Is Everyone a Missionary?

by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill

Jesus came and said to [his disciples], “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

At the Annual Parish Meeting on Sunday, January 28, 2024, I commented briefly on how we should understand the key word “Go,” SJD’s designation for outreach and mission, in relation to our vision to be a “Light to the City.” As I suggested, the way we should hear the word “Go” finds its meaning in the words of our Lord. In what is commonly referred to as the Great Commission, Jesus exhorts his followers to “go and make disciples of all people.” It is unambiguous that Jesus’s call upon the church is to be missional in her very nature.

However, it may be the case that some of us hear the word “Go” in a narrower sense: referring variously to outreach funding, volunteer projects or outings with our mission partners, ministry initiatives that connect to non-members, or short-term mission trips beyond the city or the country. Yes! All these ministries fall under the umbrella of the term “Go” and faithfully embody obedience to Christ’s Great Commission. Indeed, I want us to develop an even more robust volunteer engagement program with others outside the church. I also want us to be a community of entrepreneurial ministry innovation, a community of dedicated and resourceful believers birthing more of all the above.

However, if we are to sharpen clarity about what we mean by a vision of a church on the “Go,” it will be necessary to understand the difference between a busily active congregation (which we most certainly are!) and a congregation where every member understands herself or himself as being on mission wherever they are beyond the campus or programs of the church. Thus, it is necessary to deepen our understanding of what mission is.

I enjoy reading books on the church’s mission, especially scholarly works on the early church and writings of contemporary missiologists. In this time of epochal change in the West particularly, there are many thoughtful Christians studying what we can learn from the New Testament congregations and how we might discern fresh ways to engage late-modern culture. There is nothing new in the call for congregations of the day to be more “missional.” But what does this really mean?

The fact is, the words “mission,” “missional,” and “missionary” are broadly used in many contemporary churches but poorly defined. At worst, they may sound like slogans. Do we bless every ministry of the church as mission? To quote a provocative line from missionary theologian Stephen Neill in 1959, “When everything is mission, nothing is mission.” Neill’s point was to call Christians to a deeper understanding of why Jesus called them into the world in the first place.

Over the last centuries, the church has tended to think of missions in one of two ways. First, some traditions have tended to view missions as the calling of a few to “Go” and cross geographic, ethnic, or cultural boundaries to share the gospel with non-believers. Mission in this view has to do with specially called people who are “foreign” missionaries and the structures that support them. The second view, perhaps much more common in the Episcopal Church, understands mission to encompass any good and noble humanitarian outreach to less fortunate people, both near and far. It is less concerned with evangelism and more concerned with material relief, economic opportunity, and social justice.

Of course, there is New Testament basis for both perspectives. In classic Anglican fashion, I vote “yes” to each view, adopting a “both-and” understanding of church mission. As John Stott helpfully put it once, mission “is everything the church is sent into the world to do.”

Yet, how is wrestling with the word “mission” helpful to us in our understanding of a vision for “Go?” That is a major theme of these blog reflections. I want us continually praying about and pondering over ways God is calling us to deeper Christian engagements collectively and individually with those outside the church. Is everyone a missionary in the church? Yes. But that will look different for each unique believer. In baptism we are infused with the Holy Spirit, empowered to know God as Jesus Christ, and that empowerment is never a gift to be kept secret. There is inevitably a kind of irrepressible joy that spills forth from mature Christians filled with the Spirit that compels us to love, mercy, as well as testimony in our outward living.

So, for now, the question I leave you with is this: in what ways large or small would you describe yourself as a missionary for Christ? And if this question challenges you, might that be a prompting of the Holy Spirit and a good thing indeed? After all, it is Jesus’ intention for us, and he promises to be with us wherever we “Go.”

Weekly Wisdom

Simply put, a church will not be healthy (or biblically faithful) if it is disregarding or disobeying the Great Commission. And the converse is true. We can trust that when we are obeying and giving ourselves to the Great Commission (working to make disciples of all the nations), we will be a heathy church. We need not worry that obeying the Great Commission will make us an unhealthy church.
— David Platt in interview “We Are Not All Missionaries, But We Are All on Mission!”

One Good Recommendation

The quotation above is from contemporary church pastor and author, David Platt. Click this link to watch a three-minute clip of a talk on the question of this issue: “Every Christian a Missionary.”

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