How do you know you’re called to missions?
It’s almost a sacred ritual—the process by which someone came to understand that the Lord was calling them to the mission field. It usually involves being humbled by the Lord, growing in an affection for him and his glory, and feeling broken over the reality of people made in the image of God, dying in their sin without news of the gospel. As a result, it’s an intimate and deeply personal process.
Because it is personal, we are often quick to think it should be private. Who has the right to say you shouldn’t do what God has called you to? It can turn into a Ring you caress on your own, but hate to let anyone else examine.
What starts as a tender and precious experience of God’s graciousness in growing you turns into a bludgeon you can use in order to guard yourself from anyone telling you ‘no’ or ‘not yet’.
The danger with this approach is that while you may find yourself well-protected from ungodly discouragement from fellow Christians, you will also find yourself walled off from the godly wisdom of fellow Christians. Moving overseas, moving into places with little to no access to the gospel, these are decisions with tremendous costs. They shouldn’t be made lightly. And any Christian who cuts himself off from the input of mature believers who know him well is a Christian listening closely to Lady Folly.
Self-Affirmation is Insufficient
Add together the challenges of ministry, the challenges of cross-cultural ministry, and the fact that we are not all-wise, and we should quickly recognize the value and importance of the discerning counsel of fellow Christians.
Moreover, to say you’ve been called to be a missionary is to assume (rightly or wrongly) that the Lord has gifted you for that particular task. What sort of qualifications are necessary in order to be a missionary?
Since the term is an extra-biblical term (i.e. not a clearly defined office like elder or deacon), there’s some flexibility here. Many churches won’t commission anyone who doesn’t meet the requirements of a deacon or of an elder. That seems wise, given that those qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–13 and Titus 1:5–9 are also marks of general Christian maturity.
But there are certainly other aspects that should come into play, depending on what kind of missionary you want to be. There’s language-learning. There’s the internal challenges of your marriage (if you’re married) and parenting, which will only be exacerbated by cross-cultural life. There’s your struggle with loneliness and contentment. There might be the challenge of translation work. Or evangelism where there are no believers. Or the challenge of building up a local, native church without accruing authority to yourself.
Are you equipped in those areas? Are you equipped to evaluate yourself adequately in these areas? Clearly, the objective insight of other believers who have the Word and the Spirit of God is necessary for making this decision well.
The Gift of the Church’s Counsel
Enter your local church. God, in his kind providence, has provided you with access to other Christians whose counsel you should seek as you consider whether you are called to be a missionary.
The Lord entrusted local churches with the power to bind and loose on earth what will be bound and loosed in heaven—in other words, to affirm whether you are a citizen of the Kingdom or not (see Matthew 18:18–20). Part of submitting to a local church is having the humility to recognize you need a community of believers to affirm your walk in order to help provide assurance you are not self-deceived in your view of your own salvation. Why would you not trust those brothers and sisters with this lesser determination, with whether or not the Lord has gifted you to serve him in this particular way?
A church’s involvement may look different in different situations. Again, the role ‘missionary’ is not biblically instituted, so we have some freedom and prudence in figuring out what this should look like. Maybe it looks like being formally interviewed, vetted, and commissioned by your local church. Maybe it looks like the elders saying, “We see no reason why not.” Maybe it looks like joining a trusted worker already on the field, with the church’s encouragement. But at the least it should involve weighing the counsel of those who are over you spiritually.
Are You Willing to Listen?
A sense of calling is often a sensitive topic. Yet it is something you must hold with an open hand. Your personal, subjective sense of where God is leading can err. So can the church’s, for that matter. The question is not about who can get it absolutely right every time.
The question is this: are you willing to listen to the evaluation of other Christians when it comes to your life and calling? Are you willing to seek the counsel and wisdom of your elders and fellow church members whom the Lord has graciously given to you?
If not—if your calling is a shield that wards off any differing opinions—then, just maybe, that missionary calling is not of the Lord. The Lord requires that his servants walk humbly with him. So as you work out your calling, do it with humility. Involve the church. Glorify God, not man.