The Importance of Missionary Fit: Fleshing Out Giftedness and Calling

by Kelly Malone

God gifts individuals in such a way that his purposes will be accomplished in a community. But this requires both the missionary and mission agency to find the individual’s true “missionary fit.”

A missionary colleague recently told me that he is resigning and returning to the United States. Because of the change in his organization’s strategy, his own gifting and calling to missions no longer “fit.” Another person who does missionary support with his organization told me he finds missionaries who are discouraged because they are asked to fill roles that do not “fit” their talents and spiritual gifts. Rather than experiencing optimal productivity, they feel they are just doing a job. After these two conversations, I wondered whether this problem with “missionary fit” is isolated to a few organizations or if it is more widespread. Since then, I have talked with representatives of other missions who told me that many of their personnel are serving in roles which do not fit their talents and gifting.

This has led me to the conclusion that “missionary fit” is an important issue facing evangelical mission organizations today. Poor missionary fit leads to a loss of productivity and effectiveness, frustration and, as we have seen in some cases, early departure from the field. These issues are enough to draw attention to the importance of missionary fit. Yet there are more compelling reasons for us to take the importance of missionary fit seriously. These reasons relate to the biblical and theological bases for missions, how we do missions and who participates in missions.

In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus commands his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Lest there be any doubt what he means by this command, Jesus outlines a two-step process: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit” and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Leading the lost to saving faith in Christ and a public testimony of this faith through baptism is only the first step in fulfilling our Lord’s command. The second step, which is equally important, is teaching them to be obedient followers of Jesus Christ.

Paul states the aim of the Great Commission in another way: “we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Jesus’ will for his followers is much more than forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Jesus’ desire is that his people will follow his example so closely that they will become “new creations” in him (2 Cor. 5:17).
Ephesians 4 is one of the spiritual gifts passages in the New Testament.

Although spiritual gifts are not mentioned explicitly, they support the roles of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher, which have been provided by God “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). According to Gordon Fee, “These ministries empower the whole body to carry out its ministry of building up the body for maturity, soundness and unity, drawing its life flow from the one head, Jesus Christ” (1994, 706). Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, God has gifted specific people to carry out particular roles in the body of Christ. They are “to function in the light of that gifting” (1994, 707).

The fulfillment of the Great Commission requires all spiritual gifts. When some gifts are overlooked, the desired spiritual maturity cannot be achieved. For the goal of spiritually mature disciples to be reached, people serving in various roles representing the full range of spiritual gifts must be present and at work within the Church. All the gifts working together bring about spiritual maturity throughout the whole body of Christ. Martin Robinson and Dwight Smith conclude that “mobilizing the giftedness of the whole Church is the single biggest factor in determining the effectiveness of the Church in mission” (2003, 103).

God is sovereign in missions. Missions begin with our Lord’s command to call the people of all nations to be his disciples. The same God who sends us also equips us to do his task. Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ gift to his followers. The Spirit empowers us to bear witness for him (Banks 1991, 129-130).

We should understand neither the Holy Spirit’s empowering nor the witness of the Church in a restrictive sense. Although the emphasis of Acts is clearly on evangelism, we see a number of other spiritual gifts at work as well: languages (2:4), healing (3:7; 9:40), generosity (4:34-35), service (6:1-7), encouragement (9:27), teaching (19:9-10) and prophecy (21:9-11).

The word charismata (typically translated “spiritual gifts”) is derived from the Greek word charis, which means “grace.” Although the channel through which the gifts come is the Holy Spirit, the charismata are best understood as concrete expressions of God’s grace in the life of the Church. God bestows his grace through the Spirit “for the sake of building up the people of God” (Fee 1994, 33). This bestowal of God’s grace for the building up of the Church is not limited to the charismata explicitly listed in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 27-30 and Ephesians 4:11.

The gifts referred to in these lists are “representative of the diversity of the Spirit’s manifestations” in the life of the Church (1994, 160). They are meant to lead to the realization that “all things done in the Church are ultimately effected by the powerful working of God” (1994, 162, Fee’s emphasis). By his grace, God provides each of us with personality, experiences, passion, talents and abilities, as well as supernaturally bestowed gifts, all of which are meant to prepare us for the unique ministry God has prepared for us (Warren 2002, 227-256).

Since the bestowal of God’s grace is a matter of divine choice, one way God exercises his sovereignty in the lives of individual Christians, in the Church and in missions is through the charismata. Since our personalities, experiences, abilities and giftedness are the results of God’s grace at work within us, all of this should be taken into account when determining the role in which a missionary should serve. God does not prepare people to do one task and at the same time send them to do another. God is not the author of confusion, nor is he the Father of frustration. Rather, he brings about order and consistency in our lives and service as missionaries.

This consistency between calling and giftedness means we can understand a great deal about a person’s calling by looking at his or her giftedness. A person who is gifted in pastoral care probably is not called to serve in the area of administration. A person gifted in the areas of mercy and service may find him or herself out of his or her niche when called upon to lead Bible studies.

In his biography of Baker James Cauthen, president of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board), Jesse C. Fletcher writes of one of Cauthen’s experiences while serving as a missionary in China during the 1940s. Robert Bausum, the senior missionary in Cauthen’s area, asked him, “What do you want to do? We’ve got Bible School work. We’ve got orphanage work. We’ve got evangelistic work. We’ve got clinic work.” To which Cauthen replied, “Bausum, I’m a preacher. Let me preach.” Bausum saw the wisdom in letting Cauthen do the work for which God had called and equipped him. As a result, many people in that area of war-torn China heard the gospel and turned to faith in Christ (1977, 135-136).

We must not miss the fact that in addition to Cauthen’s evangelistic preaching, the Bible school, orphanage and clinic continued as well. Other missionaries worked on the basis of what God had called and gifted them to do. God used his strategy of calling and gifting people for a variety of ministries to bring about a tremendous spiritual movement in western China. Since calling and gifting are so intentionally related, people will have limited effectiveness when they are asked to serve outside their gifting and experience. This does not mean missionaries can never work outside their giftedness and experience. There are times when all of us must be willing to take on roles that may not be a good fit in order to advance the cause of Christ. These challenges may even provide the opportunities to learn gifts and abilities we did not know we had. At the same time, when we ask people to serve in a role that is outside of their gifting, calling and experience, we may be asking them to work outside of God’s will. We should not expect God to bless such work, even when it is done in his name.

On the other hand, since God reveals his will through the giftedness of those he has called to serve, we can understand a great deal about how God intends to work among a people group at a given time by looking at the giftedness of those he has called. Rather than formulating a plan and then asking missionaries if it fits (or does not fit, as is so often the case), we can line ourselves up with God’s will by formulating a strategy based on the giftedness of those God has called to serve. As a result, the strategy for every people group will look different, not only because the culture is different but also because God has called a specific group of people with specific gifts at a specific time to make disciples.

Most evangelical mission strategy focuses on evangelism, training disciples and leaders and planting churches. Since all of the spiritual gifts need to be operative in order to develop a healthy church and mature disciples, we must be careful to end-vision this from the beginning. It is crucial to realize that the church started among any people group will inevitably develop along the lines of what is modeled by those who start the church, whether they be cross-cultural missionaries or local church planters. If those who start the church emphasize only evangelism and discipleship, the resulting church will likely emphasize only evangelism and discipleship. If those who start the church emphasize only worship and fellowship, the resulting church will likely emphasize only worship and fellowship. If those who start the church only emphasize social action and human needs ministries, the resulting church will likely focus on those types of ministries.

While evangelicals are quick to point to the priority of evangelism and disciple-making, we also realize that holes in other areas will result in unhealthy and imbalanced churches. In his best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Church, Rick Warren points out that five biblically-based purposes will be lived out in every healthy church: worship, evangelism, discipleship, fellowship and service (1995, 103-107). To quote Warren, “Unless you set up a system and structure to intentionally balance the five purposes, your church will tend to overemphasize the purpose that best expresses the gifts and passion of its founder” (1995, 122). Since most church planters excel in evangelism and discipleship, they tend to produce churches that are good at these things. While these churches are very evangelistic, they may lack the worship, fellowship and concern for human needs necessary for a well-balanced healthy church.

This tells us that we need many kinds of missionaries doing and modeling many areas of service on the mission field. Martin Robinson and Dwight Smith write, “The operation of these kinds of gifts working in concert can have a dynamic impact on the God-awareness of a Christian community” (2003, 86). People who experience God’s multi-faceted grace through seeing a wide variety of spiritual gifts at work have the capacity to become channels of this grace for others. Howard Snyder and Daniel Runyon write,

    Every Christian is charismatically gifted. Each is a priest before God for missions in the world. And each is a servant of Jesus Christ and collaborates or co-labors with him in the work of the kingdom….Leaders do not attempt to turn all church members into evangelists, or social activists or disciplers. After all, church members don’t all have exactly the same DNA or combination of gifts. Wise leaders, therefore, help each member find a vital place in the body so that the whole body may function in a healthy way (Eph. 4:11-16). Some members will minister primarily in worship, some in building accountable community and others in direct witness in the world. What a beautiful blend! It is the whole body that is called into mission through the ecological interrelationship of its members. (2002, 92)

Accountability has become an important issue in contemporary missions. As the cost of missions skyrockets and resources become scarcer, agencies and sending churches want to make certain they are getting the greatest possible return on their investments. It is tempting to measure productivity in terms of numerical statistics such as number of baptisms, believers, new church starts, Bible studies and church attendance. While these statistics do help us understand part of what is happening on the mission field, they provide only a thumbnail sketch. In order to paint in the details that lie between the lines, we must answer the question, “Is the missionary using his or her giftedness to its fullest possible effect for the furtherance of God’s kingdom?” This helps us to see in vivid color what is really going on as missionaries work among a people group. Robinson and Smith write,

    Whatever God is going to do in the world, he is going to do through all of Christ’s people. That is not to say that God cannot or does not move with anything less. But both scripture and history declare that the power of God in the gospel moves most effectively when the greatest majority of the followers of Jesus are releasing him into their everyday lives and relationships. (2003, 102)

Jesus gave his Great Commission to the whole Church. If we are going to take the gospel to the world, then we must fulfill our Lord’s original intention of involving the whole Church in his directive to make disciples of all peoples. Limiting missions only to those who are gifted preachers, teachers and evangelists—and not including those who are gifted in the areas of helps and service—will never work. It is likewise ineffective to ask a gifted servant to lay aside his or her God-given role of helping those in need in order to plant churches. If God had intended him or her to plant churches, God would likely have given him or her the passion and gifting to do it. If God has gifted a person to teach, to heal or to do agricultural work, then it is likely God’s will for him or her to use those gifts in missions.

In Japan, we have only around eight thousand Protestant churches and less than 0.3 percent of the population are evangelical Christians. So, of course, there is a great need for evangelism and church planting. Yet those are not the only needs. Over half of the pastors are past the age of sixty and there is a shortage of trained lay leadership in most existing churches. Theological education, discipleship and other forms of leadership training are crucial needs. While the vast majority of non-Christian Japanese remain unresponsive to the gospel, they have become very open to Christian ministries geared to respond to pressing issues in Japanese society: marriage and family ministry, counseling and care for the aged and socially marginalized. Christian compassion to social needs is slowly bringing a greater openness to the gospel and has even led to planting new churches. When all of these factors are taken into account, we see that the most effective strategy for Japan should include not only evangelism and church planting, but also discipleship, leadership training and ministries of compassion and service. We can expect that God will call and equip people who can respond to all of these areas of need.

God has equipped the Church to bring the world to him. According to Bill Easum, in order for this to take place, we must

    equip individuals to discover and use their own giftedness….Individuals discover their destiny when they are equipped to use their gifts on behalf of the Body of Christ. Disciples are grown, not on preconceived organizational needs, but on the God-given giftedness of the individual. (2000, 99)

When those who are called to missions are allowed to serve on the basis of their giftedness, good “missionary fit” takes place. Furthermore, the ministries that missionaries are engaged in will actually fit the needs where the missionaries are called to serve. This is because when God called and gifted the missionaries, he already knew what the needs would be before he sent them. When missionary fit takes place, there will be (1) greater job satisfaction and less frustration among missionaries, (2) tremendous growth in the quantity and quality of Christians and churches among the people group and (3) a noticeable impact of Christianity upon the people and culture as God pours out his transforming grace. May we each find and live out our “missionary fit.”

Banks, William. 1991. In Search of the Great Commission: What Did Jesus Really Say? Chicago: Moody Press.

Easum, Bill. 2000. Leadership on the Other Side: No Rules, Just Clues. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press.

Fee, Gordon. 1994. God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers.

Fletcher, Jesse. 1977. Baker James Cauthen: A Man for All Nations. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press.

Robinson, Martin and Dwight Smith. 2003. Invading Secular Space: Strategies for Tomorrow’s Church. London: Monarch Books.

Snyder, Howard and Daniel Runyon. 2002. Decoding the Church: Mapping the DNA of Christ’s Body. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Warren, Rick. 1995. The Purpose-Driven Church: Growth without Compromising Your Message & Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House.

___________. 2002. The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here for? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House.


Dr. Kelly Malone teaches intercultural studies at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri. He served in Japan with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1992 to 2007 where he was academic dean of the Christian Leadership Training Center in Tokyo.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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