Did you ever wonder how someone could work as an editor and writer [and now strategist] in the USA and be a missionary?
One man did. As we corresponded about a problem he was having in using the New Tribes Mission website, he asked, “How do you reconcile the idea of mission work [with your ministry] in the US? (… I’m just curious about how you look at it.)”
That’s a very good question.
The concept that someone has to go to another country or even into a cross-cultural setting to be considered a missionary doesn’t hold up to Scripture. No one would say Paul wasn’t a missionary – even though he was a Roman citizen who never left the Roman Empire. The one time he preached in a cross-cultural setting, in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), he didn’t do very well.
Nor does it make sense practically. There are virtually unreached subcultures and ethnic groups here in the USA. Is someone who works to plant a church among them not a missionary? And there are places overseas that people go to as missionaries where there are already believers and churches that are actively spreading the Gospel and planting churches themselves.
So what made Paul a missionary? He was involved in taking the Gospel to people who had not yet had opportunity to hear it. He would not “build on another man’s foundation” (Romans 15:20-21). And he didn’t stop there. Read through Acts and you’ll see that he or someone on his team stayed for a while, taking the time necessary to plant churches — “disciple factories,” if you will — in order to carry out the Great Commission: “Make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19)
But consider this as well: Paul numbered a great many people among his missionary co-workers.
Luke is one of the few about whom we have a great deal of information. There is only one occasion in which Scripture indicates that Luke was directly involved in preaching the Gospel (Acts 16:11-15). And there’s only one place where Luke is portrayed as doing medical work (Acts 27 and 28). His most memorable and important work was writing down an account of Jesus (the book of Luke) and of the spread of the church (Acts). Yet Paul considered Luke a co-worker (Philemon 23-24; Colossians 4:7-14), a term he reserved almost exclusively for missionaries.
In addition, Paul wrote about his right as a missionary to demand support from the Corinthian church (which is another topic entirely!) at a time when he was no longer actively planting churches (1 Corinthians 9). He was directing the work of other church-planters — which is primarily an administrative and leadership role that many would today consider “support” work and perhaps not really “missionary” work.
It’s clear that Scripture tells us that whether you’re a missionary is not about where you go or what you do, but whether the full-time focus of your ministry is on planting churches among people who have never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel.
So my co-workers in Communications who are web programmers, writers, editors, designers, leaders, managers, etc., are all working together to give people opportunities to get involved in the work God is doing among tribal people, and thereby supporting the work of planting tribal churches, so we’re all missionaries. At least, that’s what God’s Word says, and that’s supposed to be our standard.