Discerning The Missionary Call
Some of the simplest decisions can be filled with all manner of doubts, questions, second-guesses, and distractions. Many of us have experienced this with things as silly as deciding what to get while standing in line for ice-cream: “Should I get chocolate ice-cream, or vanilla? What did I get last time? Should it be in a waffle cone or a cup? Which will I enjoy the most?” If we are prone to complicate the most modest of questions, then how much more difficult will it be for us concerning the big questions of life? “What should I do for my life? Who should I marry? What am I being called to do? Where am I being called to do this?” It is with these questions that most people tend to wrestle the most, and certainly one of the major, life-altering questions that a lot of people wrestle with is whether or not they are being called to be a missionary.
It does not always get any simpler for you to discern the answer to this question if you were to remember that it is God who ordains and sets forth all your paths. In fact, depending on your outlook, this may make things seem more complicated as you try to factor in yet another angle in discerning what to do. But, discerning whether or not God is calling you to be a missionary does not have to be as complicated as some would like to make it. In this essay, some aspects will be given to consider as to what a missionary call is, and how to discern it by looking at factors within yourself and outside of yourself.
The first thing that must be addressed is what a call from God is not so that whatever pre-conceived misconceptions of it that are present within you may be cleared away before coming to an understanding what God’s call actually looks like. So, people know that God guides people in their lives and directs their footsteps according to His plan. People also know that God communicates with them in a personal, loving way, and this communication is a means by which He guides His people. Both of these things are true, but when people try to discern what God’s will is for their lives from believing these things, they are often misguided in what that means or misunderstand what that looks like. J.I. Packer noted that people “do not fear… that no guidance will be available for them but that they may miss the guidance that God provides, through some fault of their own… they remain anxious, because they are not certain of their own receptiveness to the guidance God offers…” So, out of a desire to clearly find this answer, or out of exasperation or desperation to tap into this providential guidance in the midst of a significant decision, many are tempted to try to split hairs of the certain circumstances that are going on right now as to what sorts of “coincidences” might be occurring in their lives– as if they are trying to read in between the lines, searching for the divine sign that God has placed for them to find, and they could find it if only they were observant enough and had a great enough mind to discover it, or a third eye to see it. Some might sit on their hands, empty their mind, and hope for some beam of divine light to show the way that they are to go. Or, some look for a strong, internal feeling, voice, or push that makes the decision for them and clearly illuminates their future.
Unfortunately, this manner of discerning God’s call is a superstitious, mystical way of analyzing the moments of life and is in no way the means by which one is to discern God’s call, especially a missionary call. Voddie Baucham says that this perspective is like reading the tea leaves or reading the horoscopes, and it is, therefore, pagan in its essence. So, discerning the call of God cannot be done through a pagan-like or a hyper-spiritual perspective, because we cannot expect His call to come through these extraordinary means. This is exactly what they are: extraordinary. Those who look to men like the Apostles Paul and Peter, see that they were called by extraordinary means, and expect the same for themselves need to realize that those means were still considered extraordinary, even in that day. To outright discount that these kinds of things could ever happen again is extreme, but the true events of this happening are so rare that if this is what one will wait for concerning a call to the mission field, then he should expect the call to never come. It is because of this super-spirituality that caused J. Herbert Kane to say, “The term missionary call should never have been coined. It is not Scriptural and therefore can be harmful. Thousands of youth desiring to serve the Lord have waited and waited for some mysterious ‘missionary call’ that never came. After a time they became weary in waiting and gave up the idea of going to the mission field.”
J.I. Packer says that “Conduct of this sort shows a failure to grasp that the fundamental mode whereby our rational Creator guides his rational creatures is by rational understanding and application of his written Word… The true way to honor the Holy Spirit as our guide is to honor the Holy Scriptures through which he guides us.” God has given mankind a tool through which, and a sure Word upon which, you are able to read, think, pray and meditate, and communicate with others. The command that Romans 12:2 gives is to “be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” If you are to sing with the Psalmist that “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path,” then this transformation comes by letting “the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom.” So, the primary manner by which you are to discern God’s mission call is through a mind that has been saturated by God’s Word. Its principal means is to be done by rational, Biblical thinking. The extraordinary things are not what you are to look for when discerning God’s call, so use the ordinary means by giving a logical look at the many factors that come into play when it comes to the mission call, lay these issues out before yourself, discern it through the lens of Scripture, and give an honest answer to them.
(For more information regarding God’s will, see my post here)
The first thing to know is that a missionary’s preliminary call or task is to be a minister- not necessarily chronologically, but in order of priority or task. Many people are enthralled by the romance and glitz of going overseas to a foreign land with a striking landscape to win the hearts and souls of an exotic people amidst a curiously bizarre culture, but if this is constantly at the forefront of your mind when you think of missions, then you may be motivated more by thrill or adventure, not primarily motivated by the burden of saving souls from damnation or for the beauty of Christ and His gospel. Yet, you may truly have a desire with a pure motivation to be used as an instrument to see Christ glorified in a nation not your own, so it is good to know that all the activities that a missionary does are what a local minister would do: preaching, evangelizing, counseling, shepherding, administration, etc. The task of the minister is to expound and explain the gospel and to oversee a congregation, and so it is for the task of the missionary but in a foreign land. You could think of a missionary as a minister that has been sent to a different country or culture. For a couple of centuries, the verse that has been used as the main sending banner for missionaries is the same verse that gives the divine commission of the office of minister, Matthew 28:19-20. Romans 10:13-15 also helps to give a greater insight into the connection between the person and the task. One does not take this commissioned office upon himself, he is sent by God, but the end and the means to that end are the same no matter where they are sent. That being said, the questions you will have to ask yourself regarding the call to be a missionary must first start by examining your general call to be a minister, then apply it to a missionary context. This is not to say that only men and only ministers can be missionaries, there can be many helpers that go along that give assistance to the task in many ways, but those wishing to serve in a leadership and pastoral role are to examine themselves as a minister first.
The Internal Call
The call to the ministry can be divided into two main categories: the internal call and the external call. To examine these two aspects prayerfully, honestly, and fervently is a solemn duty that all students and prospective minters are to engage in, and it is also to be so for the missionary. For the internal call, the main thing that must be examined is whether or not there is a desire to this task and what motivates this desire. Do you have a great love for Christ and for Him to be known through the ministration of His Word, and is there a great love for souls that are unwittingly on their way to hellfire? Is there a desire for you to exhaustively spend yourself, your life even, upon the exercise of your compassion for a particular people that is dying without Christ in a place that is less gospel-advantaged than your own? Are the present comforts of your home land truly counted as loss for the sake of the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in a place that may be uncomfortable (at least for a time)? Is there still a desire after coming to a knowledge of the difficulties of the work itself, namely: knowing what it means to be a mouth piece and ambassador of God; to deal with all manner of people, the mourning, the ignorant, the insolent, the indolent, the hypocrites, the backslidden, the hostile; knowing what it means to be an example in spiritual exercises and morality, publicly and privately? Is there a desire of an unadulterated manner to see the true church through the pure gospel worship and glorify Christ in a new place? Or are you desiring to make godliness a means of gain, to gather for yourself a reputation, admirers, followers, and a high status? Is there some motive lurking in the shadows that seeks your own ends rather than Christ’s? Far more important than the prospect of travel, study, esteem, and respect is “that we should aim at nothing but souls, rather willing to win one to Christ than a world to ourselves.” Examine whether the desire to the ministry in a foreign land is of such a purity and intensity that you will constantly scrutinize yourself and agonize over your own insufficiency and disservice to this work. And at times, “There must be anxiety when ulterior motives are perceived in the heart which in turn causes one to entertain the thought to refrain from this work.”
Another aspect of the internal call is a discernment of your gifts. There is a great level of education involved in preparing for the ministry, so you will have to examine yourself if you are apt to perform difficult intellectual exercises. But first, you must ask if you are willing to undergo this task. Are you willing to go through years of difficult training first, or are you looking for a fast-track into the mission field? If training is required for ministers in local congregations, then training most certainly should be required for those whose mission it is to minister in a different land or culture. Mission work necessitates more training than a regular, pastoral position would require (at least, it ought). So, will you be able to keep up with the rigorous demands that a school may place before you in terms of the time commitments it requires, the relational sacrifices that can and will be made, and the intellectual difficulties it necessitates? You are to be or to become a learned person. Certainly, a familiarity and training in philosophy, logic, and/or natural wisdom is helpful to the sharpening of the mind, but the thing that you ought to be most knowledgeable on are the matters of theology. You should not settle for a memorized statement of truth or mere instinct in a particular theological vein, but you should have a “deep, penetrating knowledge of a variety of theological issues with which he has become conversant due to frequent dealings with them.” This requires much study of scripture and much study of those who have studied scripture much. If you are not willing to do this or are unable, then you may be better off serving and helping a missionary.
Another thing to consider is the steadfastness and genuineness of your faith. A feigned faith will not last in this spiritual contest. Being a missionary is a difficult task to consider even from a material perspective. But, from a spiritual perspective, this endeavor will most certainly test the durability of one’s desire for missions, and it will put a strain on your personal faith and walk with the Lord, as well. The desire and pursuit to be used as a special instrument in Christ’s kingdom will place an extra-large target on your back that the Devil will fire at in a desperate attempt to fight Christ’s oncoming brigade. Old temptations that you thought were long gone may creep up again with renewed vigor, and new temptations that you thought you could never have will be fired at you from the Devil’s bow. Therefore, part of the difficulty for the training of this Christian soldier is not only a mental exercise, but it is a spiritual one, also. You must keep your Biblical wits about you and hold fast to your Commander all the more, and in a special way, within this unique field of spiritual combat if you are ever to survive. You as a prospective missionary will notice these things intensify even during your education and will have difficult struggles. So, if the education process has this continual onslaught of devilish attacks, then how do you expect the mission field will be when you have to uproot your entire family, leave relatives and friends, leave the comfort of your own culture, are engaged in the work, and face a new culture with new customs and a different language? These problems certainly will not be drowned out by the added activity, but additional stresses only exacerbate and accentuate complications.
But it is training that will teach you how to hold up the shield of faith, fasten the breastplate of righteousness, and wield the sword of the Spirit for when you are leading your own platoon through spiritual warfare. So, the trials that the time of study gives are the “combat experience” of using the armor of God which will help you strengthen your faith and be suited for the needs of the people you will serve. This is why it is vital that the knowledge you have as a prospective missionary is not a mere intellectual assent or familiarity with the vast spectrum of theology, but that it is an experiential knowledge- you cannot truly teach what you do not know. So, the training is to be experiential because contending for the faith does not begin in the logical arguments, but it begins in the life of the servant. The Bible warns of the folly of those who teach and speak of things of which they do not know. Therefore, the things you teach must be truths that you have experienced in your own heart.
Another internal aspect that is necessary to examine for a missionary call is not only are you apt to learn, but are you apt to teach? Certainly, the minister of a local congregation needs to be able to communicate the truths that have been imparted to him in order for him to be of any practical use to his local congregation. Taking complex truths with many nuances and breaking them down into palatable morsels so that the average listener is able to understand it takes a practical application of his comprehension of the audience’s language and culture. “The natural powers of clear thinking and arrangement of matter, of aptitude of expression, and of familiar and appropriate illustration, are often used as sanctified instruments for conveying the life-giving power of the Gospel with increasing acceptance and powerful application.” But how much more will you as a missionary need to excel in communication skills when working with a culture and language that is far different from your own? Not everyone is able to teach within his own culture, let alone be able to have the wherewithal to translate his instruction to a different people who may have a rudimentary understanding of the missionary’s native language (or vice-versa), who have different cultural assumptions, and a religious background that may be completely foreign to his own. You as a missionary will communicate the gospel differently to a foreign culture than you would to your own, and the aptitude to teach helps to connect with your people.
Connected with the aptitude to teach is your personality in terms of your character and relational skills when you are off the pulpit or outside of the classroom. A winsome personality is favorable for matters of evangelism, which is a large part of mission, and it helps new people feel most welcome. The missionary needs to commiserate with the people he is serving and should be able to easily identify with them. It also aids the comfort and receptibility of the gospel message if it comes from a person who is warm, inviting, and familiar instead of coming from one who is cold, distant, and awkward. These social skills are to be translatable across cultural boundaries, too. On the opposite end of the spectrum, toxic personalities are to be avoided. There may be a lot of zeal that comes through someone, but it is without knowledge or maturity and some habits of their life may be the opposite of what would be conducive to a mission field. Notice things within yourself like being unable to finish a project, not working well with others, not understanding social cues, a tendency to smooth-talk or flatter, paying too much (inappropriate) attention to the opposite sex, being divisive, or being generally insensitive. If you cannot get along with people in your own culture, then it is likely that things will get worse in another.
There is a good chance that where you will be going as a missionary will not have the same kind of health care, so your health is another factor to take into account. This may make things more difficult for those who have a chronic issue that needs to be treated regularly, or limited mobility that may need some added assistance. Also check your mental health. How do you face challenges, loss, rejection? Are you prone to break down or to dramatic mood swings? Again, being in a different place with different challenges and adjustments can aggravate these problems.
Wit and wisdom are not character traits of those who are immature. So, you will have to factor in your spiritual maturity into the missionary call. If you were to contemplate all these things deeply, Biblically, and prayerfully, it should be evident that there ought to be no room for naïve, whimsical, or fast-track decisions into the mission field. Rather, there should be a serious consideration of the need for missionaries to be properly and satisfactorily equipped for this task.
The External Call
The last thing to consider are the external affirmations of the call. By external affirmations, I do not mean a divine sign supernaturally beaming down, but I mean others outside of yourself affirming the set of gifts that you might perceive within yourself. The book of Acts teaches us that one does not send himself, the church sends. So, the local body of Christ confirms, enacts, trains, and enables missionaries to go. This affirmation is to be done through other godly men who are mature, well-versed in scripture, experience with missions, and with a good and long-standing reputation within the body of believers. Hence, there is a great importance for you to be a member of a church, attend regularly, and be involved so they can know you and help you discern his call. The judgments of these men will greatly settle your sense of call. Alistair Brown said,
“But a call isn’t valid unless shared- like one person’s guidance before marriage isn’t to be accepted unless the intended partner gets the same guidance. In the case of mission there are lots of partners whose leading must all be the same. As well as the potential missionary, usually that’s also his or her church, a mission agency, and a local church or union of churches in another country. All must believe the same. If they do that, harmony of thought is persuasive evidence of God’s will. Without it, plans must be rethought.”
So, those within your church are to examine your doctrine and life. They will see if you are spiritually mature, ready for training, ready for work, or if there are other priorities in your life that prevent you from going, or things yet to be worked on and examined. Then they will tune their sights to any place that may suit your gifts, keep an open ear for any need, and recommend you to any mission fields that are fitting for you.
To conclude, these are the things that you as a prospective missionary are to lay before you and analyze when discerning your call. Do you have a desire? What is the nature of your desire? Have you been gifted with the necessary gifts that are agreeable to this task? Is there a consensus from other godly figures who know you well? Are there realistic opportunities available to you? Keep in mind that “young men of ardent feelings and promising talents, but with unfurnished minds and unrenewed hearts, are thrust forward by the persuasion of injudicious friends, or by the excitement of some momentary bias, into the sacred office. The Church has severely suffered from this woeful inconsideration.” So, again, you as one who is investigating the prospect of being a missionary are to count the cost of the factors before you and solemnly examine these pieces with diligent prayer, honesty, and patience.
 J.I. Packer, Finding God’s Will (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 3–4.
 Voddie Baucham, Modern Spirituality and Your Mind (Grace Family Baptist Church, Houston, TX, 2011), http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?m=t&s=8141123285.
 Wilhelmus a’Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans by. Bartel Elshout, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1993), 121.
 A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 149.
 Packer, Finding God’s Will, 14–15.
 Psalm 119:105
 Colossians 3:16
 a’Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:118.
 A. T. Houghton, Preparing to be a Missionary (Chicago, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1956), 30.
 a’Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:121. cf pp. 136-142
 Galatians 6:12-13
 Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry: With an Inquiry into the Causes of its Inefficiency (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 96.
 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; 3:5
 a’Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:122.
 Moreau, Corwin, and McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey, 152; Alistair Brown, I Believe in Mission (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997), 105.
 Colossians 2:18; Jude 10-13
 a’Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:121.
 1 Timothy 3:2
 Bridges, The Christian Ministry, 30.
 Brown, I Believe in Mission, 142–144.
 Brown, I Believe in Mission, 105.
 Dr. David Harley, Preparing to Serve: Training for Cross-Cultural Mission (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1995), 65–66.
 Harley, Preparing to Serve: Training for Cross-Cultural Mission, 60.
 Acts 11:22-26; 13:1-4
 a’Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:123.
 Brown, I Believe in Mission, 110.
 Bridges, The Christian Ministry, 32.
Allen, Roland. The Compulsion of the Spirit. Edited by David Paton and Charles H. Long. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983.
Baucham, Voddie. Modern Spirituality and Your Mind. Grace Family Baptist Church, Houston, TX, 2011. http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?m=t&s=8141123285.
a’Brakel, Wilhelmus. The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Translated by Bartel Elshout. Vol. 2. 4 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1993.
Bridges, Charles. The Christian Ministry: With an Inquiry into the Causes of its Inefficiency. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009.
Brown, Alistair. I Believe in Mission. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1997.
Harley, Dr. David. Preparing to Serve: Training for Cross-Cultural Mission. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1995.
Houghton, A. T. Preparing to be a Missionary. Chicago, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1956.
MacArthur, John. Found: God’s Will. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1977.
Moreau, A. Scott, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee. Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015.
Packer, J.I. Finding God’s Will. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985.
Sproul, R. C. God’s Will and the Christain: Your Will, God’s Will, and How They Relate. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1984.