What, then, are the advantages of the term “worker”?

  • It is a biblical term.
  • It has the connotation of being sent out by God.
  • It implies that one can rightly handle the “word of truth”
  • It shows that one is devoted to serving God’s people and is a trustworthy leader.
  • It already is used by sending organizations and churches with activity in limited access countries.
  • It is a humble term, that avoids the “super saint syndrome.”
  • It has none of the baggage associated with the term “missionary” that hinders mobilization

So, it seems prudent to lay the term “missionary” to rest and use the biblical term “worker” in its place. What do you think? Are there any other advantages or disadvantages to using the term “worker”?

 

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