What does a missionary look like?

by Jerry Jones on August 21, 2016


photo credit: wikimedia commons


“The white guy with a van.”

That’s how my Kenyan friend answered my question, “what does a missionary look like?”  To this day it may be my favorite definition.

A teenage girl sitting in the same room had a different answer.

“My dad.” She said.  It was a very sweet moment . . .

“My dad with a tie on, standing in the foyer of a church in America showing pictures and handing out chopsticks.”

I knew her dad.  He was THAT guy.  Literally always pleasant.  Absolutely impossible not to like.  He just oozed all ten fruits of the Spirit and got more accomplished every day before breakfast than most people do in a decade.  He was a doctor who could have been  living the high life but gave it all up to move his family across the planet and help the hurting unreached.

I know what you’re thinking.  “Pfft – there are only 9 fruits of the Spirit . . . idiot.”

Yeah, maybe for you – but this guy was a level above in every way.  If ever I have met someone who epitomized and embodied the best possible definitions of the word “missionary”, it was him.

And yet . . . his own daughter only saw him in that light once every two years, when he was OFF the “field”, on home turf, speaking his native language, to other believers.

It’s interesting isn’t it?  How loaded this word is.

I’ve got my definition too but I’m too embarrassed to share it in front of the whole internet and everyone.  It’s not my good theologically polished, globally aware, ethnically inclusive, 21st century definition that I would pull out in a small group conversation just to stir the pot and challenge someone’s dusty old Western stereotype.

Nope – I’ve got my own dusty stereotype . . . planted deep down in there . . . and as much as I like to fancy myself a little more  . . . what are those words?. . . “in touch with reality” . . . I have to confess — when you say the word “missionary” — there is a picture that pops into my head.

I’m not going to tell you exactly what the person in that picture looks like but I will say this . . .  he’s got a van.

My picture is rooted in my formative years.

I loved it when the missionaries came.  It tweaked something inside of me and made me dream of far off places like the ones in National Geographic. They always showed their slides and told stories about rats and snakes and people who didn’t seem to know very much about Jesus or silverware.  Then they shared how we could support them (financially AND through prayer).  The ushers came and we passed the plate (for a second time that service) and gave whatever God laid on our hearts.  There was a formula to the whole thing and it always ended with the same tagline.

“You don’t have to move to another country to be a missionary.  We’re all missionaries.”

So I left confused.

What a great thought – but the only ones who ever said it were the ones who had, in fact, moved to another country — unless it was just missions Sunday – then the preacher said it on behalf of the ones who had moved to another country.

The message was clear like mud – YOU TOO are a missionary wherever you are but we won’t call you one out loud until you go somewhere else — except when the people who have gone somewhere else come back to visit.  Then we’re all missionaries . . . just like them . . . only different.

The parameters were never clearly laid out so I built my understanding based on the compilation of people that other people called missionaries.

And so did you.

So what does your picture look like?

Be honest.  Where are they from?  What do they look like?  What are they wearing?  How old are they? What do they do?  What color is their skin?  (can I ask that on the internet?)

Don’t worry – this is not a shaming post.

(“Shame on you for thinking missionaries look like the ones you have seen before.”)

On the contrary – I’ve grown to love my stereotype.  It gives me a place to start – and when I work up the nerve to throw it out there (as a confession) I discover something shocking.  My assumption is that EVERYONE shares my stereotype (and should also be ashamed of themselves) . . . they really don’t.

They’ve got their own picture.

You . . . have your own picture.

And when we lay them all out on the table next to each other the bigger picture gets clearer.  Paradigms start shifting.  Assumptions get challenged.  Stereotypes get broken.  Minds get blown.

Far more than any uber polished, perfectly worded Bible scholar’s definition of a word which (ironically) makes zero appearances in the Bible, it’s the conversation that changes the missionary picture.

The conversation is where you start to see God doing things that only God does.

  • Things like sending Filipino housekeepers to raise Middle Eastern royal children
  • and Chinese educators to love on North Korean orphans
  • and Panamanian teachers to teach at a Christian international school in Jordan
  • and Dutch teachers to teach at a Christian school in Suriname
  • and Korean pastors to plant churches in Brazil
  • and Brazilian business people to run Christian companies in Vietnam
  • and Ugandan students to start university Bible studies in Thailand
  • and ten-fruit doctors to pass out chopsticks in America

and of course white guys in Kenya . . . with vans.

It’s a pretty cool mosaic of a billion stereotypes and the conversation brings it to life.

It’s also there that we find out the hard stuff — like we disagree — about pretty much everything.  Things like missionary theology and philosophy and strategy and semantics and definitions.

Does a missionary raise support? Plant churches? Make tents? Run a business? Go the the 2/3 world? The Global South? The 10/40 Window? Back to Jerusalem? To the less reached? The least reached? The unreached? Do short termers count? What about teachers?  Or professionals? Or servants?  Or refugees? Or slaves?

And what about people who never leave their hometown?

Are they missionaries?

Careful.  It’s a loaded question.

But the anwers are where we see God doing things that only God does.

So what does a missionary look like to you?

Don’t think just answer.  When you see the word “MISSIONARY” what is the picture that pops into your head and where does it come from?

No judgement here.  Wait — that’s probably not true but go ahead and take a chance.

It’s a rich mosaic when we do.


Jerry lives in China and blogs at The Culture Blend.

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About Jerry Jones

Jerry lives in China with his beautiful blended family. He is a trainer, a speaker, an adventurer, a culture vulture and an avid people watcher. He writes about all of that at www.thecultureblend.com
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Well I had to laugh reading this, Jerry, because the very reason I didn’t want to move overseas in the first place was because of the picture in my mind that a missionary lived in a jungle, lugged water from the creek for drinking and laundry, and cooked over an open fire — one I’d built myself of course, from firewood I myself gathered. (My picture didn’t happen to own a van, no siree, my picture WALKED everywhere and never came home to his wife, not ever ever.)

    Oh how wrong was my picture! And how much of a disservice do we do to future (and current) generations when we don’t all share what life is really like on the field, in all its iterations?

  • RLH

    Someone who needs more money, but never spends a dime unnecessarily. Someone pulled between reality on the field and bosses in the States who might have spent 3 months out of their country of origin. They never truly have fun, but they always say that they “love it there”. They are the willingly poor, since they like missionary life so much. Kids are rebels and the wife dresses weird.

    Happy to be breaking the negative parts of my own stereotype. Although I *truly* need more money.

  • Stephanie Melachrinos

    After high school, I met a guy at a young adult retreat. I kinda had a crush on him but he was an MK raised in Peru and I thought he’d want to move back there – me, wear long skirts, live in some hut in Peru? What would happen to my IKEA life?

    Well now he’s a missionary in Spain and you know who is living in quasi-bamboo huts in the jungle with Karen people and their LONG skirts…

  • LynnAnn

    When I hear the word “missionary,” I picture the Mary Slessors and Hudson Taylors of the world. People who went to the unreached in distant lands, often carrying their meager belongings in their own caskets because they know they’d likely never return. People who served cannibals or lived in danger most of the time. People who had NO conveniences at all and ate bugs, fought off lions and man-eating snakes, and had to learn languages the rest of the world didn’t know existed. People who are holier and more devoted than I’m ever likely to be. Then I compare myself to these people and feel like I don’t deserve the missionary label; after all, most days I have INTERNET and hot water, and it took me 5 years to begin to get a handle on the language, and I get mad in traffic sometimes and my holiness goes right out the window, and I’m only occassionally in any danger, and and and….

    • Yes! I have a very hard time considering myself a missionary, even though I guess everyone else does.

  • Daniel Geaslen

    Great questions! As a missionary, I struggle with these same questions. One thing for sure, we need to break the model of missionaries being super Christians. We’re normal people, sometimes even more flawed than most. Most of us, especially the younger generations, don’t like the spot light, and we don’t like being “super.” We just want to be friends. We just want to be normal. And in the middle of that we really struggle with how to love people they way God loves them.

  • Brazil Nut

    I hate it when people ask me what I do “on the mission field”. I’ve tried replying with “I’m a missionary, I mish” but that doesn’t normally seem to enlighten people at all. I think I’m going to try telling people that God sent me to Brazil to wash dishes and try to get teenagers to remember to flush the toilet after using it, as they seem to be some of the most frequently reoccurring themes of my day!

  • Rachel Hicks

    Thanks, Jerry, for the reminder of all the ways God is doing things across the world that only He can do. Mind blown. 🙂

  • JW

    Great post! Recently, my wife and I left an organization, and it has felt strange getting back into the business world. Yet, I still have to remind myself that we still are missionaries. And then, one of our most recent clients has come along, and it’s blending business work with missionary work (helping to support missionaries through a network), so the transition is even getting better!

  • Abbie Dusciuc

    when I think “Missionary” it’s a cross between my bunica (a short Romanian women who always wears a headscarf and hugs you heard enough to break your neck) or a white guy surrounded by little brown kids because that’s what I knew as a young kid. Now I know the word is way broader than our minds would like to limit it too, God really does use everyone and anyone who’s willing 🙂

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