We’re Not All Called To Be Missionaries

This summer I sat in an international terminal surrounded by a gaggle of teenagers heading home from a mission trip. Each one was wearing a matching ministry t-shirt and a lighthearted smile. They were having a great time sharing photos and comparing stories from their week. But I was slowly overcome with shame as I watched them trash a whole corner of the gate.

Then, to my horror, I listened as some of them raucously dropped f-bombs with apparent impudence.

My stomach churned. I sat there—perhaps sinfully on my part—in stunned silence. And once again I had to ask myself the question I’ve wrestled with now for many years. Why are we sending all these so-called missionaries?

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Now, don’t hear me just picking on one random and immature youth group. I’ve had gray-haired volunteer lifers brag to me about having gone on 30 or more trips. Thirty trips? Then there have been the times I’ve had to explain to a Muslim hotel clerk in a remote and conservative town that the married men and women traveling with me, while not married to each other, were traveling together 7000 miles from home. Then I did one harder and tried to explain to those Americans why they might not want to do so.

But unfortunately, in recent years we have become increasingly unclear on roles within the church. No, I’m not talking about gender. What I mean is this: we’re no longer satisfied with a commonplace calling, to live the ordinary life of a stay-at-home Christian.

Is Everyone Called To Be A Missionary?

With good intentions, no doubt, many are saying that we are all called to be missionaries. The Great Commission, they say, is for all Christians individually. And I agree—to a point. We are all called to be disciples who make disciples. However, there seems to be a growing assumption that each of us must go, as if each of us should be globe-trekking disciple makers. But I believe this to be unrealistic, unhelpful, and ultimately unbiblical.

Now, it’s understandable that we might read the Great Commission in this way because of our unique place in history and our economic status in the West. The advent of air travel has paved the way for a fresh perspective on our assignment. But expecting all to go, for all to be missionaries, is simply not a legitimate call in much of the world today, nor was it so for much of church history.

Here’s the problem. When everyone is a missionary, no one is. To be a missionary, I believe, involves being sent out in cross-geographic, proclamational ministry.

But if all of us are sent, who are the senders? Put another way—and using the analogy of the body from scripture—if each of us are to be the feet that take good news to the nations, who will be the heart and head and hands? As much as we need people to go, we need far more to stay. Because you only get boots on the ground with bums in the pew.

When I think about the modern phenomena of missionary proliferation, it reminds me of the dilemma Paul faced at Corinth where believers were prioritizing spectacular gifts. But Paul emphasized that “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor 12:22). Similarly, what I’m proposing is that those who stay behind, whom we’ve come to view as somehow lesser, are actually indispensable parts of the body.

Happy At Home Christians

Don’t misunderstand me. I believe we need more missionaries. But that means we also need a robust army of happy and contented stay-at-home Christians. We need a revival of honoring the call of hard work at home for sake of the world. We need church members who don’t begrudge a vocation where they live and serve and give in relative insignificance for the sake of the nations. We need churches and young believers who recognize that such a role is not lower in status or value, but is actually strategically critical to the task of the Great Commission.

Behind the miraculous ministry of Jesus were a band of faithful women who contributed to his needs (Luke 8:1-3). Paul himself, history’s greatest missionary, certainly mobilized volunteers. But his ministry team ultimately relied on the majority who stayed behind and whose names we’ll never know.

Not All Teachers, Not All Missionaries

Furthermore, James admonishes us that not many should be teachers. Having seen the good and ugly of short-term volunteer teams, I think it’s safe to take his words a step further. Not many should be missionaries.
But somehow we’ve come to assume that any and every Christian should go simply because they can go. What I’m hearing from many pulpits and missions conferences and youth group leaders is that all should be goers. Not simply that all should be involved in fulfilling the mission. But all, or as many as possible, should be going on mission.

I think that is a model that simply can’t survive. I believe it confuses our efforts and threatens traditional missions. Because as more and more go on short-term mission, fewer and fewer will be able to be long-term missionaries.

Also, I can say from experience that the job of resident missionaries will increasingly become that of travel agents and tour guides. I know a number of colleagues whose primary role is solely that of promoting, recruiting, orienting, and guiding volunteer groups. Then I know another, larger subset of missionaries who cringe at the sight of such a group.

The fact is, we’re not all called to be missionaries just like we’re not all called to be pastors. While every youth-grouper and soccer mom and baby-boomer might be able to go, not all should go. And, as shocking as it may sound, that’s a good thing. Because God intentionally designed humanity, and the church, to express a variety of gifts and roles for his multi-faceted purpose and glory.

So let’s focus on regaining the dignity of being a stay-at-home Christian. Theirs is a work often far more arduous while earning far less acclaim. But their work is of no less value. Instead, it is indispensable. Paul goes on in 2 Corinthians to say that God chose to bestow honor on “lesser” members by demonstrating the integral nature of their function within the body.

So it is with stay-at-home Christians. The church needs you. We who are missionaries need you. The world needs you. Perhaps it’s time for us to rightly honor such a role. Thank you for choosing to stay so that others can go.

Elliot Clark has lived in Central Asia for seven years where he served as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and three children. He is currently working to train local church leaders overseas.