The job of a missionary includes leaving

(1) One of the differences individuals have about the missionary role is just what the job is.

For example:

  • Many have the idea of an individual who goes to a foreign place and preaches the Gospel. They usually think of this in the context of a ‘trip.’ (The Biblical example of this is “Paul’s missionary journeys,” helpfully mapped out in the back of some Bibles.)

  • Some have the idea of an individual who goes to a foreign place, shares the Gospel, plants a church, and cares for the spiritual health of new believers.

These two different ideas lead to different reactions to the common DMM acronym MAWL – “Model, Assist, Watch, Leave.”: the short-term preacher thinks the most important thing is sharing the Gospel and bringing people into eternity through conversion; the long-term caregiver reacts poorly to the term “Leave.”

(2) I suggest that a missionary is a “sent one” – an apostle – who is charged with bringing the Gospel across a cultural barrier into a new place, there to set it on its initial disciple-making path. 

  • By “new,” I generally mean going to a place where the Gospel has not yet been planted.

  • By “bringing the Gospel across,” I mean enculturating it, which implies many kinds of translation work.

  • By “making disciples,” I mean something that requires we make not just initial disciples but initial disciple-makers – disciples, who can make disciples, who make disciples.

(3) An example I see is Paul in Ephesus:

Then Paul went into the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But when some of them stubbornly refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way, Paul took his disciples and left the synagogue to conduct daily discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that everyone who lived in the province of Asia, Jews and Greeks alike, heard the word of the Lord. (Acts 19:10)

Paul had daily discussions in a lecture hall–and the result was “everyone in the province… heard.” The unstated but logical assumption to me: it’s the results of efforts that he helped start, facilitate, encourage, coach, etc., “everyone heard the word of the Lord.” It may be humility on his part, but he doesn’t say he preached the word to every individual himself.

(4) In order for this to happen – to go from zero to everyone hearing without you personally preaching to everyone – the set of tasks undertaken are different from those of an evangelist, teacher, and pastor. I think the apostolic task is more ‘get the garden started’ whereas the evangelistic/pastoral tasks are more ‘continue and expand the garden.’ The apostolic task is more akin to a startup founder than the CEO you bring to manage a rapidly growing business. If true, then the apostle should not spend time doing the jobs of evangelists, teachers, and pastors. Those people should be raised up, and the apostle should move on to a new place.

(5) As Paul did, this ‘set of Gospel-planting tasks’ can be repeated in different places. Let’s say an apostle gets called at 25 and lives to 75. That’s 50 years of ministry. If each apostolic “term of service” is two years, that means he or she can have 25 “starts.” We know not all of those will succeed, but let’s play with numbers and say each “start” happily yields a movement of 100,000 people over ten years or so. That equates to 2.5 million people reached. (Further, it could easily continue to grow—one movement I’m aware of has grown to over 10 million in 20 years.)

(6) I don’t believe the apostle is called to sit with 100,000 people over ten years. Paul’s drive was to go to lots of places, stay long enough to get something started, and move on. Short-term trips don’t stay long enough to start something; long-term pastoral care stays too long when there are more places to plant the Gospel. That doesn’t mean you sever all relationships with the people you’ve cared for—Paul revisited places, and wrote letters. Indeed, we have seen in numerous movements how the discoveries of your early starts make can feed into the later starts – brothers and cousins in Christ can help each other.

(7) So the question for reflection – if you only have two years – how do you structure those years, and what do you differently?

And also, how can you prepare for multiple two year terms in a particular region such that each year could be very effective? (Paul wasn’t exactly cross-cultural: he knew the language being spoken. I think one way to maximize your effectiveness is to spend time early on learning a language that applies in a region, and that will help you pick up some local dialects.)