Vocabulary Exchange

It’s time to change the lingo of missions. (Including the word “missions.”) Really. Hardly any of the words that we use to talk about cross-cultural ministry accurately describe the work of our people on the field. Many of our words actually work against us. Take, for example, the idea of “reaching” people. What does that mean? I know what we mean when we say it (at least I think I do…), but I’ve heard it used to describe many of very different activities. The term is too ambiguous to allow for any sort of meaningful communication.

When we say “missions,” we make it sound like we’re part of some military operation. Yeah, I’m aware of the war analogies and imagery in the Bible, but using militaristic words like “target,” or “strategy” only go to reinforce the erroneous mentality that people are our enemies, and that we’re here to either “hit them and run” or stay as an occupying force. Neither is good missiology.

Instead of the role of “Strategy Coordinator” what about “Contextualizer?” Or “Cultural Translator?” These sorts of terms better describe the real work of a missionary, and they leave out the militaristic/political word, “strategy.”

“Church Planter” would be okay if we were talking about God.

“Evangelism.” For the vast majority of believers today, it seems that the word “evangelism” has come to mean “preaching a summary of the Message.” I think it’s sad that we’re not creative enough to come up with a word in our own language to describe the process by which the Good News culturally translated, shared and received. On our team, we use the term “Sharing Life” to refer to this process. We work to get involved in people’s lives, knowing that as they get to know us, they will also get to know our Savior. We live in such a way as to support everything we say about Jesus so that (hopefully) it all makes some sense to them.

“Volunteers.” Technically, this one is appropriate, since we use it to refer to people who come to work with (for) us at their own expense. I’d prefer the word “partner.” A volunteer is someone who is doing you a favor. A partner is serving out of obedience, and therefore has equal stake in the work of the ministry. The term also helps narrow the difference between the professionals and the laity.

The biggest reason to change our missions vocabulary is that it isn’t biblical. Why don’t we call our “M’s” “Disciplers?” or “Disciple-makers?” Maybe something like “Proclaimers” to describe the ongoing announcement of the kingdom. I like “Workers;” not as a substitution for “missionary,” but as a good way to describe God’s people doing what they were created for, and doing those things that cause the people around them to glorify the Lord.

A new vocabulary would help shape our general attitude toward the Commission.
I think it would also help us do a better job of communicating what we’re doing on the field, and what God is doing among the people of the world.

What “missions” words would you change? What replacements would you suggest?

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.