By Justin Long, a missions researcher serving with ActBeyond

We hear it occasionally: “God hasn’t called me to be a missionary overseas. I’m a missionary to my city (or job, or neighborhood, or whatever).” Neighborhood missionary

Often, those of us who are involved in missions struggle with how to react to this idea. We might argue, or just cringe inwardly and try to be gracious. Mostly, we just think–“that’s not really being a missionary.”

You can marshal some good objections, and in the past I have. But this week, we’re talking about the implications of globalization, migration, and the diaspora: or, to put it more poetically, “Reaching the nations that have come to live among us.” Considering the many people groups–some of them very unreached–who have “put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (to use a Biblical phrase), the idea of cross-cultural missionary work right in our own cities takes on new meaning

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. For example, consider these questions:

1. Who is sending you? To be a missionary (or “apostle,” “sent one”) implies you are being sent by someone. Who? Yourself? God? Someone else? Has that sending been confirmed? Have you been prayed over? Sent out? Who is supporting you in prayer?

2. Why are you sent? To be sent implies a purpose. Do you have a clear understanding of your purpose in the community? Is it to be a light? To preach? To pray for the community? To make disciples? Something else?

3. To where and to whom are you sent? Do you know how many people are in the area that you are sent? What languages they speak? What cultures they represent? Have they heard the Gospel already? What are the barriers to acceptance? What are the bridges? Have you done some basic research? Some diaspora peoples, for example, acclimate well to the community–and others turn inward, and are “hidden away” in small, little-visited enclaves. Some diasporas are open and seeking and interested, while others are very defensive and guarded. Do you know the situation of the groups in your area?

4. How are you going to reach them? Do you have a plan? Do you have others who will be working with you? Will your plan scale to encompass everyone in the area? This is where significant training and ongoing learning is needed. The stereotypical church in America, largely focused on its existing members and their 1st or 2nd degree relationships, will not get you to the kind of scale needed to reach everyone (including the “hidden peoples”). You will need a different strategy–not a witness strategy, not an evangelistic strategy, not a pastoral strategy, but a missionary strategy.

This is hard work! It requires commitment, time, and resources. It seems to me many times people call themselves missionaries – but they do not undertake a missionary task. They equate “missionary” with “witness,” but missionaries are not about reaching single individuals so much as in seeing whole communities of people discipled. They equate “missionary” with “church planter,” when missionaries are not about planting churches themselves so much as raising up church planters. They equate “missionary” with “new pastor” when the missionary task is primarily focused on those people who are not yet in the church to be pastored.

They may even think “I want to start a movement.”
But really, the task is: “I want to see a movement started.”

With the many unreached moving in among us, let’s be very careful about claiming the title of missionary for ourselves–it is, effectively, a confession of accepting responsibility for the souls you are sent to. There is a strong temptation to pride, I think. The role of apostle or missionary is not a position of rank–it’s a responsibility to serve those among us who are not yet blessed with the Good News.

Finally (and this probably deserves its own essay): being a missionary is not a calling that “ends” just because the people you go to are not initially responsive. Missionaries take up the responsibility for a community and carry it forward, never counting souls as “out of reach” until they truly are beyond their reach.

If you are serious about being a missionary to your city, I recommend starting with the book Tradecraft, conducting basic research, creating and launching a prayer guide and building a prayer network, getting some training in Movement thinking, and gathering a team.

Visit Justin Long’s website to subscribe to his semi-daily newsletter.