Am I Called to Missions?

How God Confirms Desires to Go

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Professor, Bethlehem College & Seminary

“When did you feel called to missions?”

This question often gets posed to current and former missionaries. For me, a particular ministry opportunity quickly turned into a call. I was studying and training for ministry and had an interest in cross-cultural work, but it only hit home when a professor said, “I have a friend in Ukraine who could use someone to teach the things we are learning in this class. Are any of you interested?” That need fit me, and my heart quickly grew toward God’s work there.

Are You Called?

A lot of people, however, feel confused about the term “called.” One person may believe his call places him outside the reach of evaluation — as if my sense of divine call obligates other people to treat me in a special way. A call to missions can sometimes seem to validate someone’s Christian faith, as if I am incomplete as a Christian unless God gives me the significance of cross-cultural ministry. Or we may say we are called when what we mean is that we feel drawn toward the spiritual and physical needs of people in a certain place. These interpretations tend to make the call an internal experience more interested in how I feel than with God’s purposes in the world.

The missionary call can also be expanded so widely that it stirs up improper guilt. The passionate singer-songwriter Keith Green gave this missions exhortation in 1982:

[Jesus] commands you to go. . . . “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15 KJV). That’s right. . . . YOU ARE CALLED! In fact, if you don’t go, you need a specific calling from God to stay home.

And by “go,” Green did not mean just to a next-door neighbor. This was a call to cross-cultural evangelism in light of the overwhelming number of people who have never heard the gospel. Green wanted his listeners to feel guilty for not crossing cultures as missionaries. Such an exhortation cuts through the process of discernment about whether someone is called to missions and simply concludes that we are all called.

All Are Sent, Some Are Called

Green’s words remind us that the whole church is sent. Jesus sends the apostles in John 20:21 and tells them they will be his “witnesses” all over the world (Acts 1:8). The Great Commission addresses all of Jesus’s disciples with its charge to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18–20). Peter makes clear that this sense of mission applies to everyone in the church when he calls his readers “a holy nation.” You were chosen, he says, “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

But the whole church fulfills that mission by setting apart particular people to bring the saving gospel to new groups in different cultures. Instead of saying, “You are all called to cross-cultural missions,” we can announce to the church, “You are sent!” without specifying exactly where and how each person participates in that mission.

To help clarify how the church uses these terms, I propose that we reserve a missionary “calling” to people who have both an internal desire to be involved in this ministry and also the affirmation of the church, the institution that Jesus Christ has authorized and sent. A “call” to missions announces that a particular person will join the church’s mission in this particular task — crossing cultures in order to proclaim the gospel and establish the church.

Missionary Calling in the New Testament

God certainly directs his people into specific ministry assignments, but the New Testament does not emphasize the internal sense of calling to the degree that we often do. The apostles received distinctive divine calls — whether through the incarnate Lord saying, “Follow me” (Matthew 4:18–22), or, as with Paul, through an appearance of the risen Christ speaking directly to him (Acts 9:1–19). But these were extraordinary callings for extraordinary tasks. When we look at how the other missionaries were chosen in the book of Acts, we find a variety of means.

“Saying that we aspire to a missionary calling saves us from the twin dangers of overconfidence and indecision.”

In the examples of Silas, Timothy, and John Mark, they each seem to have joined a missionary team through a combination of desire, need, and opportunity. Paul needed a partner and so looked to Silas (Acts 15:40). Barnabas needed a partner and recruited John Mark back onto the team (Acts 15:37–39). Timothy “was well spoken of,” and Paul recruited him (Acts 16:1–3). These examples show us that while the whole church is sent to make disciples, individuals join particular branches of that task through a combination of factors.

That is not to say that the idea of a calling or vocation is without biblical evidence. “Calling” in the New Testament Epistles always refers in some way back to one’s conversion, the time God called one into his family (1 Corinthians 1:26). But in at least one text, 1 Corinthians 7:17, Paul also views our life circumstances as part of our calling. He writes, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17). Paul means that when God calls you into his family, he calls you specifically, with all the relationships, positions, and history that you have. Were you married when he called you (that is, when you were converted)? Then God means to make you his child in that state of marriage.

It is from this text that Christians have developed the idea of one’s “calling” or “vocation” in life. Since God is sovereign over the events in our life, whatever he gives us to do can be a part of our particular path of discipleship. God means to make us Christians in whatever circumstances he gives us. That call may include caring for an elderly parent, or raising a child with special needs, or — if you happen to be born as the eldest son of a monarch — serving as a prince and king.

It makes sense, then, to refer to the task of cross-cultural missions as a calling, just as pastoral ministry, motherhood, running a farm, and simply living as the persons we are in the place God has given us are callings from God.

Learning from the Pastoral Call

That said, a pastoral calling works in a special way that would be helpful for missionaries to learn from. Protestant churches have long recognized that a man does not possess the authority of a pastor unless a church recognizes the God-given gifts that accompany that position. Many churches and denominations require that ordination be “to a definite work” (as the PCA’s Book of Church Order puts it). This is a “call,” a specific affirmation of someone’s gifts and of his fit for a particular task with recognized status and responsibility in the church. A man may feel called to preach the gospel, but he is only truly called to pastoral ministry when the church affirms that desire and gives him some responsibility.

In his handbook for future pastors, Bobby Jamieson prefers to say that a man “aspires” to become a pastor rather than “is called.” “Calling asks you to picture yourself at the end of the trail. Aspiration points out the path and tells you to take a step” (The Path to Being a Pastor, 30). An aspiring pastor asks the church to help him take the next step toward affirmation and responsibility.

Because pastoral ministry includes a specific authority to preach God’s word to God’s assembled people and to participate in the oversight of a local church, it requires definite and fairly high qualifications. But because missions can represent a variety of ministries, some of which are only tangentially related to spiritual authority in the church, we can easily dilute the calling. A person’s desire alone can be mistaken for a calling to a particular work.

If we adopted the careful language of a pastoral call for missionaries, we would clarify where someone is on the path to becoming a missionary. A subjective calling to cross-cultural ministry will be confirmed if and when God arranges it so that this person is actually engaged in that definite work.

Rather than speaking confidently of our calling to missions (and may the Lord call out many more!), we might be wise to say, “I desire to be a missionary,” or “I am preparing to be a missionary,” or “I aspire to be a missionary.” Since our knowledge of God’s call is tentative and aspirational, we can have a missionary burden, a desire for missions, an exploration of a call, or a sense that we might be called.

Opening Ourselves to God’s Leading

Aspiration announces that we are on a path. It says to the church around us, “Please help me discern the next step God would have me take.” It opens us up to evaluation and input, and places our desire for ministry within the appropriate context of the church’s mission. Saying that we aspire to a missionary calling also saves us from the twin dangers of overconfidence and indecision. If we aspire, then we do not announce confidently that we already have the call. And if we aspire, we are asking for the church’s affirmation rather than for a unique divine sign.

“Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed” (Acts 15:39–40). Did Silas receive a missionary call? Silas was certainly a well-respected church leader. He had been chosen, along with Paul and Barnabas, to bring the letter from the Jerusalem council back to Antioch (Acts 15:22). But Paul’s invitation here was enough to have him join the missionary team. God may have moved in a hundred ways before that day to prepare him for this call. But the crucial moment came when Paul said, “Why don’t you join me?” and Silas heard and accepted that call.

Instead of waiting for a miraculous sign, Christians can seek opportunities for ministry and use discernment to ask, “Would this ministry fit how God has made me?” Instead of boldly announcing that one is “called” to missions, Christians can ask for input from other mature believers. “I would like to be called as a cross-cultural missionary. How could I prepare for and pursue that calling?”

A call to missions is confirmed when the church sends someone who is willing, capable, and tested to proclaim the gospel and establish the church in another culture. When that happens, a missionary can be confident in God’s direction not only because of his subjective desire, but also because of the affirmation of God’s people in the church.

is associate professor of theology and global studies at Bethlehem College & Seminary. Previously, he served with his family overseas in Vietnam and Ukraine to develop theological education in the church. Jon and his wife, Andrea, have four children and now live in Minneapolis.