Over the past 30 years, I have noticed that many of us have a tendency to inadvertently promote half-truths that we think advance the cause of world missions. By half-truths, I mean concepts that are partially true or seemly true on the surface, but in fact are myths. At times, I have inadvertently perpetuated these false beliefs myself, for which I wholeheartedly repent. I offer this short article as part of my restitution.
I believe that when we participate in spreading these myths we unintentionally hinder the spread of God’s Kingdom. While the myths may seem miniscule and inconsequential, overtime, like being one degree off course at the start of a long journey, the negative outcomes increase in severity over time. Here are seven common myths perpetuated by missions' people.
We frequently talk about the frontlines of spiritual warfare as if they are geographically defined (i.e. the mission field). As followers of Jesus, we are called to simultaneously participate in both the seen and unseen world. We are always on a potential frontline. When people use the word ‘frontline’ they imply there is a safer place, a place less dangerous. Sure, some places can be darker, more evil, and more dangerous than others places, but let’s not falsely assume that the mission field is a frontline while your home church neighbourhood is not. Let’s be prudent: Spiritual frontlines cannot be defined geographically or by outward appearance. The Scripture seems to imply that everywhere is a potential frontline (see 1 Peter 5:8-9).
What do we mean by calling? Many missions’ people think it means having a strong conviction or foreknowledge in regard to a specific place, people, path, or purpose God has for us—our ministry niche, so to speak. This notion of calling is overplayed and overemphasized to the point of being a myth. Yes, maybe sometimes, but in my 30+ years of observation, even among the most exemplary and fruitful missionaries it is not the norm—not by a long shot.
Followers of Jesus almost always grow into (or fall into) their specific calling with lots of trial and error on the way. Most of us will understand our specific calling or ministry niche though hindsight rather than by foresight. This is because persevering through trial, error, and occasional ambiguity contributes significantly to our spiritual development and thus to our eventual niche. Watching people find their calling is not unlike watching people drive bumper cars; it is often full of bumpy and jolting experiences.
I suggest our specific ministry fit/niche is discovered as we struggle to be obedient to God’s universal callings. Universal callings are what all followers of Jesus are called to do and be. For example we are all called to: holiness (1Pet.1:15), bearing fruit (John 15:16), suffering (1Pet 2:21), peace (Col 3:15) and making disciples (Mat 28:19). These ‘callings’ never change and apply to all of us. In the doing of them we discover our specific niche over time. As we pursue specific places, people, or roles, it is enough to say we are pursuing what we believe God put on our heart. Unfortunately, the way many missions’ people talk about calling creates false expectations about God and how He guides and moves people. Let’s not propagate a myth in the way we talk about calling.
Some of us talk about being called to full-time ministry/missions. Hmmm? Does Jesus call anyone to follow him part-time? I don’t think so. Full-time is the only choice Jesus gives us. The unreached will never be reached just by full-time missionaries, pastors, teachers, and evangelists. They will only be reached by full-on followers of Jesus working full-time as teachers, farmers, engineers, social workers, bricklayers, etc. You might find it hard to believe, but Jesus even wants full-time politicians and lawyers. We should be talking about being ‘full-on’ for Jesus rather than about being full-time lest we become guilty of perpetuating the full-time ministry myth.
I cringe when I hear mission speakers chastise congregations to do something significant with their lives and become missionaries (or something full-time). My wife literally has to hold me down so I don’t interrupt the speaker (she is more polite than me). Perhaps we have so many missionaries on the field still searching for significance because they were led to believe by our evangelical church culture that being a missionary is more significant than other work. Being the object of Christ’s affection is what gives us significance not being a missionary. Lord, spare us from pastors and mission speakers who encourage us to find our significance in what we do! If missionaries think what they are doing is more significant or strategic than what God has called others in our sending congregations to do, we promote a myth. Of course, it may be strategic to move to a place where there is one known Christian per 1,000,000 people rather than one Christian per 1,000 people. That is another issue altogether.
A Google search on these three words produce over 100,000 hits about missions and will lead you to the homepage of practically every mission organisation with a website. Mission organisations propagate the myth that going, giving, or praying are the three main ways we participate in world missions. Hmmm: Shouldn’t I do all three? Does this imply that if I pray or give I don’t need to go? Or if I go I don’t need to give? No, I think all of us agree that those who go also need to pray and give. While these three actions are important, they subtly perpetuate a myth by suggesting these are the ‘main’ three things YOU can do. The Scriptures ‘call’ all of us to go, pray, and give—but they also call us to WORK, THINK, CHANGE, BE HOLY, RISK, SUFFER, STAND, etc. These don’t fit nicely into a tag line and thus their importance is deemphasized by the silence. We can inadvertently promote a myth when we oversimplify the complex.
These terms can perpetuate another myth depending on how we use them. We can indirectly imply that people in our sending church who are engaged in ‘normal’ business or social action are not really participating in the Great Commission. “What? I would never do that,” you say. Then why do we need special terms like B4M or integral missions to justify or distinguish ‘normal’ business activities from missional ones. Give me a break! If I read my Bible correctly, all followers of Jesus are called to make their work sacred and missional by doing it unto God.
Aren’t terms like B4M, B4T, and Integral Missions coined to convince evangelicals that certain business and social initiatives are missional and therefore worthy of being financed by church mission budgets? Am I being too cynical? Perhaps, but the fact is, business and social action have been part of advancing God’s kingdom on earth for more than two thousand years. Perhaps we are still in one of those ‘seasons’ in mission history where business or social actions are viewed as a means to an end or vilified as a distraction to the ‘main thing’. Haven’t businesses and social action been integral to church growth and the expansion of the gospel in new places since the first century? So why do we need new terms to distinguish missional sector business activities from what people in our sending church do? If we are not careful when we use terms like B4M/B4T and integral missions, the subtle message we give to the people in the pews is: your business or your secular work is not missional.
Last but not least…missionaries. What do we really mean by the word missionary? I can’t even find the word in my Bible. The word missionary is a construct of our own making, derived from the Latin word apostle. Apostle literally means “sent one” but, in the Bible, an apostle was more than that; they were followers of Jesus who had a special anointing and authority as sent ones.
Today, we typically think of apostles as spiritual entrepreneurs; ground breakers with a strong vision and multiple spiritual gifts. I know hundreds of missionaries in many organisations. They are great people, but very few (I guess less than 5%) are apostolic in nature or gifting. They are gifted, but not excessively, unless you count perseverance as a gift.
In other words, very few missionaries are apostles in the biblical sense of the word, so isn’t missionary the wrong word for them? Why don’t we embrace a self-identity as priests instead? It is clearly a biblical identity and a sustainable self-identity. Our ‘sentness’ comes from our priestly obligation to represent God before people and people before God. As priests, we are sent to represent.
In addition, missions’ people, for no particular fault of their own, have inadvertently created a quandary with the missionary identity. Over the years, it has become standard practice among some of the best mission organisations in the world for their overseas staff to operate ‘undercover’ in nations that are closed to traditional Christian missions. At least half the world’s population lives in such places, and almost all of the ‘unreached’.
While from one perspective this appears clever and creative, from another perspective it appears deceptive and disingenuous, especially from the perspective of the host people. Certainly the Bible promotes prudence and acknowledges that complete transparency is not always a moral virtue (for example, see 1 Samuel 16:1-13).
But the fact is, missionaries who have adopted the undercover approach live in a state of paranoia about being ‘found out’. This fear fosters behaviours, attitudes, and thinking patterns that hamper and disable these otherwise wonderful saints from being the bold and loving representatives that Jesus called them to be. Fear and love do not make compatible bedfellows. So why do so many continue to embrace a missionary identity when it is a stumbling block to both their audience and themselves—and is not a requirement for following Jesus? Is this becoming all things to all people in order to win some (1 Cor.9:19-23)?
What if we could start from scratch and build frameworks and models that wouldn’t hamstring Jesus people who are eager to take up their role in the Great Commission? What would it look like? Would we build Protestant religious orders that have open membership for anyone committed to the Great Commission and to the universal callings of God? Would most of the members of these fraternities of Jesus people be self-financed by jobs they find on the market? Would it be full of ‘normal’ followers of Jesus who are striving to:
1) Embrace their God-given identity as ambassador-priests
2) Understand their occupation/profession to be an important act of worship—not in competition with disciple making but complementary to it
3) Realise the spiritual frontline is whereever they are at the movement
4) Recognise that their significance is sealed by being the object of God’s love
5) Be strategic in their giving, going, praying, risking, staying, standing, working, waiting, etc.
6) Be a full-on follower of Jesus at work, home, and community, and
7) Team up with likeminded colleagues?
Wow, that sounds a lot like being church! Could it be that simple?
Scott has been serving Jesus among Muslim peoples for 30 years. He is a student of peacemaking, evangelism, and professional development. He holds masters’ degrees in education and divinity and a doctorate in education.