Category: Mission Musings

Many people expect a “missionary” to be a missionary on the field, but an understanding of contemporary missions may change this paradigm. A friend of mine raised the question: “How much do you need to raise before you can go on the field?” This is an excellent question and raises the issue of the paradigm shift about missions I am referring to.

Gail and I are not currently “field missionaries.” We are “itinerant missionaries.” A field missionary is the more traditional type of missionary we are familiar with where a person moves to the field of their mission and serves there full-time. An itinerant missionary is a missionary who moves from field to field, serving either multiple fields as they are led or serving in a circuit which repeats itself on a regular schedule. There are many thousands of such missionaries now serving in various forms of short mission trips, to more lengthy terms of service in a traveling mission of some kind.

Paul, for instance, was an itinerant missionary who moved from field to field, planting churches, ministering and teaching. For a time, Timothy traveled with him, but eventually he settled as a pastor (a field missionary) in one of  the churches they had established.

Gail and I are open to becoming field missionaries, but in the early stages while we are developing our mission, we will be itinerant – we will travel to several different fields (Nicaragua in particular), and see what the Lord develops in terms of our call. In between trips, we will return to our home base in Fort Worth to develop our mission and our support. We fully expect God to develop our call and show us His vision of missions that fits our purpose.

See also post – “Why Itinerant Missions Is Critical,” which addresses why contemporary missions makes itinerant missions all the more important.

Itinerant missions differ from Field missions in that an itinerant missionary moves from field to field, perhaps randomly as the Lord leads, or in a regular scheduled circuit. Today’s mission climate makes room for both types of missionary to be very active. The field missionary lives on the field and establishes a permanent contact with the mission field in question. The itinerant missionary comes to the field to complete a project of some kind, may stay anywhere from a few days to a year, and then goes home to their home base to prepare for other projects, or moves directly on to another project.

Contemporary missions is leaning more and more toward placing the responsibility for evangelism, church planting and  discipleship upon the indigenous population. In other words, modern missionaries recognize that the most effective evangelism and discipleship come from fellow citizens rather than from foreign missionaries, whether field or itinerant.

Under this contemporary philosophy of missions, the work of the missionary is to equip the indigenous leadership and church to do the ongoing work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11ff).  More and more, even field missionaries, who live on the field among the people group in question, realize that their emphasis must be on equipping local believers to plant a permanent work.

So both types of missionary tend to focus on this objective, and both are effective in different ways. Of course, there are advantages to being on the field permanently, but the disadvantages are in possibly creating a dependency on the foreign missionary presence and resources that doesn’t outlive the actual missionary presence – i.e, when the field missionary finally has to leave the field, no permanent work may remain behind them if they haven’t focused on equipping locals to carry out the mission.

Itinerant missionaries don’t have the obvious advantage of constant contact with the people group, but do have the advantage of being able to resource and complete a specific project with locals, turn it over to locals who will carry it forward, and return to their home base to prepare another project. Itinerant missionaries by nature are more dependent on the locals than the locals are dependent on them. If they don’t have good local contacts, their project has little chance of being effective. And by nature, when the project is finished, the locals have to follow it up with their own energy and involvement to continue it or reap its benefits.

A great example of this is the work we do with Jody Kennedy International in Nicaragua, where we develop relationships with locals through English language instruction. The followup of this work is entirely the responsibility of the local church, and the Kennedys only agree to work with local churches who are willing to do that integral followup work. Without this followup, the relational contacts made by the short term missionaries would be pointless. But we regularly receive reports from these churches of successful followup and discipleship of those that respond to the relational ministry, so the loop is successfully closed by the locals.

Clearly the itinerant model works well in helping to equip the leadership and the churches on a mission field reach their own people. It is clear that both types of missionary are needed in today’s missionary experience.