Is there still a place for the Traditional Missionary? By Samuel Opolot
In February last year (2017) we were invited to one of the Universities in Uganda to join in the “Ministry and Missions Week” organised by the chapel of that Campus. The “Ministry and Missions Week” is an opportunity not only to reach out to the Campus and surrounding community with the gospel of our Lord Jesus but also a time reflect on the command of our Lord Jesus to be “…Witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria indeed to the ends of the earth…” Acts 1:8. It is a time to wrestle with the implications of that command to the Church of contemporary Uganda. And so there were number of talks in the evenings and some days during the lunch break. My most favorite time that week was the face to face interactions with some of the students who visited our desk to inquire about our work. It was so refreshing to share with students about our ministry and the great need for some of them to sign up to serve as missionaries in some of the more needy places. Of course the responses varied from great enthusiasm to the passing “yah, ok good work you guys are doing.” I will not however forget this one conversation I had with this one final year female student, very active and very helpful to us as we settled and set up for the exhibitions. She was one of those you sure wanted to consider talking to about serving in missions. However on hearing that Global Link Afrika was involved in mobilising and sending missionaries, and on being challenged to consider going to some rural place to serve through the GLA Mission Internship Program, her response was clear and unequivocal, “Can’t I be Missionary as I serve though my profession where I am working?” Indeed she went on to ask, “…aren’t we really missionaries wherever we are? Must I really leave my home, my people and to go to another place somewhere to be a missionary, really? ” and you needed to see the seriousness with which she asked these questions to appreciate the full gravity of her convictions! I must admit her challenge took me a little by surprise, for I never really saw it coming.
Yet I completely understood and even actually appreciated where she was coming from. Because I believe that that line of thought is absolutely noble and truly central to Christian witness in the market place. We ought to be ambassadors of the gospel everywhere and every time. Clearly the cooperate executive, the teacher, the nurse, the doctor name it, who sings and worships passionately in Church on Sunday, should indeed carry along with him/her his values and convictions to his/her office on Monday and bear witness to the transforming Gospel of Jesus in that way. And so yes I agree in that sense we are all “missionaries” wherever we are!
Yet that understanding of missionary raises some very fundamental questions. Of course the obvious one is who then indeed is a missionary? The response to that question is dependent on your view and convictions on what Mission really is. I have no intention at all to deal exhaustively with these questions here – I am more interested in the question raised by the implications of this “rather new” understanding of missionary. This understanding of missionary forces us to ask the question, is there still a place for the traditional missionary? The one who leaves his home, his people and moves to live and serve among a different people – is there still room for that kind of understanding of this term missionary?
For us to fully appreciate these questions, we must wrestle with the implications of Jesus words and commands. Let consider what he says in Acts 1:8 “… you shall be my witness …to the ends of the earth…” His witnesses must consider being so to the ends of the earth. That is not far from saying “…make disciples of all nations…” Mathew 28:19 or even saying “… And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations.” Mark 13:10 These statements of Jesus have serious implications to our understanding of mission work and therefore on our convictions on the missionary in our contemporary Church. It is clear that the Lord’s intention and desire is for the message of the gospel to go to every nation, for clarity purposes here I will add that the real meaning of the term nation here is not the geographical political nation or country as we know the term today but rather it is a reference to a tribal or ethnic group. In other words what this means is that the message of the gospel should be preached to every tribe on the face of the earth! In light of this the big question before us therefore is, can we say that every tribe on earth has heard the gospel? Can we say that there is a vibrant church in every tribe and ethnic group and that therefore in every tribe there are enough Christians who can be “missionaries wherever they are in that tribe”? I wish the answer to this question was yes, we could very easily discard the “old fashioned” understanding of the term missionary! The reality unfortunately is that there are still tribes without witness – who need someone to go and serve among those people. Some people who need to leave their home, their people and go live among another people so as to bring the message of the gospel among those tribes. Recent statistics suggest that we have nearly 650 people groups that are completely un-evangelised and unengaged by a missionary. As of 2015 the estimated number of people that are considered un-evangelised and indeed living among unreached unengaged people groups was 2.1 billion. If we are to take Jesus words seriously, we sure cannot run away from the old fashioned understanding of missionary. The “new understanding” of missionary – even though it challenges us to responsible Christian witness at all times – a good thing in itself, could very easily become a nice and convenient excuse that will deter us from committing to respond to the need for gospel workers in those places that in dire need for the gospel workers. We can settle to be missionary where we are really comfortable in thus not challenged and not feel any sense of responsibility towards those tribes and people groups where there is hardly any witness.
With all this in mind, when any one rightly asks me the question, “is there a place for the traditional missionary?” My un-equivocal response is a resounding yes! Is there a need for the traditional missionary – yes unequivocally I say a resounding yes! There is a need for missionaries that will intentionally and deliberately go across ethnic, linguistic and geographical boundaries to evangelise and gather communities of disciples among the nations and the tribes. There is need for this message to resound again and again on our pulpits, there is need for our churches and Christians to support these missionaries! For this gospel must be preached to every tongue and tribe!