Determining your calling is important for every person including a missionary. In one sense, our calling is straightforward. We exist to glorify and enjoy God (1 Corinthians 10:31; Philippians 4:4). We are commanded to fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28; Colossians 1:5–6). And we are called to grow in sanctification by following Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:3; Mark 8:34).
The Bible is quite explicit in these ways about what it is we are to do in this world. However, most of the details of our specific callings require a lifetime of patient abiding and seeking the Lord, in order to discern if the Lord wills for us to do this or that (James 4:15). The calling to missions is no different.
For some called to missions, the location is almost never a question. They possess a unique and compelling connection to a place that leads them to serve there. For many, however, the call to missions is more general at first, and determining “where to go” requires greater discernment. How should we figure out “where” to go? There are three main factors for us to consider as we seek to follow God’s call: need, opportunity, and fit.
Identifying the Need
First, where are missionaries needed most? Among unreached people groups, there is a smaller gospel witness, and there is a demonstrably greater need for missionaries. We should begin there. Unreached people groups rarely live in easy places to serve, and we may not be able to go. However, every person sensing a call to missions should at least consider taking the gospel where it has never been proclaimed—where the need for missionaries is greatest (Romans 10:14).
Every person sensing a call to missions should at least consider taking the gospel where it has never been proclaimed.
Assess how the needs change in places where a church is already established, even if it is small. What has God already been doing? How can missionaries serve most helpfully? When Paul went to places with no church, he would work diligently to form one (Acts 14:21), but when he went to a place where a church existed already, he sought to strengthen the churches (Acts 15:41). The specific needs shaped his missional approach. Determining need in this way cannot be done by the missionary alone, but requires local partners to help guide and inform.
Recognizing the Opportunity
Just because there is a lot of spiritual need in a place does not mean the Lord will provide an opportunity for you to serve as a missionary there. Paul was kept from preaching the gospel in Asia by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6). He found persecution in every town, but there was a door for the gospel in only some (Acts 20:23; Colossians 4:3). Opportunity can be determined by many practical factors like visa access, personal health, family makeup, networking relationships, jobs available, but we must never forget to listen to the Holy Spirit. Discerning opportunity builds on determining need. The question “What are the needs here?” is followed by asking, “Am I needed here? Is there an opportunity for me to serve helpfully as a missionary?”
Finding a Good Fit
Lastly, we are looking for a good fit. This is not determined primarily by what we would be most comfortable doing. On paper, Paul should have made a great apostle to the Jews, but in God’s mysterious providence, Paul fit better ministering to Gentiles (Galatians 2:7–8). The Lord reveals fit as we seek to use our gifts to serve and see fruit in ministry.
The Lord reveals fit as we seek to use our gifts to serve and see fruit in ministry.
We find that even though something is greatly challenging, we are surprisingly happy to do it, and we see the Lord blessing it in small or big ways. Even though we are weak in some ways, we are strangely competent in others. Fit is also determined by the positive working relationships we enjoy with other people. A missionary can never be successful without partners in the gospel. Finding the right team, organization, partners, and friends is crucial for long-term missionary success.
Choosing the Right Place to Go
Missionaries should seek to find the place where there is the best opportunity to serve most helpfully and meet the greatest needs. We decipher this equation in part through prayer, pastoral counsel, and research, but especially through testing. This can and should be done in your home country, but the most impactful way to accomplish this is by visiting these places.
If you sense a call to be a missionary, you should consider pursuing a short-term mission trip in a place where there is significant need and opportunity. In my experience, missionary internships are the single most helpful way to test a call. One or two years is best, but even a summer can be helpful. It is rarely a good idea to commit your entire life to a place at first. Rather, those early investments of time and energy will help you test your calling and lay a foundation for a lifetime of missional service.