by Kevin L. Howard
The author discusses whether or not there is a calling to missions.
As a seminary student finishing my M.Div. in 1999, I began struggling with whether God was calling me to go overseas as a missionary or whether I should stay in the States and pastor. In the Spring of 2000, I received peace from God about serving overseas with the International Mission Board (SBC). But not long after accepting the call to missions, I began wrestling over where to go.
I knew where I wanted to go, but I found myself in the most intense battle to discover God’s specific call. After a couple of weeks, I sensed God leading me to an unreached country in Asia rather than where I originally wanted to go. I still recall that Friday night in April in my apartment in Los Angeles, kneeling beside my bed, and saying to the Lord that I’d give up my plans to go where I wanted and go to this less reached country. Immediately, a peace swept over me. It was clear to me that if ever there was a call from God, this was it. Within three months of that Friday-night-surrender, I was on the mission field in Asia.
Most Christians have struggled in similar ways as I did to discover God’s specific calling for them. I want to explore the idea of a calling, and see if this is really the best way to talk or think about ministry. In 1980, Garry Friesen wrote a book titled, Decision Making and the Will of God. Friesen argues that there is no specific will of God for each believer. Rather, believers should make wise decisions based on what Scripture has revealed. Friesen deals in detail with all of the passages that supposedly promote the specific will of God. So, I don’t want to just rehash those same passages.
Rather, I want to briefly discuss whether or not there is a calling to missions. I think this is needed because not everyone will read Friesen’s four-hundred-page book and the idea of a calling plays such a big part in the language and beliefs of the average missionary. Their understanding of a calling affects the way they make decisions and the way they counsel others. Thus, there are lots of ramifications to this idea of a calling. So, we do well to explore it again.
Now that I’m back in the States and contemplating returning overseas as a career missionary, I’m talking to lots of missionaries about where I might go. Frequently, I’m counseled to go where God is calling me. By calling I understand them to mean a strong sense that God is clearly leading me in a certain direction.
GO WHERE GOD CALLS
What frustrates me with the advice “go where God calls you” or “find where God is working and join him” is that it is given as sort of the panacea answer, the ultimate solution to all my questions and doubts. But this advice only begs the question. To tell me to go where God is calling me leaves unanswered the very question it proposes to answer—Where do I go?
As we think about a calling, let’s consider the first missionary journey in Acts 13:2. It says, “And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (NASV). The other passage that comes to mind regarding God’s call to missions is the Macedonian Call in Acts 16. Paul wanted to preach in Asia, but was forbidden by the Spirit, and a vision led him to Macedonia. Many Christians conclude that all believers must therefore have this kind of clear calling. But, can we make either of these experiences the standard for all other missionaries? If so, why? Nowhere does Scripture promise this sort of clarity when doing God’s will.
PASTORING AND THE CALL
For a moment, let’s take a look at pastoring. If there’s any Christian vocation that warrants a call, other than being a missionary, it’s pastoring. Most pastors I know talk about a calling to the pastorate. So let’s look at a few passages about pastoring. In 1 Timothy 3:1 it says, “If a man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.”
Ephesians 4:11 says Jesus “gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers.” And 1 Peter 5:2 exhorts elders or pastors to “shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness.”
None of these three passages talks about a call, but they do talk about qualifications and desire. In 1 Peter 5:2 the will of God is mentioned, but there’s a textual variant at this point, so it might also be rendered, “not by compulsion but willingly,” as the NKJV has it. But, even if the original reading is as the NASV has it, the phrase “the will of God” is a far cry from establishing our modern day concept of God’s call to the pastorate.
FOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES
As I examine the above passages and other Scripture regarding pastor-ing and missions, I see no warrant for what we often mean by God’s calling: a strong, clear and unalterable sense of God’s leading. Rather, I think the whole idea of serving on the mission field or any other ministry, is best talked about in terms of: 1) gifting and qualifications, 2) obedience, 3) desire, and 4) faith.
1. Gifting and qualification are significant. If you tell a mission organization God has called you to a particular country, they’re not going to send you based on that alone. You’ll have to meet other qualifications (a lot of other qualifications). And rightfully so.
2. Obedience to Scripture is of utmost importance. In general, we know Christ wants to reach the nations for his name’s sake (Hos. 2:23, Acts 28:28). We can confidently say that missions work is a good and noble thing. Scripture commands it (Matt. 28:18-20, Acts 1:8) so it’s got to be the right thing to do in most cases. Christians in the US who say God hasn’t called them to missions are mistaken. Unless uncontrollable circumstances prevail, like a sick spouse or rebellious child, no Christian has a right to say that cross-cultural missions isn’t for him or her. He or she can at least take a two-week trip into another culture before concluding a lack of giftedness for cross-cultural living.
3. Desire is also a key element. Psalm 37:4 says to “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” I take this to mean that when you are delighting in God, he will give you what you are desiring to have (also see Ps. 20:4, 145:19, Prov. 10:24). These passages lead me to believe that wanting to do something, while not the most important thing, is nonetheless important. Yes, sometimes we need to do some things whether we want to or not. And God doesn’t say that he will always give us what we want, but God is not against us wanting to be where we’re going to serve.
4. Faith really is the bottom line of where we live everyday. It doesn’t matter how sure we are of a decision to go to a particular people group, or to marry a certain godly person; it’s still a step of faith. We have the promise that Christ will never leave us or forsake us on this life’s journey, but there’s no guarantee that it will always be an easy journey.
In retrospect, my guess is that God would have been fine with me going to the country in which I originally wanted to serve. But, it was also okay for me to go to the needier country.
I think that from God’s perspective, since he is absolutely sovereign, he does in fact have a specific will for us. By virtue of his sovereign control, it must have specific ramifications. But from our perspective his specific will for each of us isn’t something we have to discover. God doesn’t promise clarity at this point. The Bible will guide us into truth, and when we have to decide on things not specifically covered in Scripture, like which country we personally should serve in, then biblical principles like the four discussed above can guide us.
I suggest that a calling is not the best way to talk or think about our approach to missions (or to any other ministry). Instead, it might be better to talk about what we are gifted to do, what we truly want to do and what is the biblical thing to do.
Some might ask, “Why not say that the four things you’ve presented are part of God’s calling rather than different from it? Why do the things you’ve suggested have to be opposed to a belief in a call?” They’re different because the assumption made when we talk about God’s call is that it’s definite, something that can be verified, something that is obligatory, something that can’t be influenced by others, and something specific to us. But Scripture doesn’t teach this concept of a call for all believers, or even for most believers.
Although the view I’ve espoused here has its weaknesses (e.g., there’s still confusion about making the wisest choice), it seems to be a better biblical model than the idea of a calling. Some might argue that a calling is the only thing that will keep you on the field when things get rough. But I suggest that other noble things, such as God’s sustaining grace, can keep you there too.
Kevin Howard received his MA in New Testament from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Thelogical Seminary. He grew up in Tennessee and is currently involved in church planting in southern California.
EMQ, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 462-465. Copyright © 2003 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.