I recently ran across this fascinating 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.” Aside from the potential impact of his work, what’s fascinating for my purposes 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–e.g. to better use existing knowledge of how to farm rice where it’s always been farmed. Instead, he’s taking what works now in one environment, and working to adapt it into another.

It is, in my opinion, a common yet significant category mistake to confuse missionaries with evangelists. We do it a lot. Whenever we say “I’m a missionary to my neighborhood,” what we usually mean is “I’m an evangelist” or “I’m a witness.” I wrote about this back in 2014:

The phrase, “I’m called to be a missionary to my city (or job, or neighborhood)” might be 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…

  • A witness… will tend to be concerned about the representation of Christianity that they give to their co-workers, neighbors, and what not. Many “witnesses” I’ve met are chiefly concerned with learning enough to give a “ready response” when they are asked about their faith.
  • An evangelist… will tend to concern themselves with the person immediately in front of them, to whom they are presenting Good News. I’ve met people who say “I’ve got a gift of evangelism;” they talk about intentionally going door to door, or actively sharing their faith with people they run across (from the checkout girl at the grocery store to people they meet on the job).
  • A pastor… tends to be concerned with the “flock” they are discipling. Pastoral approaches differ, of course, but they lean toward the side of the congregation, and away from the rest of the community. Many pastors will be focused on their church members and the members’ immediate oikos (friends and family).
  • A parish priest… (to use a different, less Protestant term) might be leaning toward the whole of the community, not just his congregation–but still, they will primarily be tending to people who have an affinity with the church.

Now, 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: the calling to actively see to it that 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.” But 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.

Now, in what I am about to say, I am not speaking “a word as from the Lord” nor even necessarily a clear Biblical saying (e.g. chapter and verse). Nevertheless, I do believe it is true, and Biblical.

Let me start by clearly saying: every Christian is called to evangelize and make disciples. Whether you are an apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher, evangelist, you don’t get out of that.

With that understood: I believe the “gifts” – apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher, evangelist – each have different roles in the process of evangelizing and discipling a people.

I tried gardening one year and failed miserably (not a single fruit off any of the plants). My daughter, however, picked up the gardening bug. This year she has planted her own little garden in our backyard. She has plants in garden beds and in pots, and she’s loving it. She spent her own money on supplies, hoed out the ground, put in good dirt and planted the seeds, and has watered and weeded and dragged me out to the backyard, thrilled, as little shoots of green came out of the ground. My role has been to encourage, to help identify which bits of green coming up are plants and which are weeds, and to occasionally water the plants when she’s out to work. We both have our roles (hers is major, mine is minor right now).

I think this a useful if limited analogy: each gifting has a different “spot” or “stage” or “role” in the process of seeing the Gospel root and spread among a particular place and people. I am reminded of Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 3: “I planted, and Apollos watered.”

Yes, a missionary (apostle) may evangelize or even make disciples from time to time. (I helped her plant a few seeds, but mostly I help with the weeding and watering.) But this is not their primary function. They do these things in the course of their goal/function/objective: the apostolic gifting is a God-given passion to bring the Gospel into a place where it is not, to plant it there and let it take root, so that what grows up (IMHO) are the fruits of the apostolic work of planting the Gospel: prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and more apostles to send to more places. The apostle’s job is mostly at the beginning stage: planting the garden.

(My biggest part in my daughter’s garden was in fact my own failed garden. My failure was part of the inspiration for her success.)

Pastors, teachers, evangelists – these come at later stages, once the garden is started. (And their work will likely be more fruitful.)

Or, to use the Chinese scientist analogy: the apostle helps get the rice from existing rice paddies into 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.

The local church, once planted, is like “these other farmers.” 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.

  • When we say we are going on a short-term mission trip to share the gospel and win the lost, are we confusing the work of a missionary with that of an evangelist? (Really, should be a short-term evangelism trip?)
  • When we say we are going to be missionaries to our neighborhood – are we speaking of the missionary strategy of planting the Gospel in our community, or do we mean “I’m going to go over and share this tract with my neighbor”?

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!