(Before you read too far, it might be good to answer the question for yourself. It’s worth thinking about.)
This was the question I asked at a recent student leadership meeting. There were various answers given, and all had fair (yet different) reasons for their answers. I don’t think the answer is simple, though I do think it’s clear. Here are a few points of our discussion along with some of my own additional points and intermingled thoughts. I’m not going to footnote everything even though five people participated in the conversation and contributed good thoughts. I take full responsibility but not full credit for everything I mention below. I share this because both the question and the answer are important and because all five of us profited (I think) from the discussion.
- It’s not difficult to identify the glamourization of missions that can seep into the minds of young Christians. I’ve been there, to a significant degree. We’ve celebritized the Christian missionary in ways that are unprofitable while often failing to honor them in ways that are biblically appropriate and practically helpful. For instance, missions is often thought of as more spiritual than staying and serving at home. This mindset is less true than we think and more damaging than we think.
- At the same time, deemphasizing missions as a reaction against this naive glamourization is just as faulty. The solution to mis-emphasis is not de-emphasis but proper emphasis. You don’t correct caricatures by completely deflating them but by carefully nuancing the shapes and sizes of the parts involved. Over-correcting is not praiseworthy even though it often seems to be in the moment.
- There is deep and far-reaching spiritual need in America, and many Christians have a passion to be used by God to spur the church to action and to stir the sensibilities of our lost countrymen to see the splendor of God in the gospel of Christ. I can say this because it is a personal passion and because I’ve talked to a number of people who share it. But the need in America doesn’t change the need overseas, as if the two places (here and abroad) were being weighed in the scales to determine which is heavier. In other words, it’s unwise to say that because there’s also great need in America, missions must be less important. I think what we should say is that because there’s great need in America, people who are staying have a great work to do. But it doesn’t change whether or not Christians should be passionate about the advancement of God’s salvific plan among the nations.
- Unreached people groups are desperate for the gospel. And if unreached people groups don’t light your fire, I’m not sure that sitting on a bonfire could get you motivated.
- If we have a precious treasure, we should be excited about its spread. Unless we don’t love people, in which case we’ve probably only found fools’ gold.
- I shouldn’t just be passionate about what I do or what I’m gifted in or what naturally excites me most. What the church needs to see is foreign missionaries who are passionate about their lost countrymen back home and American businessmen who are passionate about the global plan of God. I don’t need a missions pastor who only talks about missions, a preaching pastor who only thinks about preaching, and a secretary who only thinks about administration. The missions pastor needs to care about biblical community, the preaching pastor needs to talk about missions, and the secretary needs to love hospitality. Only when this happens will we comprehend the holistic Christian life. When mothers talk about missionaries and evangelists appreciate the benefit of academics and professors lift high the service of motherhood, false dichotomies are erased and categories are blended. What does this mean for the question at hand? At least this: Missions shouldn’t be thought of as a separate category that only a handful of adventuresome, culturally-flexible, eat-anything Christians should be interested in. Rather, it’s the logical extension of the mission of every local church. And if you care about the church’s mission (which is simply Jesus’ mission), you must care about missions.
- A much better way to talk about missions is to emphasize mission, because the redemptive, gospel-spreading, kingdom-bringing mission of Jesus is the priority of the church on earth. Even if people can (short-sightedly) say, “Missions isn’t my thing,” no one can say, “God’s mission isn’t my thing.” This is because saying “I don’t think I’m called to care about the mission of Christ” is the same as saying “I’m not a Christian.” In other words, everyone should live missionally and should be passionate about what God’s passionate about (reaching and restoring sinners for the sake of His own name) even though this doesn’t mean that everyone has to be a technically-defined missionary.
- Being a missionary is an extension of living missionally. I never want to hop over my own local community on the way to the mission field. I want to go through my local community on the way to the mission field. I want to run hard toward my town with the gospel in hand and wait for God to tell me to run farther. I believe that the extent to which I serve the church and live missionally in my own backyard is one of the main qualifications (or disqualifications) of my potential calling to the foreign field. I simply don’t believe that God wants people on the mission field who aren’t willing to bless the church and spread the gospel in their current location.
- “Everybody’s a missionary” is an unhelpful phrase (I don’t remember anyone saying it during the discussion, but it came to mind so I’ll mention it). I appreciate its intent, and I understand why people say it — they’re trying to erase the false distinction between going overseas and living missionally at home. But saying that “everybody’s a missionary” conflates the ambassadorial, evangelistic, missional role of every believer with the culture-crossing, language-learning, homeland-leaving life of a missionary. The two are not the same. Certainly there’s a sense in which every believer is a missionary from the kingdom of light to the strongholds of darkness, but I think it’s vital to maintain a meaningful term for those who actually leave behind their physical homes and cultural comforts in order to cross a societal boundary with the gospel. This is a special thing (though not necessarily superior), and we should have a particular name for it. Not everyone is a missionary.
So should everyone be passionate about missions? My answer is a resounding but qualified “Yes!” A primary mark of a believer is a burgeoning passion for everything that is precious to the heart of God. And God is most passionate about glorifying Himself through the Christ-centered redemption and Spirit-fueled transformation of a people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 5:9). This is exactly what missions seeks to accomplish. If we are to be people after God’s own heart, we must share this heartbeat.
This doesn’t mean that everyone should be a missionary. It doesn’t mean that overseas ministry is spiritually superior to ministry in your hometown. It doesn’t mean that America is saturated with Christ and needs no more gospel witness (the opposite is actually true). And it certainly doesn’t mean that missions is a glitzy enterprise with guaranteed biographies and public accolades following on the heels of every sacrifice.
But it does mean that everyone should be passionate about the global, border-crossing, boundary-shattering, trans-generational, soul-awakening mission of God in the world. As good as they are, mild appreciation, occasional support, and periodic prayer are not enough in and of themselves. God wants passion. Everyone should be passionate about missions.