Revisiting the Term "Missionary"

Written by Nadine Templer, January 16, 2021

Many of us (myself included) have been known as “missionaries.” I currently live in Nepal, and I spent most of my adult life in India teaching the Gospel. According to the Oxford dictionary, a missionary is “a person who is sent to a foreign country to teach people about religion, especially Christianity.” There is nothing wrong with that, especially if the people where we go do not know Jesus. Many have gone and risked their lives and indeed taught people about Jesus, the cross, and the Gospel.

While Matthew 28:19-20 is an important command, we should still be cautious about how we talk about “missions.” Once the seed has been planted, the goal should be to raise up local Christians who can take up the mantle of leadership. As well-intentioned as we westerners are, we will never be as connected as the locals are to their own people. The most effective missionaries adapt to the local culture, adopt their mores, learn the language, and blend in as best they can. Sadly, these tend to be the minority, and even with the most committed missionaries, no one can replace a local.

As westerners, we have to be wary of the pride and sense of superiority that comes with the term “missionary.” Sharing our stories back home may bring us kudos, but in some cases missionaries have done more harm than good, replicating a misguided colonial leadership style that is reminiscent of white supremacy or “the white man’s burden.” Those of us from former colonial powers tend to sin the most in this way (and I include myself in that number). Due to our financial advantage, we exert an undue amount of power, and the locals we are trying to reach hesitate to speak up out of fear of losing the financial support of the wealthier missionaries. This dynamic can be very toxic and can stunt church growth long-term.

What does this have to do with unity and Common Grounds? As we reach out to communities around the world, our goal should be one of mutual respect, mutual learning, and mutual edification. The apostle Peter reminds us to "revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Pet 3:15 NIV).

We have so much to learn from the people we view as being in need of our knowledge! When leaders from generous western churches visit congregations they are supporting, the teaching and learning should be a two-way street. We in the west have much to learn from less affluent ministers who have successfully reached their own local community. We should not assume that our giving automatically makes us the teacher. We are simply partners.

Let us be bridge-builders, connectors, and influencers, but let us also be eager to learn and listen in return. Let us show respect to our brothers and sisters around the world, not just in word but also in the way we act towards them.

A note from Doug: For more on this topic, I suggest this great book.

Nadine Templer is the Senior Director-Volunteer Corps for HOPE worldwide. Mark and Nadine recently moved from Washington, DC to Kathmandu, Nepal. As a couple, they have spent most of their adult life on the mission field serving the Lord’s church. Nadine was born in France and baptized in London. She is passionate about serving the youth, the marginalized, and those who are less privileged.