In the Fall of 2012 I took a course on Christian missions that really helped shape my Biblical understanding of the need and call of Christian missions. Of all the resources and material we digested for the course, there was perhaps no book that had greater impact on me than M. David Sills’ book Reaching and Teaching. As I have been too busy to write anything “original” lately, I wanted to go back to this text and share some motivation and encouragement for cross-cultural ministry.
The passage below is an excerpt from Reaching and Teaching that is specifically speaking on Paul’s missiology and his methods, with the implication that Christians today can learn much from Paul. Christians often think of missions as something overseas in destitute places – and while certainly there is a great and growing need for effort on this front – the local missions frontier cannot be completely abandoned either. Sills point therefore in the below passage is to show that the Christian does not need to go overseas for cross-cultural ministry, as it is currently being brought to our doorstep. Learning about other cultures, learning other languages, and learning how to break down cultural walls can be just as applicable in the West as it can be overseas.
Someone has said that a missionary is “anyone who cannot get used to the sound of pagan footsteps on their way to a Christless eternity.” When using a broad definition like this, we would have to say that of course Paul was a missionary. In fact, using a broad understanding of the term, the great English Baptist preacher of the nineteenth century Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” His point was that all true believers should have hearts that long for the salvation of lost people everywhere. However, we need to define the term more precisely, or everyone and no one is a missionary.
A technical definition begins with the etymology of the word. The word missionary comes from a Latin word meaning “to send”; therefore, a missionary is “a sent one.” However, a fair question – and the one which this book addresses – is, “Sent to do what?” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5 that Christians are ambassadors for Christ, sent with the ministry and message of reconciliation: preaching the gospel, making disciples, and teaching disciples to observe all that Christ has commanded us. Certainly, this should be true in the life of a missionary, a sent one.
A proper definition of the term missionary distinguishes the missionary from an evangelist or preacher by including the idea of crossing boundaries for the sake of the gospel. These boundaries may be linguistic, geopolitical, socioeconomic, or cultural. In our modern age of globalization, one does not have to cross salt water to be a missionary. There are people groups traveling and living all over the world, bringing their languages, worldviews, religions, and cultures with them. Regardless of where you live in today’s world, you will find people nearby who identify with other languages and cultures. God provides intercultural ministry opportunities in virtually every corner of the world.
If a missionary is someone who intentionally crosses boundaries to share the gospel, make and teach disciples, and plant churches among them, then Paul was clearly a missionary. John Polhill writes, “No descriptions fits Paul better than that of missionary. Acts consistently portrays him in this role. The patterns of missionary activity established by Paul are in many aspects still followed today.” The Lord Jesus sent Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 13:47, 22:21, 26:17), and the Bible is clear that Paul faithfully discharged his duty and sought to fulfill this calling. Paul was so evidently a missionary that Barnett writes, “Paul the missionary became the great example for centuries of those who would leave the security and comfort of home for the perils and uncertainty of the itinerant missionary.”
Let us then define an intercultural missionary in this way: one whom God has called and sent as an ambassador of Christ with the message of reconciliation to make disciples, baptize, and teach to obey all that He has commanded, and who intentionally crosses cultural boundaries to do so. The life of David Brainerd illustrates the fact that one does not have to cross salt water to fulfill such a calling. He engaged Native American indigenous peoples, learning their language and culture, and preached gospel in such extreme conditions as to hasten a premature death. Countless other missionaries in the pages of history crossed cultural barriers, learned languages, suffered persecution, planted churches, discipled, and taught indigenous pastors who converted from paganism – all without ever leaving the shores of their home continent.