Advance readers of my memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, have asked a question about word usage: the difference between “missionary” and “missioner.”
There’s a great world of difference, although dictionaries tend to equate the two words as synonyms of each other. In one sense, the words are synonyms: they refer to members of religious communities in the US who go to work overseas. But that’s where the similarity ends.
To modern “missioners,” the word “missionary” is old-fashioned, referring to members of a religious group seeking to proselytize, to convert others, typically in underdeveloped countries, to the “missionary’s” faith. Old-school “missionaries” spoke of “converting the heathens” and of “bringing” the unchurched to God. There are still many religions attempting to do this.
More contemporary views of mission, on the other hand, use the word “missioner” in deliberate contrast to the word, “missionary.” Holders of these views believe the people they work with and for are already with God, as they believe all people are, and don’t need to be “brought” anywhere. Rather than seeing their role as converting the unchurched, they see their role as “accompanying” those in need, typically, the poor, the marginated and the victims of oppression and repression. Rather than seeing themselves on a “higher” spiritual level than those they are working with, they see themselves as equal and as using their skills and talents to help the victims of injustice.
The use of the word, “missionary” connotes imposition–forcing or “persuading” people to change beliefs and religions in the quest for a better life after death. The use of the word, “missioner” connotes servant leadership–working with victimized persons to help them develop skills and abilities to live better lives in this life, on this earth.
So far, the nuanced differences between these similar words haven’t made it to the dictionaries or even Wikipedia. But ask any “missioner,” and you’ll get a lengthy and detailed discussion!
John Wagner’s memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting for Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights In Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House) will be coming out fall, 2015.