From historical baggage to super-spiritual idealization, the term is more problematic than helpful.
When, at the age of 22, I moved to Southeast Asia to teach English in a university, I had reservations about using the word missionary to describe myself. For one thing, I was aware of the ways that, historically, some missionaries had been complicit in violent, imperialist endeavors. I was afraid of taking on a moniker linked to that heritage. Also, I was headed to a closed country—one that forbid evangelism and didn’t allow missionaries to enter. I wasn’t entering under false pretenses. The government and university administration knew I was a Christian English teacher, so that was what I preferred to call myself: a Christian English teacher.
At the same time, though, I was headed to Southeast Asia at least in part because I was looking for the kind of spiritual adventure that I’d read about in missionary biographies. I wanted an extraordinary life, flush with spiritual vitality, fully committed to God. I wanted to be the greatest Christian, and I believed missions was the key.
I still can’t tell you where I was teaching that year because my students and friends remain in danger there. As I’ve processed what we experienced together more than a decade ago—the miracles, the tragedies, the sense of God’s absence and of God’s presence, too—I’ve grown even more wary of that word: missionary. It may be time to retire it.
Missionary was first used in the English language in 1625 by Edward Chaloner, a clergyman in the Church of England. He was a preacher, a writer, and an academic. In his work, you find nuanced arguments and a careful attention to words. One of the big questions of his day, for example, was whether the Church of England had been …