“Missional” is a huge buzz word these days. But just because we are called to live on mission—which, of course, every Christianity most certainly is—does that mean we are all missionaries? [CLICK TO TWEET]

In recent times, the concept was popularized by the words of Charles Spurgeon when he said, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” His passion was evident in his statement, to be sure, although in my opinion, erroneous.

Unfortunately the term has blurred the lines between blessing those in our own context and zip code, and bringing the gospel across cultures to the yet unreached and unengaged billions.

Billions? Yes. More than 2 billion have yet to hear the name of Jesus in the 21st century.

The word “mission” originates from 1598 when the Jesuits sent members abroad, derived from the Latin missionem (nom. missio), meaning “act of sending” or mittere, meaning “to send”.

Alan Johnson speaks of the term missionary in the frontier missions context:

“The frontier mission movement advocates that Christian World Mission is the redemptive activities of the church in societies where the church is not found. Thus a missionary is one who crosses out of a society that has an existing church movement over cultural boundaries to bring the gospel to a society that does not have the church. They maintain a sharp distinction between evangelism, which is the work of the church among its own people in the same cultural group, and mission, which means crossing a cultural boundary to bring an initial penetration of the gospel among a cultural group.”

For an extremely detailed look at terms and definitions of “mission” and “missionary”, see The Frontier Mission Movement’s Understanding Of The Modern Missions Era by Alan Johnson. [Download PDF]

Not everyone is called to be a cross cultural missionary, and that’s okay. Each of us has a part to play in reaching people around us, both locally and globally. Don’t downplay your call to love people to Jesus in your sphere of influence, while subliminally placing overseas missionaries on a pedestal.

For more on this subject, check out Not Everyone Is A Missionary: What We Look For, by Justin Long.

Ministry outreach that blesses people in the homefront is no less important than the “ends of the earth” mission that missionaries are called to. I’d like to validate your ministry to people in your zip code by saying it is, in fact, so important that we must export these quality outreaches to regions where the Church does not exist.

Because “missions is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” – John Piper

The word “missionary” is obviously an extra-Biblical term. But I believe we err when we make a blanket statement that every Christian is a missionary. Why do we tend to misuse the term missionary rather than simply calling ourselves witnesses, sent ones, or people on mission? Are those terms any less meaningful than the word missionary?

We are called to live missionally, as David Platt says, “blessing people around us and spreading grace and glory among all peoples.”

Every Christian is a witness. We are all called to make disciples. That calling is not dependent upon geographic location.

But just because you’re a Christian does not mean you’re a missionary!

I do not agree with statements like “If you’re a Christ follower, you’re a missionary.”

The reason?

“If every Christian is already considered a missionary, then all can stay put where they are, and nobody needs to get up and go anywhere to preach the gospel. But if our only concern is to witness where we are, how will people in unevangelized areas ever hear the gospel? The present uneven distribution of Christians and opportunities to hear the gospel of Christ will continue on unchanged. – Gordon Olson

That’s my point. The 2 billion people who have never heard of Jesus before are waiting at the other end of our obedience!

Here’s a couple more videos that are, I think, well rounded conversations for both points. Check out the Missions Table for more.

Now here’s a deeper conversation on the same topic. It’s a little lengthy, but for those of you who are highly interested in this topic, I think you’ll find this very helpful.

For the record, I gravitate toward Denny Spitters‘ viewpoint.

The title of missionary holds huge responsibility, and many who call themselves by that term are not ready or willing to pay the cost. [CLICK TO TWEET]

“We talk of the Second Coming; half the world has never heard of the first.” – Oswald J. Smith

So in reality the idea that every Christian is a missionary is a cop out. It avoids responsibility for the about 2 billion people who are not being effectively evangelized today. It means direct disobedience to the “Go” of the Great Commission!

This conversation can perhaps move into an “us versus them” mentality, and that’s not at all what I hope to elicit here. Again, missions is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is! The unhealthy Christian celebrity pedestal that cross cultural missionaries have been unintentionally placed upon throughout recent history is fallacy. All of us are simply jars of clay, broken, leaking all-surpassing power. But I do believe there is a distinction in calling for those who are sent as cross cultural missionaries, specifically for those who are sent to the least reached peoples who are unreached and unengaged.

Jesus had a big picture mentality. He said, “you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The gospel reach was meant to extend beyond Bethlehem’s zip code. [CLICK TO TWEET]

“This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world [remote regions where the gospel does not exist], as a testimony to every nation [ethnolinguistic people groups] and then the end will come.” Matthew 24:14

“No one has the right to hear the gospel twice, while there remains someone who has not heard it once.” – Oswald J. Smith

Am I simply being nit picky about terminologies and semantics? What’s the point of making the distinction between missional living and the role of the cross cultural missionary?

The reason for my thinking is simple.

The great imbalance of missions is the fact that most missionaries go to or are sent to reached areas of the earth—regions where the Church already exists and the name of Jesus is known. On the flipside, there are very few missionaries working among the remaining unreached people groups within the 10/40 Window, home to over 2 billion who have yet to hear the name of Jesus.

Not to downplay certain missionaries or ministries. It’s just that we cannot forget those who are still waiting for the gospel to get to them in the 21st century. That’s our passion at Within Reach Global.

A missionary speaker in a Bible college missions conference illustrated it by having 10 students try to lift the piano by positioning 9 at one end and 1 at the other. He made his point by saying that 9 out of 10 Christian workers are ministering to the one-tenth of the world which is most evangelized while only 1 out of 10 workers are thinly spread through the nine-tenths of the world which have never heard the gospel before. This is appalling! It is as ridiculous as 9 men at one end of the piano ignoring the 1 poor guy trying to lift the other end all by himself.


On that note, check this out: What If There Were Only 7 Churches In North America?


Herbert Kane has suggested that although it is not possible to give a flawless, scientific definition of a missionary, the following one should suffice:

“In the traditional sense the term missionary has been reserved for those who have been called by God to a 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).” – Herbert Kane

“All Christians are to be missionary-minded in obedience to the Great Commission, but not all Christians can be missionaries in the proper [extra]biblical sense of the word. We cannot all pack up and go! Some must stay behind and stand behind those who do go.

“The total resources of the Christian church should be thrown into the battle for the souls of men on a global scale, and every member of that church should regard himself as being involved in the total mobilization required by such an operation. But not every church member is a missionary.” – Gordon Olson


Our options for response are go, send or disobey. Why not partner with Within Reach Global as we reach some of the most unreached people groups in Southeast Asia?

David Joannes
Founder/President at Within Reach Global
David Joannes is the co-founder and president of Within Reach Global, Inc, which serves the advance of the Gospel in some of Southeast Asia’s most difficult places. He is the author of The Space Between Memories: Recollections from a 21st Century Missionary. David has a love for language, culture, and creative writing, and for the last 20 years, he has witnessed God’s Kingdom established in forgotten parts of the globe. David lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with his wife, Lorna, and their daughter, Cara.
  • We are indeed MISSIONARIES. Some are called to be missionaries to the unreached people groups in their own neighborhood block in Downey, California. While others are called to be missionaries to the unreached people groups in the deepest recesses of the jungles of Papua New Guinea. While others are called to simply stay and hold the other end of the rope of those who are on mission. Everyone is to take part in the Great Commission someway or another. It just may look differently than Paul in Jerusalem or Paul in Ephesus.

  • The problem is that you’ve settled on a modernistic, pragmatic, and extra-biblical definition of “missionary.” I understand that you’re trying to distinguish between those who are called to make disciples among people who have not heard the gospel and those who are led to stay “home” or minister to those who have. But this thinking is detrimental to our thinking.

    For too long, Christians have lived as though there WAS a difference between “mission” and “not mission.” But this has led to passive, lazy, consumeristic Christians who have lost the essential missionary thrust if our faith.

    In Christ, we are ALL outsiders. Our citizenship is in His Kingdom, so every interaction with people requires that we translate the unchanging truth of scripture into a dynamic, sinful culture. As Spurgeon famously said, “Every Christian either a missionary or imposter.”

    • Shawn Key


    • Thanks for reading and thinking on this topic! You’re correct, the term missionary is certainly an extra Biblical word. So why are we even enamored by the term? That’s something I consider every single day. Why not just call ourselves by the Biblical 5 fold terminology? But there is a certain mystique about the word missionary. I have no qualms with people calling themselves that, because, again, you’re correct that it inspires action among hurting people. That’s where we are called. But the thing that grinds on my heart every day is the Great Imbalance of Global Missions, the 2 billion yet to hear of Jesus. I have walked among these people groups and tribes over the last 13 years of ministry in China. 你们有没有听说过耶稣基督?I ask them, and the answer is almost always the same: No we have never heard of Jesus before. Some have even replied, “Is that some kind of soap?” Hence the reason for my thinking that we need clarification of terms to finish the task among the unreached and unengaged in the 10/40 Window. For now, just call me a Missional Starter as I am leery of the term missionary! http://davidjoannes.com/i-am-no-longer-a-missionary/ Thanks for your thoughts, Caleb!

  • I disagree with Caleb and Greg, as I noted in my own article here: http://www.justinlong.org/2013/10/not-everyone-is-a-missionary-what-we-look-for/. I don’t see that this definition is in anyway modernist. If anything, I think the idea of “we are all missionaries” is far more modern.

    We are all called to make disciples. We are all called to baptize. We are all called to teach others to obey. But some are called to do this in Jerusalem (their local place), some in Judea (their broader nation), some in Samaria (the others nearby who dislike us, and who we dislike), and some in the uttermost parts of the earth. The missionary task (which originates from the Latin missio, which in turn came from the Greek, both of which meant “sent one”) was decidedly not local. Paul was *sent out* as were the others. This was not the same task as pastoring locally.

    (I’m not alone in this. Getting ready to post a bunch more article links about this, too.)

    • Agreed. As usual you point us to the whole point of my article as well, namely, LET US REMEMBER THE UNREACHED AND UNENGAGED PEOPLE GROUPS OF THE 10/40 WINDOW! that’s a huge point that we often miss. Who really cares for terminologies, except that they clarify callings and direction a little better. “Assistant Regional Manager” Dwight likes to be called. “Assistant To The Regional Manager” Jim always corrects him. Tomato Tomahto right? But there is more to it than that. I pray we are inspired to remember the 2 billion who have yet to hear the name of Jesus, and do something about the Great Imbalance of Global Missions! http://davidjoannes.com/the-great-imbalance-of-global-missions/

  • Shawn Key

    only correct if you give the word “missionary” a narrow definition only
    made popular in the past few centuries, and found nowhere in the Bible.
    If we are all called to “lead missional lives,” then we are by definition,
    “missionaries.” The word “missio” does mean “to send,” but it’s not found in the Bible. Jesus said to “go,” but that included home as well as across the planet (see below). He also didn’t say “and when you do go to other people, it’s a different task than when you’re at home.”

    The Gospel does not increase in power because of an
    increase in the distance from our home. Was James less of a missionary
    than Peter? I would argue that he was equally on mission in Jerusalem. Those of us who are called to foreign lands must go, but not all of us
    are called to foreign lands (what about those of us who are called to

    Jesus would not allow the formerly demon-possessed man to travel
    with him, but instead told him to “Go home, and tell your friends and
    family what the Lord has done for you.” Was this a second-rate calling?

    “So in reality the idea that every Christian is a missionary is a cop out.
    It avoids responsibility for the about 2 billion people who are not
    being effectively evangelized today. It means direct disobedience to the
    “Go” of the Great Commission!”

    This is wrong on several levels. First, it creates a definition of “unreached” that implies that unreached people only exist in other places. If you think this is true, come visit with my church family for a few days. We’re surrounded by unreached people. We walk among them as missionaries. Second, defining ‘missionary’ as someone who goes somewhere else is also a cop out. If I’m not called to be a missionary, then I don’t have to be on mission. I would argue that this is the exact cop out being used in church pews around the world every Sunday. Third, it misuses the word “go” in the great commission. “Go” is a verb, not a direction or a location. It can be used nicely with whatever direction or location God has called each person.

    Our “mission” is to make disciples – in our own homes, communities,
    countries and across the planet.

    • No doubt, Gordon Olson draws a black and white line that I am hesitant to agree with wholeheartedly. The term is very relative and can mean whatever we want it to mean in the context of our conversation. For that reason I am calling myself a Missional Starter instead, which also means whatever I want it to mean! http://davidjoannes.com/i-am-no-longer-a-missionary/ But you see, that’s the problem isn’t it? The term has become watered down—or embellished for that matter— and transforms definitions too easily.

      The whole point on my heart: that those unreached and unengaged people groups that I have ministered among in Southwest China for the last 13 years will have a chance to hear the reality of the gospel one day. It irks me that they have yet to hear. Hence the whole reason for my post. I pray that it inspires people to simply have a heart for the unreached and unengaged people groups in the 10/40 Window. We can go on and on (I would rather enjoy that!) about what each of us feels the word actually means. But we may never come to an actual scientific conclusion. That’s bad! I by that, I mean good. 🙂 Words are not eloquent enough.

      If action for the unreached ensues through these conversations, then I am happy. http://withinreachglobal.org/

      Thanks for your thoughts, Shawn!

  • KatHat

    The weblink to Herbert Kane links to Gordon Olson. I’d like to find the original source for Herbert Kane’s quotation.

  • Shawn Key

    I love that you have a heart for the unreached people in the 10/40 window – it sounds like you are listening to God’s calling to bring the Gospel to them!

    I think that when we use the word ‘missionary’ to describe the Church in action there are several aspects we have to be aware of:

    WHO is sending us. God is the boss. We go where, when and how he wants us to – and he already had it all planned out before time began (Psalm 139).

    WHY we are sent. To glorify God. Some are called to evangelize, some to teach, some to shepherd (Ephesians 4). No one of these is more important than the others. Jesus said to make disciples, not just converts. I disagree somewhat with Piper’s statement, or at least how many people characterize it, that missions exists because worship doesn’t. Missions IS worship. It’s not filling some hole left when God’s awesome plans got messed up. The missional aspect of God is seen throughout scripture.

    WHERE we are are called to. Instead, he tied it to the direction of the Holy Spirit (Acts
    1:8). Paul had places he wanted to go, but the Holy Spirit wouldn’t allow him to. If we have no calling to go to a specific place, then we should consider our mission field to be wherever we are. The formerly demon-possessed man was sent home. James was sent to Jerusalem. Thomas to India (it seems). Paul…all over.

    HOW we go.
    Too many people get involved in missions without any consideration of how to do it well – or, how to be a blessing rather than a hindrance. We hear story after story of missionaries on the field who end up spending more time serving the groups who come to “help” or repairing the damage they’ve left behind. If you’re not prepared to serve well, spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally, you’re not ready to go. Paul spent many years learning and preparing before he ever set foot from Antioch, but we too often require nothing more than a raised hand and raised money before sending people into situations and cultures they are not prepared for.

    I have spent many years helping to send missionaries all over the planet. I have close friends who have served long-term in Russia, Jordan/Iraq, China and Mexico. My wife and I are called specifically to the country of Bulgaria in Eastern Europe, and have been traveling there for over a decade. We would drop everything and move there in a heartbeat, but so far the Holy Spirit hasn’t let us. For the past six years, we have been training teams to think like missionaries and learn how to serve well. We put what they’ve learned into practice on short-term trips to Bulgaria, so that they can be prepared to go wherever God calls them. We also serve in Haiti and Nicaragua.

    David, again, I love your heart for those who have never had a chance to hear of Jesus. Keep serving, and keep sharing so that others will listen to what God is calling them to do. I would just encourage you that, when you’re not there, to not forget about the unreached (I think I might like the word “unchanged” better) who are all around you.

    In His Name,


    • Thanks so much for your thoughts. I have been reading and rereading them and am inspired by your input. I really appreciate it! Blessings!

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