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At first glance both Christian missionaries and apologists appear to be dedicated individuals who share the same goal of winning people over to Christianity, by presenting the Christian faith in a way that is convincing and compelling to their target audiences. So to me, the concepts seem to overlap a lot, and I am unable to pinpoint a specific feature that only pertains to missionaries but not to apologists, or vice versa.

When faced with the (possibly challenging) task of addressing unbelievers in order to convince them that Christianity is true, are there any notable differences between missionaries and apologists? Do they tend to emphasize different skillsets? Do they approach the task differently? Are there certain things that missionaries are usually better equipped to do than apologists (and vice versa), when it comes to proselytizing for the Christian faith?

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  • just curious, why do the wikipedia definitions not provide enough clarity? missionary: sent into an area to promote their faith or perform ministries of service where apologetist just defends Christianity against objections. There can be some overlap but I don't see much
    – depperm
    Aug 25 at 17:37
  • @depperm - by adding 'when it comes to proselytizing for the Christian faith' in the title I'm intentionally excluding the or perform ministries of service alternative of the definition of missionary, which is not directly related to the promotion of the faith among unbelievers (the promote their faith part of the definition). In other words, when it comes to addressing unbelievers and convincing them that Christianity is true, are missionaries and apologists for all practical purposes equivalent? Aug 25 at 17:42
  • this may go on english language & usage SE site better IMO. missionaries are sent or go somewhere generally and can be apologists if attacked, but their main task is to promote their faith, apologists can defend Christianity where ever they are, on a mission or not
    – depperm
    Aug 25 at 18:09
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    It seems to me that a missionary would tend to emphasize teaching Christianity to ignorant unbelievers, whereas an apologist would need to defend Christianity against unbelievers who typically know enough about Christianity to attack it. There's considerable overlap, though, (e.g. ignorant unbelievers might nonetheless resist a missionary's work by attacking Christianity from the perspective of their existing, non-Christian religious beliefs). I'm not sure the distinction is all that important, but if there's any difference I'd say a missionary is a specific type of apologist.
    – Null
    Aug 25 at 18:14
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Similarities

  • Both need to know the Bible very well as well as the chosen theological framework (plus the supporting documents & literature) that they want to promote and teach others
  • Both need to be prepared to share the gospel in various settings: 1 minute elevator presentation, 15 minute house visit, 30 minute one-to-one conversation, 1 hour public sermon, 2 hour small group meeting, etc.
  • Both need to know enough about the worldview, religion, language, and culture of the audience to mount a successful defense of Christianity
  • Both need to be an exemplary Christ witness plus personal testimonial stories they can share in order to be more convincing (just like in other areas of life), although less necessary for an apologist who specializes in intellectual defense (such as scientist who can show the compatibility between faith and reason from within his field, such as biology)

Differences

  • Missionaries are usually sent to serve long term (> 10 years) while apologists usually come by invitation to a conference, student club meetings, churches, etc.
  • Missionaries need a supporting organization (like OMF) to help them with the long-term move, learning the foreign language, provide resources so they are acclimated with the receiving society's culture, help channeling the long term funding needed, become the liaison for visa purposes, provide mentorship with more experienced missionaries, etc. In contrast apologists are usually self supporting and they learn what they need from going to seminaries, self-study, etc.
  • Missionaries often need to build an institution FROM SCRATCH: planting a church, seeding goodwill with influential members of the community, training local Christians to support the church, etc. We actually can learn a lot from how St. Paul established his churches and how he built on the existing Jewish financial network and Jewish synagogues. St. Paul was also an excellent apologist, being able to even create a brand new theology for gentiles, but he is more a special case of being gifted and supported by the Holy Spirit to be good at both. More often, apologists would PLUG INTO existing churches or parachurches already built by missionaries who came before them. Therefore, apologists come to help a new church becomes more mature. If apologists need to build an institution from scratch, they tend to build a seminary.
  • As @Null pointed out, missionaries often encounter people who are ignorant about Christianity, so they need to be more versatile in using / creating evangelistic tools that are ATTRACTIVE and SUITABLE for the local culture, for example adapting BASIC good news in terms of local folk songs, dances, arts, poetry, etc. In other words, missionaries are specialists in "milk for spiritual babies". But as the new church grow, they also need to feed them with "solid food", which are also helpful to counter hostile people who are already knowledgeable about Christianity. (see this article for more of the difference of "milk" and "solid"). In contrast, apologists toolset can be more readily deployed in multiple culture with only minor adaptations.
  • Missionaries are GENERALISTS who serve as PASTOR who need to minister to ALL AGES at ALL STAGES of spiritual development. Long term friendship with the congregation are critical, who then can introduce non-believers to come to be evangelized by the missionaries. But apologists can afford to be a SPECIALIST who focuses on a particular age range or a particular subject (science, theology, philosophy, liberal arts, etc.) and who don't need to form a long term relationship to be effective as most persuasion happens in the intellectual sphere.
  • Missionaries are usually the ones who are given HEALING MIRACLES or other SPIRITUAL GIFTS especially if God (the giver) deem that the new Christians need miracles for a FINAL CONFIRMATION push after the gospel presentations. Instead, apologists work are usually either BEFORE the gospel presentation (to clear out false assumptions) or AFTER conversion in case intellectual doubts come, especially after their non-Christian friends challenge them. In both "before" and "after", the apologist's role is mostly intellectual and does not need a healing miracle to be effective.

Answering your questions

Do they tend to emphasize different skillsets?

As you can see from the differences above, YES, missionaries need cultural sensitivity skills, the ability to survive in a foreign country long term, and the experience to start a viable church from the ground up. On the other hand, apologists need to have a specialty so they need to be better educated in the subject matter.

Do they approach the task differently?

Yes. Missionaries are always long-term looking, and thus spend their energy more on what's more important in the long-term. They tend to avoid confrontation and they patiently wait for the right moment to challenge unbelief / wrong belief. They are like parents to children.

On the other hand, apologists are more "transactional" / short assignments, and thus spend their energy more on what's generating a quick result and maximum impact in the short-term. They are like guest speakers or school teachers.

Are there certain things that missionaries are usually better equipped to do than apologists (and vice versa), when it comes to proselytizing for the Christian faith?

Assuming that both missionaries and apologists are responding to their spiritual gifts and Holy Spirit calling, if the missionaries are sent to establish a new Christian presence (their usual role), they will be more equipped for proselytizing by being given the gifts essential in proselytizing: speaking well, miracles, and insights into people to lead them into conversion. They can then enlist the help of apologists to discuss specialized concern in the 3 way conversation, just like a general salesperson ropes in a field engineer into the sales meeting while the salesperson remains focused on the relationship aspect.

Notes

  • From @curiousdannii:

    Not all missionaries are church planters - some are sent to simply live their lives in Gospel poor locations, taking up secular jobs in order to be witnesses to ordinary people. They'll still be trained in how to share the Gospel, but they don't necessarily have to have the spiritual gifts, training, or intention of being church planting pastors.

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  • Note: most description in this answer is based on my acquittance with a British OMF missionary who used his PhD in geology to teach at a university in a SE Asia country while engaging in apologetics and missionary work on campus and in local churches in the city and surrounding villages. He established a para-church organization to nurture college age students so they themselves can do mission/apologetics where ever God take them (business, local church, etc.) He was very prayerful, attentive, intelligent, joyful, and humble in words and actions that he made a lasting impression to many. Aug 25 at 22:38
  • Note that not all missionaries are church planters - some are sent to simply live their lives in Gospel poor locations, taking up secular jobs in order to be witnesses to ordinary people. They'll still be trained in how to share the Gospel, but they don't necessarily have to have the spiritual gifts, training, or intention of being church planting pastors.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 25 at 23:11
  • @GratefulDisciple - Sounds like you met an extraordinarily high-achieving guy, both intellectually and spiritually. Is he popular by any chance? Is there any way to know more about his experiences while doing apologetics and missionary work in Asia? Aug 25 at 23:47
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator He would be the complete antithesis a of charismatic televangelist who prophesy/heal/etc. He keeps a very low profile and nurture long-term friendship and I believe he is a cessationist ! Sorry to disappoint you. My point though, is that the lasting impact on myself and on friends of mine who met him (we're talking decades here), must have something to do with the Holy Spirit working through him, albeit in non-sensational way. If we measure success by fruits, we shouldn't discount Holy Spirit working in such an incognito ordinary way yet lead people to Christ. Aug 25 at 23:53
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My brief answer follows. I'm married to a missionary and am in a social network of other missionaries all of whom have left our home country. I would not describe any of the missionaries I know specifically as apologists. A missionary can work in any area such as church planting, discipleship- which is to bring Christians to greater maturity, training others for specific ministry roles, disaster relief, smuggling Bibles, etc. in addition to apologetics or evangelism.

All of the missionaries I know would fit at least partly in the category the OP excluded, which is to work giving into the lives of believers. Both "...share the same goal of winning people over to Christianity" underestimates the work of helping to mature existing believers.

In other countries, with few to no Christians, apologists and public missionaries may have much more in common. Even here, missionaries may need to work underground, especially in China, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, etc.

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The tendency of some (but not all) self proclaimed "apologists" is to go after unbelievers like attack dogs. Their idea of doing apologetics involves attempting to rip the dignity and credibility of skeptics into shreds. Their reasoning is that others who are listening need to be dissuaded from taking skeptical positions in a serious manner. In this model, the apologetic process is seen as being like a trial attorney going after the bad guys.

Missionaries who use apologetics, as tool for effective witnessing, tend to work with the philosophy of "people don't care what you have to say, until they know you care." I call these people "soft apologists." The best book on the subject is a book by Dallas Willard, "The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus." The book was edited by his daughter, Rebecca Heatley. It is an expansion of the notes for a course Dallas Willard once taught on Biblical Apologetics back in the 1980's at the Simon Greenleaf School of Law & Apologetics. The Alpha Course is another example of apologetics being used in gentle manner. Knowing, liking and trusting are seen as keys to effective communication & persuasion.

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  • So called leaders, who think of themselves as mature Christians go by many titles- pastor, evangelist/ evangelism, apostle, prophet, apologist. The Bible warns us to test or discern the fruit of those who think of themselves as leaders. From what I have seen of apologetics, most are respectful, and not attack dogs.
    – nickalh
    Aug 28 at 9:46
  • Nickah, Sorry I disagree. One apologist in particular is John W. Montgomery. I love his apologetics and have been a follower of his works and lectures for 42 years. He is a world class apologist that very few others can match intellectually. However, he promotes a style of combative apologetics in a manner that is exactly the same as what I described.
    – Jess
    Aug 28 at 15:28
  • Nickah, I said "some" apologists in my critique. One can learn a lot of good things from even the most belligerent Christian apologists. I tend to view myself as both a missionary and as a soft apologist in the style of Dallas Willard & Nicky Gumbel. I don't view being belligerent as effective in communicating the Christian faith.
    – Jess
    Aug 28 at 15:48

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