I recently ran across this story about Yuan Longping, an 87-year-old Chinese scientist who "is developing a new high-yield strain of rice that can grow in saltwater paddies." The work is intriguing, but even moreso to me is this: insofar as I can tell, he's not a farmer--he's a scientist.
He's not working to be a better farmer: that is, to better use existing knowledge of how to farm rice where it's always been farmed. Instead, he's taking what works in one environment, and adapt it into another.
It is, in my opinion, a common yet significant category mistake to confuse missionaries with evangelists. Whenever we say "I'm a missionary to my neighborhood" (or city, or job) we might be making a mistake of semantics. Or, might be a very dangerous confession.
To get an idea, let’s consider different scales of focus. Someone who sees themselves as…
What about someone who is an “apostle” or a “missionary”? That is, someone sent to the community as a whole, and most especially to those who are not yet in the church?
The role of the missionary is a strategic role. It is a calling to actively make sure everyone in a community has the opportunity to hear the Gospel--not just the people who ask us about the Gospel, or who we “happen to run across” in the course of our normal day, or who darken the doors of the church building. The missionary intentionally makes sure that those especially who are cut off from normal access to Christianity receive time and attention.
Let us not say “I’m a missionary to my city” when we are really saying “I’m called to be a witness” or “an evangelist.” If we truly are called to be a missionary to our community, then we need to start thinking and acting like it. The apostolic role is as different from the evangelist as the Chinese scientist is from the Chinese farmer. The role of the Chinese scientist in the story above was to get rice out of existing rice paddies and into a new context--saltwater paddies. Once that's done, other farmers will come along and perfect the farming of rice in saltwater paddies, making it efficient and spreading it and industrializing it.
Yes, every Christian is called to evangelize and make disciples. Whether I am an apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher, evangelist, I don't get out of that. Yet the "gifts" - apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher, evangelist - each have different roles in the process of evangelizing and discipling a people. A missionary (apostle) may evangelize or even make disciples from time to time. But this is not their primary function. They do these things in the course of their goal/function/objective: to initially bring the Gospel into a place where it is not, to plant it there and encourage it to take root, so that what grows up are the first fruits: prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and more apostles to send to more places.
The local church, once planted, is "the local farmer." It is primarily the local church--not the apostle--who spreads the Gospel throughout the place once it is planted. The work of the apostle is to see the local church started so that this work can be done.
I love the story of Jesus calling the disciples: "Come, and I'll teach you to be fishers of men." He wasn't calling them to catch more fish. He wasn't going to teach them to be better fishermen. He wasn't calling them to be his assistants while he caught fish, or even while he caught men. He was going to teach them to be fishers-of-men.
Similarly, the apostle must occasionally fish-for-men himself or herself, but the primary job of the apostle is to fish for fishers-of-men.
When we say missionaries need to be better evangelists, or better pastors, or better at social justice, or whatever, I think it is to miss what missionaries ought to be.
If you're going to be a missionary to a place, then be a missionary - embrace the strategic aspects. Get yourself a copy of Tradecraft. Think about how everyone in the place will be reached. One missionary couple or team, with a strategic focus, can reach thousands and even tens of thousands - not just their immediate neighbors. Be the missionary God is calling you to be!