Louis has been a regular and respected commenter at this site.
November is the month that our church celebrates “Missions Month.” It is a great time of emphasis on international, domestic and local missions work. We highlight the work of the International Missions Board, other mission agencies, and local work. We hear testimonies from missionaries and people who work with other Christian organizations. At the end of the month we take up an offering, which we use for funding missions activities during the year.
I believe strongly that the Church is to fulfill the commission that Jesus spoke to his disciples – that we are to “preach the Gospel” and “make disciples.” My in-laws were career missionaries with the SBC for almost 30 years. They would have stayed longer but for an illness that caused their retirement and eventually took my mother-in-law.
Our church is involved in missions. My pastor has spoken at several regional meetings of the IMB over the years. Our church has sent career and short-term missionaries to the field. I have a great appreciation for the church’s calling and the history and work of our denomination.
I have been reflecting on missions during this season. One of the things that I have been thinking about is the nomenclature of the Christian community when it comes to fulfilling the Great Commission.
We use the terms “Missions” and “Missionaries.” “MK” is not a strange term in our circles. But these terms are mysterious and foreign to those outside of church culture. In the States among non-Christian people, and many Christian people, the term “Missionary” and related terms usually needs some explanation.
In many foreign cultures, the term “Missionary” or “Missions” is offensive. It connotes not only spreading Christianity, but also Western culture.
Many of you know that I am a lawyer. As a lawyer, I work hard to be understood, and my work often involves trying to persuade others. I choose words carefully. I labor over my writing. I often work and re-work passages in a letter or a legal brief many times. I search for the word that most effectively conveys what I want to say. And I try to choose words that I believe will communicate most effectively to my hearers or readers. I do this for the benefit of my clients. I do not have any vested interest that particular words be used, so long as the words that are used are accurate and advance my clients’ interests.
I love the Latin language. I took three years of Latin in High School. I took two years of Koine Greek in college. I considered majoring in Classics in College.
Despite my love for Latin, however, my use of Latin must give way to my interest in being clear and persuasive. Consequently, the use of Latin in my legal practice is almost gone. Aside from the few necessary references such as “Habeas Corpus” and the like, Latin is not the preferred medium of communication for lawyers nowadays. It’s fun to use it. But Latin does not communicate. Latin has lost favor as a new generation of legal writers, and judges, have opted for more modern approaches.
During this season of Missions Month at my church, I have been wondering why we use the terms “Missions” or “Missionary.”
The words “Missionary” or “Missions” are not in the Bible. These words derive from a Latin word meaning “to send”, and were first used in 1598 by Jesuits who sent missionaries to other parts of the world. Protestants began using the words soon thereafter. So the words “Missions” and “Missionary” have been around for 400 years. But they did not originate from Jesus or the writers of the Bible. And they were not used for the first 1600 years of the Church’s existence.
I have begun to wonder whether the Church should return to biblical descriptions for what we are doing when we send people overseas or at home to share the Gospel and disciple other people.
The Bible uses the terms “evangelize” (or some derivation of that), “make disciples” or “preach.” These words come directly from the lips of Jesus or the pens of the writers of scripture.
Is there anything that is deficient about these biblical terms? Not that I can see. They are more descriptive. They are accurate. And they need very little explanation. Also, they do not have cultural connotations that the terms “Missions” and “Missionary” have.
It would be my hope that one day soon the SBC would lead the way in recovering the use of biblical terms to describe what we are doing when we send people to preach the Gospel and make disciples. I would prefer that the International Missions Board become the Board of International Discipleship or some other related term. I would prefer that the people we are sending be referred to as people who work in international evangelism and discipleship rather than missionaries.
I realize that the reactions to this proposal will vary, almost predictably. Some will be quick to defend “our heritage.” Some will say we have always done this, so let’s keep going. Others, not wanting to weigh in, will say that this is not a pressing issue, and it’s a waste of time.
I am not really interested in defending or promoting a Southern Baptist culture, but I realize there are many people who are very passionate defending that. Personally, I believe it is a sign of decline and stagnation when a group dedicated to a particular cause becomes as vested in the way or methods used to promote the cause as they do the cause itself. The cause is the thing, not the method of communication. The Gospel is the thing, not our particular cultural trappings or nomenclature. The moment that our nomenclature becomes the thing we must preserve, we have already taken a step backwards in effectiveness.
Despite these predictable objections, I am hopeful that this post may cause people to think about something they may have never considered – returning to biblical terms to describe our fulfillment of Christ’s calling.
I am interested in what my fellow Southern Baptists think. Is it time that we commit to using biblical terms to describe our fulfillment of the commission to make disciples?