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Editorial: The Call

Is some special call required for missionary service? Perhaps you have asked yourself that question, or you’ve heard it being asked by others, such as your children or grandchildren, or those you are discipling. If so, how does the call happen? How can someone be sure it’s God calling, and not just their own thoughts or feelings?

You have probably heard colorful quotes like these regarding God’s call to service: “If God hasn’t called you to stay, you are called to go!” (Keith Green); “If God has fit you to be a missionary, I would not have you shrivel down to be a king!” (Charles Spurgeon); or “Don’t bother to give God instructions, just report for duty!” (Corrie Ten Boom). These may inspire you, or intimidate you, or infuse you with more questions than answers, but let’s take a minute to explore this matter further. 

How can someone be sure it’s God calling,
and not just their own thoughts or feelings?

In our last edition of Witness, we trumpeted the “Macedonian call” which highlighted the request from peoples and regions beyond to “come over and help us.” The original story is found in Acts 16 where this call for help came in a dream to Paul and his team, inviting them to bring the Good News to Macedonia. We are hearing a similar call today from many countries.
However, there is an even more basic call we must consider. It is the call to leave, to go, and to serve. Some call it the “missionary call.” Regrettably, this matter has generated lots of questions and even confusion, as the quotes above remind us. Below, I will offer some thoughts for your consideration, thoughts that I’ve gathered over my forty-year journey in mission.

First, I would encourage you to start with the Scriptures. There are certain calls in the Bible that are for all of us. We’re all called to trust and obey Jesus. We’re all called to go and make disciples. We’re all called to pray and to give. No need for any special call here.  

However, the Bible also records on numerous occasions God’s call for some extraordinary assignments. Abraham was called to leave his homeland, and to go to Canaan, where he would be blessed in order to be a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). Jonah was called to go and preach to Nineveh, and then he was called again after he disobeyed the first call! Barnabas and Saul were “set apart” for an assignment that was yet to be revealed (Acts 13:1-4). 

Do missionaries need a call? Most of those who have been missionaries, or oversee missionary work, would answer “yes.”

A deep sense of conviction that this assignment is “from the Lord” will carry one through when things get tough (and they will). Those who study missionary attrition and retention have concluded that a sense of being called to a service, while no guarantee, is indeed a retaining factor that helps missionaries face the sacrifices they inevitably are required to make. Furthermore, if you know you have been called and sent by the King, you will approach your assignment with the authority of an ambassador, not merely as a volunteer.

How does this call happen? In his wisdom and sensitivity, God issues custom-made calls according to his perfect plan and our capacity to listen. Again, we do well to turn to the Scriptures: the Book of Acts alone gives numerous examples. 

For some, a call may be mysteriously miraculous. So it was for Saul (Acts 9) when he saw the blinding light that left him flat on his back, leading to his conversion and his commission. Similarly, Peter had the same dream three times (Acts 10) of unclean foods so he would take the Gospel to the Gentiles. 

For others, the call is through a community commission. So it was for Barnabas of Cyprus when he was sent by the church in Jerusalem to Antioch to gather and nurture a young church (Acts 11). In turn, the Antioch church, while worshiping and fasting, sensed the Spirit setting apart two of their key leaders for an apostolic assignment (Acts 13). 

Yet there are also records of common-sense calls, such as when Philip was somehow placed before the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8). He didn’t need a special vision or a commission, he just needed to obey common sense for this cross-cultural mission. Or when Judas and Silas were sent with Barnabas and Paul on a second missionary journey to nurture the young Gentile churches, the call was simply “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us” (Acts 15:28). 

There is no template, no formula, and no predictability to God’s call. His ways are his to choose, and delightfully diverse.

Together with my wife, Marty, early in our missionary journey we experienced a combination of these. We sensed an inner urge when we were in classes at Fresno Pacific College and first learned about the shortage of workers. We wondered if we had what it took to be missionaries, in terms of giftedness and resilience. We applied to several mission agencies. Our own MB agency (then MB Missions/Services) followed up and contacted our local church, Butler MB in Fresno. Our church wisely wanted a voice in this discernment and invited me to be a pastoral intern while we continued to process the call. 

There is no template, no formula, and no predictability to God’s call. His ways are his to choose, and delightfully diverse.

In all, it was a convergence of a growing inner conviction, a local church confirmation, a mission agency invitation, and then a circumstantial open door when our visas were granted after a year of waiting that finally landed us in São Paulo, Brazil. Later, the final conviction of God’s missionary call actually came for us near the end of our internship in Brazil when our Brazilian co-workers said to us, “You are gifted for this. We need you here. Please come back.”

Is someone speaking similar words to you? Or is God’s missionary Spirit prompting you to say those words to someone nearby? Remember the importance of Christian community. Proverbs says, “in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (11:14). Pray to your Father in heaven about such a call. Continue to grow where he has planted you. Surround yourself with godly and mature counselors. Approach pastors, leaders, and others, for God has appointed such to help discern and confirm a call. Take steps to pursue those promptings, and remember, “Faithful is he who has called you, and he will also do it!” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

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