How permanent is a missionary’s calling to the mission field? Once called, always called?
I suppose it depends on what you mean. It’s a common sentiment, especially among the young and zealous, that missionary work is a lifelong calling.
Let me be the first in line to say that I want more missionaries to last longer. Loving but concerned family members—even Christians—often hold onto the hope that their loved ones’ move overseas is “just a phase.” They hope you’ll get it out of your system, then settle down.
But missions is not a phase. You should never grow out of the willingness to serve the Lord in new and difficult ways.
A Missionary’s Calling
But the reality is, the world has changed. It is not as final a decision as it once was. You don’t need to leave with your belongings packed in your coffin, like Lottie Moon. You likely won’t live a life like Adoniram Judson; he was only able to return home three times in four decades. And often, there are other factors that, given the ability to go home, will mean you may need to return from the field. The health of your marriage. Aging parents. Your physical health. Children struggling in a different school setting. All of these and more may lead to a decision to return to your home country for a season, or for good.
So how should you respond?
1. Be gracious with yourself.
The fact that you’re returning home doesn’t make you a failure. The Lord has given you other responsibilities, and it is good and right to attend to them. God can call you to more than the role as a missionary. Discerning the difference between sacrificial living and negligence can be difficult to do. The responsibilities the Lord has entrusted each of us with can at times feel at odds with one another. Because of that, even when you’ve made a wise decision, it won’t always be clear to you in the aftermath. So be gracious with yourself as you seek to be faithful to the Lord.
2. Remember that God alone is essential.
As deeply as you feel the weight of the nations making a wretched choice and neglecting the Savior God has provided, remember that you are not ultimately responsible to save them. That rests on the Lord. He is the only effective cause of salvation. The Lord has been kind to permit you to be a part of His work, but He doesn’t need you. Praise the Lord, He is able to use the mouth of a donkey if He wants to!
If you must return home, do it soberly, do it with tears of sorrow. But do not grieve as one without hope. If death has no ability to stop the Lord’s plan, then why are you so concerned that your geographic location might ruin it?
3. Remain active in the church’s corporate calling as a missionary.
Of course, this confidence in the Lord’s ultimate sovereignty over the spread of the gospel doesn’t lead us to complacency. Jesus Christ called the church to fulfill the Great Commission.
We have a responsibility to partake in the mission of making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18–20). But it is a calling all Christians share together. Serving on the front lines of the mission field is important—but it is not the only place where you can seriously advance the Lord’s cause.
Recall how Paul spoke to the Philippian church. They were partners—sharers of Paul’s ministry—through financial support, friendship, and prayer. Though they remained in their hometown, they were seriously engaged in the work of making disciples of all nations. Moreover, no Christian is excepted from the Great Commission. In a factory, everything in the factory is geared towards the same mission. The tasks are diverse, but they are all aimed at the same end goal. Whether you’re welding the frame of the car, or putting the paint on, or sweeping the factory floor, your task is aimed at building a car. Likewise, the different parts of the body should be treated with honor (1 Corinthians 12:14–26). When your season of life requires you to move back from the physical frontlines of mission work, you by no means are removed from the spiritual frontlines.
The missionary call is indelible—in one sense, it’s a part of every Christian’s calling as a faithful member of the kingdom. Therefore, leaving the mission field doesn’t equal giving up on the mission, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you are being unfaithful. Depending on your situation, it may actually be the most faithful thing you can do.
But you are never relieved from the call of our Captain to make disciples of all nations. That calling is something we must all join in, contributing in different ways as the Lord equips us, no matter where we are.