The topic of “missionary calling” can make Christians fidget in their seats or even break out in a cold sweat. Many of us want to quickly shrug off the idea by saying we were never called—when in fact it is often more accurate to say we took the receiver off the hook.
But before we reject this disturbing thought that God could be calling us to be missionaries, let’s try to better understand what a missionary call means and how it relates to what God is trying to do.
God is in the process of completing a great mission-the redemption of mankind. He has decided that in this task he will not only redeem men, but will also use them to carry out a special part in the process so that he can show his power and grace through their lives. They become “God’s fellow workers” (2 Corinthians 6:1).
Therefore God calls men and women to himself, and gives them his vision and his mission. He places them in his church. He makes them his representatives. He calls them to come to him (1 Corinthians 1:9), to live a life of holiness before him (2 Timothy 1:9), and to engage in service for his kingdom (1 Peter 4:10).
This call is for all Christians, at all times, in every place. It has nothing to do with gifts, needs, circumstances, or counsel. It is simply the call to the kingdom of God.
I clarify this because of the overemphasis today on subjectivity and self. We are busy worrying about my calling, my gifts, and my mission, when we should be asking, What is God’s mission? What is he trying to accomplish in the world?
So you see that many of us are not even asking the right questions, let alone getting the right answers.
We see in the Scriptures that those who were called by God realized their call in light of the One who gave it. Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Paul—all of them understood what God wanted them to do after they understood who he was. Their sense of direction and mission came about as they saw what God was like and what he was doing. Therefore, it was not their mission, their vision, their calling; rather, it was God’s. This doesn’t mean that our personal evaluation of ministry opportunities or of our own abilities is not an important part of recognizing our calling. But we do need to keep the proper perspective.
God calls us not only to come to him, but also to go. This aspect of our calling has to do primarily with our vocation and our relationships with others. It means knowing that God wants us to go and do something. “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19); “Go into all the world and preach the good news” (Mark 16:15); “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Again in the Scriptures we see that when God calls a man (Abraham, Moses, Jonah, and Paul, for example), he also sends him. This doesn’t mean a change in location for all of us, but it does mean at least new directions in how we live. This aspect of “calling” deserves our closest attention.
Because of the special needs of the church, God has called certain people to a special vocation of “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4), commonly referred to as “full-time Christian service.” They are to be leaders set apart “to prepare God’s people for works of service” (Ephesians 4:12). Because this is of such critical importance and demands so much time and energy from the people involved, these men often cannot be encumbered with the normal duties of a regular vocation. Therefore God calls them-sets them apart-for this special service and purpose.
Let’s suppose you decide that such full-time service is to be your vocation. This decision is only the first step in a long journey. Are you going to be a pastor? Some other member of a church staff? A missionary? A campus or community worker for a parachurch organization? An evangelist? You’ll also have to decide for what church, mission board or parachurch organization you will work, and where.
Of course, the person who decides he is not going into full-time Christian service must answer many of the same kinds of questions. Will I serve the Lord as a teacher, a plumber, an insurance agent, or a computer programmer? Who will I work for and where will I live? How will I be involved in the local church?
Such questions face all of us, and require God’s guidance so that we understand our calling.
If we can see that this matter of the missionary call is to be discerned like any other practical decision, it will liberate us to understand God’s will. We make these decisions by faith through prayerful study of the Scriptures, seeking godly counsel, and depending on the Holy Spirit. Discerning the missionary call need not be any more difficult than any other decision involving our search for God’s will.
But let’s examine some of the obstacles can blind us from clearly discerning the missionary call.
The first has to do with thinking, I have never felt called. Receiving a call from God is primarily a matter of hearing, not feeling. The real question is, Have we heard the call from God’s word?
A second obstacle is thinking, I don’t have what it takes. This excuse puts too much focus on ourselves and not enough on God. For God has purposely chosen the weak things of this world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:26–29). It should be enough for us to know that God promises to be with us.
We see in the Scriptures that God calls both highly trained men (Moses, Daniel, Paul) and men of uneducated and lowly background (David, Amos, Peter). In receiving God’s call, the emphasis is not on the man, but on the power and ability of God.
A third hindrance is the belief that we must have some kind of special experience, such as Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6:1–13). We won’t need such unusual experiences if we build our confidence in decision-making by studying God’s word, relying on the Holy Spirit’s influence, and becoming informed about the need for missionaries and what missionary life involves (such as by talking with experienced missionaries).
A fourth obstacle to understanding the missionary call is failing to learn about missions and missionary service because we just are not interested. After all, we think, there are so many other things in the Christian life to be involved with.
But if God thought his plan for the entire world was important enough to send his Son to die for it, then surely we had better find out what it is and how we fit in. If we are not willing to be involved in that for which Christ died, what does this say about the depth of our love for him?
What then does it take to discern God’s call? Here are the requirements God gives:
There must be no sin in our lives which we have not confessed and repented of (Psalm 66:18).
We must be faithful now in that which God has already given us to do (1 Timothy 1:12).
We must be surrendered to the total lordship of Christ in our lives (Galatians 2:20). This means deciding beforehand that we will do whatever he asks us to do (John 7:17). There’s no room for “maybe’s,” or for thinking, Lord, first show me what you want me to do, and then I’ll decide whether I’ll do it. We must be willing to serve him in any capacity.
Let me offer this list of questions as a starting point to help you think about a missionary call:
- Do I have a clear grasp of God’s plan for the world as revealed in the Old and New Testaments?
- Am I open to serving God in either full-time Christian service or in a secular vocation?
- Do I understand from God’s perspective the pressing needs of our world?
- How much do I know about current opportunities for service?
- What are my gifts and abilities, both from my own point of view and from the perspective of others who know me well? What have I been trained well to do?
- What further training and preparation do I need?
- Am I willing to serve in a situation that does not fully utilize all of what I believe are my gifts and abilities?
- What kinds of service interest me most?
- What do I know about various mission organizations? Am I committed to their goals? Do I agree with their philosophies and practices? Would they accept me for service?
So pray, study, research the facts, seek counsel-and wait on the Lord. Then decide by faith, knowing God will bring forth his perfect plan for you because you trust in him.
Important questions to ask yourself for ministry and mission work:
- What are the most important things you would like God to accomplish through your life while you are on earth?
- What gifts, abilities, and personal qualities do you have which you think would be valuable if you were to become a missionary?
- If you became convinced God wanted you to be a foreign missionary, what exactly would you do next, and why?
This article was originally published in issue 10 of the Discipleship Journal. The author, Jack Elwood, was a Navigator missionary associate in Taiwan.