“God has called me to go with you to Guatemala!” So announced the voice on the other end of the phone.
I was happy to talk to this eager sophomore about the short-term program we directed in the highland of Guatemala. That same day I sent a packet of information to her about what we would be doing, where we would be going, and the requirements of any university student who applied.
Ours was no weeklong visit to the tourist city of Antigua, either. We hiked to villages recently burned in the Guatemalan civil war. We lived ruggedly, often spending our time days from the nearest city. There had been much death and murder in the Ixil area where we visited. It was a sobering place.
Not long after she received the packet of information that spelled out the nature of our trip, I got a second phone call.
“God has told me that I’m not to go to Guatemala.”
Hmmm, I thought to myself, her god’s call to missions seems so capricious.
What is the missionary call? A deep inner feeling? The parting of the sky? Something reserved for especially holy and spiritual people?
Too many would-be missionaries, and not a few missionaries themselves, spin out of the biblical orbit concerning missions because they have imbibed popular notions of missionaries and calling, rather than biblical ones. So we need to think through the missionary call by laying down some biblical principles.
It is helpful to get at the principles with four questions: 1) What is a missionary calling? 2) What inspires a missionary calling? 3) What most informs a missionary calling? and 4) Who confirms a missionary calling?
What’s a Missionary Calling?
First, we need to define the word missionary. Admittedly, a definition of missionary is a bit arbitrary as the word missionary is not in the Bible. But I have a definition that comes from thinking about missionaries and watching actual missionaries close at hand for years: a missionary is someone who crosses a culture with the gospel to make disciples as their vocation.
Crossing cultures with the gospel to make disciples helps us sort out many who might call themselves missionaries but who are not, at least not in a biblical sense. For example, there are many Christians who happen to make a move cross-culturally for a job, or to follow family, but at the same time have no driving intent to make disciples. They are not missionaries. Put plainly, moving across a culture, or even living in another culture, does not make a Christian a missionary.
On the other hand, there are those who have jobs in a crosscultural context looking nothing like the image of a traditional missionary, but who devote their lives to making disciples across cultures. They are missionaries. That’s because their job serves a larger vocation, that they live to do, which is making disciples across cultures. We call them “tentmakers” after Paul’s trade that he used to support himself as he ministered the gospel to unreached communities. I’m sure that Paul made very good tents, but his life calling, or vocation, was to preach to the nations.
“A missionary is someone who crosses a culture with the gospel to make disciples as their vocation.”
Notice this definition guards us from two common errors we can make about missionaries. The first error is that all Christians are missionaries, something often touted from pulpits in the West, especially as we find ourselves in an increasingly post-Christian society. The second error is to see the missionary calling as such a holy calling it requires a special, specific, and personal direction from God for only very special people. Let’s look at these two errors.
Not All Christians Are “Missionaries”
There’s confusion about this because all Christians are called to live “on mission” where they are and to be involved in global “missions.” After all, the final command of Jesus began with go into all the world (Matthew 28:18). This was not just for people who liked ethnic food. It was a command for all believers. Missions is simply another part of the Christian life, much like holiness. You don’t say, “You know, I was working on holiness last week, but this week I’m going to work on something else.”
Missions is the same way. We are all called to missions in some sense because missions is a part of being a Christian, but we’re not all called to be “missionaries.” To be called to missions is to be called to the global call of God. So in other words, all Christians have a calling to be active and intentional and willing to do missionary-like things in the Christian life, but not every Christian is a “missionary” in the strict sense, that is living cross-culturally to make disciples as a vocation.
So in Acts 13, for example, Paul and Barnabas were sent from the church of Antioch on a missionary journey. Everyone was unified in the mission, but not everyone from the church went with them, only Paul and Barnabas were “missionaries.”
I like to think of it this way. If you have a friend with a headache, and you give them some Tylenol, it doesn’t make you a doctor. You are simply doing something doctor-like.
So it is if you have a cross-cultural conversation, or a same-culture conversation, about the gospel; no one would call you a missionary in that case either. You are simply doing something missionary-like. So there is a distinction between missionaries and missions.
Missionaries Are Ordinary People
On the other hand, the second error is to think that missionaries have such a special calling that is so high and holy, that unless God splits the sky and speaks to us directly we can’t be a missionary.
You don’t need clouds to form your name in the sky; you don’t need to hear a heavenly choir; you don’t need to have a special identification with a region of the world; you don’t need to be able to eat bugs; you don’t need to tread the burning sands; you don’t even need to feel goose bumps while reading this book (though that last one’s pretty cool).
Being a missionary is a choice you can make about your life. You can prepare yourself for missionary service. You can grow and learn. In the freedom you have in Christ, you can aspire to be a missionary. But to do that you need to understand a biblical view of calling — what God means by “call.”
I believe we usually think the word calling a bit backward. Often, when we use the word call, we think of what we’re going to do for God. But the Bible speaks more about our call as a calling to God. God is the one who calls us, or chooses us for himself, first for salvation.
So in Acts 2:21, Peter says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” There are thirty-nine uses of the word calling for salvation, in the New Testament like this. Not only that, but the ongoing sanctification in our lives is often described from God’s viewpoint as a calling. There are twenty times in the New Testament where God calls us to live for him in a genuine way, with a changed heart. So, for example,
- Paul says, “God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling. . .” (2 Timothy 1:8–9).
- “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7).
- “You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).
- “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1).
Michael Bennett, after his extensive survey of the word in the New Testament, says a “call” basically boils down to two things:
- We are called to be Christians: God calls us to be genuine disciples of Christ as our Lord.
- We are called to be holy and to grow in Christ-likeness: to be maturing disciples of Christ our Lord. (Bennett, Do You Feel Called by God? (Matthias Media, 2012))
That’s our calling.
So, I can say with great confidence that I know the direction of God’s call in your life. It’s toward Jesus, always.
Now, you can do something really cool with this understanding.
You can say things like, “I know God’s calling in your life.” And they say, “Really?”
“Yeah,” you say.
“Well, tell me!” they say.
“It’s to be an ever-growing disciple of Jesus!”
Which might be a bit unsatisfying to your friend, but is actually the most important thing they could ever hear.
To see how backward our worldly understanding of the word call can be, look at this passage from 1 Corinthians 1:
Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)
It’s amazing to think that God’s calling for us is to use us to demonstrate how great God is though our weakness and foolishness. We tend to think that we are attempting great things for God. But God understands that he is great, and we look pretty silly, and he uses that for his glory.
This is actually reassuring. You can look dumb, weak, and foolish as you faithfully follow Jesus, and you will be fulfilling your calling. Which sounds like the story of much of my life as I’ve bumbled along.
You might say to me, “I don’t feel called to be an overseas missionary.”
To which I can rightly say, “What’s that got to do with it? Your feelings are not the sum total of your calling. There are other important things to consider.” The fact is feelings are far too easy to confuse with our own sinful desires. This cuts both ways. Since this is a missions book, I suspect that many readers would say, “I do feel called to be a missionary.”
Over the years, I’ve heard many people say they felt called to missions with nothing more than a feeling. So much so that nowadays a flag goes up in my mind when someone tells me they feel like God is calling them to be a missionary. That’s because over the years I’ve discovered that people can go to the mission field for all kinds of bad reasons: escaping a bad relationship, a desire to see the world, they couldn’t get a job when they graduated from seminary, and on and on. Their reasons can range from the trivial (“I just love Indian food!”) to the very, very sad (“I’m going to do the hardest thing I can so that God will love me”).
All had strong feeling they were supposed to be there. But a strong feeling does not make a call. Again, sinful desire is just too easily mistaken for a call.
The closest idea in the Bible that comes to dealing with a desire or feeling is when Paul affirms men who desire to be elders. In 1 Timothy 3:1, he says that to aspire to be an elder is to desire a noble thing. What Paul is clearly saying about people in leadership in the church is that their feelings are good when they desire to do a good thing. But Paul understood those aspirations to eldership to be conditional on a whole host of other things: how they treat their wives and children, how they handle the word, not to be a recent convert, and more. And notice that when he lists the requirements for elders (1 Timothy 3:2–7), having a deep inner feeling isn’t in the list.
So Paul is saying it’s good for you to have a desire — wonderful. But your desire and your feelings are a starting point and not the entirety of your call. This is a helpful pattern for would-be missionaries. To have a feeling of being a missionary to a certain place is a wonderful thing. Those of us on the founding and organizing team for the Cross conference have been praying for years that a conference like Cross, and a book like this, would stir your hearts to go to places where people have never heard the good news of Jesus. We want you to consider missions work as your life work — your vocation. And if that desire is raised in your heart, or freshly confirmed, as you read these pages, we are thrilled. But it’s not enough, it’s not sufficient, there is more that must be in place.
Inspired by God’s Word
So, we’ve seen that a missionary is someone who crosses a culture with the gospel to make disciples as their vocation. We are all called to missions, because we are called to God and his heart is for all people, but not all people are to be “missionaries.”
So if someone says, “I feel called to be a missionary,” we say to them, “If you are a believer in Jesus, you are already called to missions, but your feelings are a starting point that must be confirmed by some other things to become a missionary.”
So though our inspiration may start with our feelings, the far more important part of calling is that we would be inspired by the truth of what the Word of God says about missionary work.
It is very difficult to go any place in the Scriptures and not find a missions theme. From creation, to the fall, to redemption, to consummation — the arc of the story of the Bible points to the missionary heart of God. Ultimately what gives us inspiration is to see the heart of God in his Word, as his own Son “leaves home” in heaven and enters our world despite our broken sinfulness and the ultimate cost to him. From Genesis to Revelation, God shows us that he is on mission to rescue a people for himself and his glory. He is a missionary God. And he calls us to his mission.
As just one example, let’s look at 2 Corinthians 5:10–19. I love this passage about ambassadorship. In it Paul is aiming to inspire believers with a vision for the world and our role in it; the very image of ambassadorship alone points to missions since ambassadors, by definition, don’t live at home, but are “resident aliens.”
Paul outlines in this passage four inspirations for missions. He starts by saying in verse 10 that judgment is coming for all people. So, a would-be missionary is inspired by what is at stake in people’s lives. People are headed to hell; they are under judgment and will perish eternally if they do not hear the gospel and believe. And we have a prophetic role to persuade people that what God has ordained in judgment is true: judgment is coming; hell is real. So we move out in a hostile world to persuade people because we have compassion about their eternal destiny.
John Piper said at the 2010 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, “If you don’t care for the poor, you have a defective heart, but if you don’t care for the lost, you have a defective view of hell.”
Notice, it’s not only the coming judgment; it’s the love of Jesus. Paul says, “Christ’s love compels us” (verse 14 NIV 1984). What a beautiful thought. We are inspired by the love of Jesus. We want people to know of his fame, his glory, his awesomeness. Moreover, we see his love in our lives, and we long for others to know that he can do for them what he has done for us.
“You can look dumb, weak, and foolish as you faithfully follow Jesus.”
Of course, the world doesn’t understand this. Paul understands that those who act in love look a little crazy. People thought that about Paul in verse 13, and they will think it about us too. We do look a bit crazy as we are controlled, or compelled, by the love of Christ. It’s crazy love.
We’re inspired by the coming judgment and Christ’s love, but that’s not all. Paul adds in verse 14 that we have concluded something: that Jesus died for all who would repent and come to him. We have concluded that sins can be forgiven, and reconciliation with God is possible though the death of Jesus. We’ve concluded that this man, Jesus, really rose from the dead. So we have in us the inspiration of the mind — the logical connection that this man Jesus who really rose from the dead has so proven the truth of the gospel that there is nothing he can ask of us that is too great a task.
And, furthermore, in verse 17, we understand the potential of what divinely created but fallen enemies of God can become: new creations in Christ, forgiven, restored, redeemed, re-creations from all around the world. Paul says this message has universal appeal, for all people at all times. Paul is not saying that all people will come to Jesus; he’s not a universalist. He’s saying that our message has universal appeal to all people. So the missionary call must be inspired with the idea that Christ’s marvelous salvation is for the whole world.
These convictions lead us into a final inspiration, in verse 15: that Christ’s death makes us alive to God; it calls us to live for others. So get your eyes off yourself, get your eyes off your circumstances, get your eyes off the things the world offers, and think about the call of God to God, and to his heart, and to his heart for the world.
So, in verses 10–19, we see how Paul lists these inspirations that serve as a guide for our call to missions: the fear of judgment, the love of Christ, our conviction of the universal truth of the message, our call to service. This potent combination propels us out in missionary ministry to serve others.
Here, in God’s Word, we find our inspiration to step out of our safe worlds, to be committed and motivated, and driven to boldness, and even seeming craziness for those lost and without hope in the world. It’s a call to throw away your life, as the world sees it.
So, to have a missionary call, we need to be inspired by God’s Word. But we also need to have the missionary call informed.
Informed by the Gospel
A call to be a missionary must be informed by the gospel. That is, you understand that the work to be done in missionary service is the right proclamation of the gospel. And because the chief work of the missionary is the gospel, the way to evaluate all effort is a gospel ministry.
Yet an amazing number of people that call themselves missionaries, and desire to be missionaries, never share the gospel. There’s much confusion about this in the Christian world, but I want to say it clearly: it is not the gospel to merely alleviate the needs of those in the world. As noble as it is to attend to the sick and hungry — they are worthy endeavors — without the message of the gospel, it is not missionary work. And it is a good indication that your “missionary” calling is not informed by the gospel.
But even those who desire to care for our neighbors as a right and good implication of the gospel (which I affirm) need to remember that the gospel, rightly proclaimed, does the best long-term good. Though modern academics use missionaries as punching bags, the mistakes of missions are largely anomalies, not the track record. Historically, wherever the gospel has gone, it has brought literacy and health, which secular historians rarely admit (and often owe their very jobs to).
I have seen this in my own experience. Missionary friends in Guatemala attempted to improve the living conditions of the Ixil people of the highlands. But it was not until the gospel changed hearts and brought revival that the Ixil people began to change the cultural difficulties that caused so many of the endemic problems of the communities: wife abuse, drunkenness, lack of education, even malnourishment.
One of the greater, more hidden, dangers in the missions world today is that much current missionary teaching and practice is informed by mere pragmatism, rather than the Christian gospel. For many, missions is seen as a pragmatic endeavor, a combination of the right strategy, language learning, cultural analysis, and cultural contextualization that will produce missionary success. But gospel advance is ultimately God’s work, and we cannot put together a perfect strategy. His ways are bigger and better than ours.
I had a friend who recently attended a missionary gathering, and he said that there were many talks on mission trends, reports on missionary work, and one cultural analysis after another. But not one session or seminar about the gospel. Not one.
Let me quote him,
There was no agreement about what the gospel is or isn’t. The closest we came to talking about it was when we sang the few songs before each session. There was no room made to discuss it. I could only infer that because the gospel wasn’t really discussed, it was absolutely assumed — and therefore not defined, celebrated, reveled in, and looked to for our motivation and goal in missions in the region. I was left wondering, where is the gospel? To work here, we need to agree on, be motivated by, and be guided by the gospel if we want to be faithful to God and his missionary purpose.
Do missionaries need to apply themselves to language learning and cultural sensitivity? Yes, of course. But we should never forget or underestimate the power of the gospel.
So, yes, we want to commend the gospel with works of service. But don’t let the pressure of the world squeeze you into forgetting the gospel. Know it, live it, share it. Brothers and sisters, eat the gospel, breathe the gospel.
Paul says in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation.” The sad fact is many forget the power of the gospel when they go overseas.
Paul also says we must live in line with the gospel (Galatians 2:14). It’s easy to think of the gospel as something that we move on from after we’re saved. Don’t untether the gospel from Christian living, your studies, marriage, or childrearing, Christian leadership, or missionary calling. Make sure the gospel is a part of all you do.
There have been times in my own life when I put my confidence in other things than the gospel: entertainment, social engagement, therapy. In my mind, somehow, I began to think that we could move on from the gospel. Somehow I had bought the lie that there was something bigger than the gospel, some higher ground. But we can’t move on. There is no higher ground than the foot of the cross. All Christians, all pastors, all missionaries must stay firmly rooted in the gospel, for to step away from the gospel is a descent away from the cross.
“It is not the gospel to merely alleviate the needs of those in the world.”
Perhaps it dawns on you as you read this that you yourself are alienated from Christ. You should know that this gospel message is for you too. That you can be reconciled to a loving God, our Father, who sent his Son to pay the penalty for your sins on the cross so that you might be forgiven of sin and make peace with God. What’s required of you is not to earn your way into his favor, but to repent of sin, especially the sin of unbelief, and turn to this resurrected Jesus in complete trust and faith.
So a missionary calling must be inspired by gospel principles that move us out in missionary service; a missionary calling must be informed by the gospel rather than those things the world tells us are essential, important as they may be.
Confirmed by the Church
It’s helpful to understand church confirmation to missionary service by looking at three parts: love for the church, understanding of the church, sent by the church.
Love the Church
There are many who seem to hate Christ’s bride. You can talk bad about me. But if you want me mad at you, start talking bad about my bride. In the same way, Christ’s bride, the church, is very important to him.
Make it a habit to affirm both Christ’s love for the church and your love for the church, since you want to love what Christ loves.
It’s especially important to love the church since so many go to the nations with parachurch agencies.
The best way to demonstrate your love for the church is to join a church. Become a member. Take it seriously. You can’t obey the New Testament commands to love other believers if you are not a member of the bride of Christ, the church. It’s easy to love people theoretically. But it’s when we’re covenanted to real, live, flesh-and-blood sinners that we discover how real love is demonstrated. As Francis Schaeffer taught, our differences are not the end of love, but the occasion for love (Schaeffer, The Mark of a Christian [InterVarsity Press, 1970]).
Furthermore, you should never see the local church as something in competition with missionary work. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard an older missionary coach tell a younger missionary to avoid church involvement since it is a distraction to what they do. I was actually told not to become an elder as it would slow down student ministry. But my experience was very different; I found that as we plunged into church, God took care of the student ministry to which we were called.
Know the Church
So love the church, then know and understand the church as part of the confirmation for a missionary call.
Do you know what makes church church? Every aspiring missionary should have scriptural answers to that question. Just as few would deny the centrality of the gospel for missionaries, few would deny that church is central to God’s missionary strategy. Yet when I talk with missionaries who are committed to church planting, they are often fuzzy about what a church is.
Can you define church? People who are attempting to establish churches as a part of the missionary mandate need to understand what a church is and isn’t. Because it’s so important to understand church, it’s worth it to list them here.
What the Church Is: A local church is a gathering of baptized, born-again Christians who covenant together in love to meet regularly under the authority of the Scriptures, and the leadership of the elders, to worship God, be a visible image of the gospel, and ultimately, to give God glory (John 3:1–8; 13:34– 35; Acts 2:41; 14:23; Ephesians 3:10; Colossians 3:16; 2 Timothy 3:16–17; Hebrews 10:24–25).
What the Church Does: A church must do only a few things to be a church — the people regularly gather in gospel love to hear the word preached, sing, pray, give, and practice the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Members, those who have covenanted together, lovingly care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:12–26), including care through the practice of church discipline (Matthew 18:15–17).
The Mission of the Church: The church is God’s strategic plan for evangelism with one overarching mission — to go to
all peoples to make disciples, teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded — including forming new churches (Matthew 28:18–20).
There it is: three key truths about the church in just four sentences, which takes less than a minute to say. This is the kind of thing every missionary should know well.
Sent by the Church
Finally, it’s important to be sent by a church. Many self-confirmed missionaries show up on the mission field without any backing of a church; it’s like baptizing yourself. The un-backed, lone-ranger missionary just isn’t a biblical model.
The best test of a missionary call is that a healthy church agrees with your aspiration to be a missionary, affirms your skills and knowledge in ministry, gives you active positions in the church, and asks you to go with their blessing and support. Ultimately, the best way to understand calling is this: a church sends you out.
Unfortunately, too many seem to feel that simply moving overseas makes them a missionary, but there is nothing special about moving overseas. I wish it was that easy. I wish that getting on a plane would equip and confirm our call, but it can’t and it won’t.
Too many believe in what I call “the 747 principle”: getting on a 747 changes you into a missionary. But understand this: if you aren’t doing the work of ministry back home, you likely won’t do it cross-culturally. Getting on a 747 isn’t going to make you holy; getting on a 747 isn’t going to make you a bold evangelist; getting on a 747 isn’t going to make you a missionary. That needs to be something you practice no matter where you are, and that ministry is what is confirmed by a church, and frankly what is needed on the field.
So put an end to the practice of the self-assessed and self-confirmed missionary call, and make sure to go to your church for confirmation that springs from Word-based inspiration, gospel-centered information, and put into practice in a local congregation. The fact is that ministry is actually harder to do cross-culturally.
So, if you want to have a church affirm your call, you need to be a part of a church, and you need to take part in the leadership of the church. And if at all possible, it should be a church that’s gospel-centered and healthy. The best way to reproduce a healthy church tomorrow is to be a part of one today. So be a part of a healthy church now. The mission field needs people who come from healthy churches and have seen them in operation.
So there it is: a missionary calling is inspired by God’s Word, informed by the gospel of Christ, and confirmed by the church.