You might think that the more a brand name is known, the better, but that’s not always the case. We now commonly use brand names like Kleenex, Jacuzzi, and Frisbee to refer broadly to their most popular products. Such generalization is a serious problem for companies whose products dominate the market. If their product name enters mainstream vocabulary as an item rather than a brand, they can legally lose their trademark rights. It’s called genericide.
The words missions and missionary are in danger of genericide. When my parents first went to the field, missionaries were ministers of the gospel in a long-term, full-time, cross-cultural capacity, usually overseas. During my lifetime, Christians have started using the terms missions and missionaries in a less specific way. Some Christians now define missions broadly enough to include virtually any activity of the church, including ministering within local congregations, serving the poor, and fighting injustice.
A coworker told me about a missions class in which the teacher presented a list of Christian activities and asked people to raise their hands if they considered each one to be missions. The early examples involved cross-cultural ministry among unreached peoples, and everyone raised their hands. Further down he listed ministries closer to home, and some dropped out.
The last option was, “I take soup to my Christian next-door neighbor.” A few students still raised their hands. The teacher improvised, “What if I’m having devotions in my room by myself?” One man responded, “It depends. You might be reading the Book of Acts.” No one denies that taking soup to a believing neighbor is kind, but does this fit within the scope of discipling the peoples of the earth? Is being involved in missions really as simple as reading the Book of Acts?
Some churches now talk about being on mission or missional or use the term mission rather than missions. Does the vocabulary matter? It depends. If a word is archaic and no longer communicates the intended meaning, then it’s not worth preserving strictly for the sake of tradition.
The relevant question is whether broadening the term missions leads to increased engagement in the task of taking the gospel to every people group on earth. Does calling every Christian a missionary motivate us to pursue the Great Commission more diligently? Or does it dilute our focus? As language evolves, sometimes it’s worth fighting to preserve an ancient concept.
Taken from Is the Commission Still Great?: 8 Myths about Missions and What They Mean for the Church by Steve Richardson (©2022). Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.
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