The Missionary Call: A Biblical and Practical Appraisal

by Walter McConnell

The call to missions is very similar to the call to any other vocation–it relies on recognizing when and how God speaks.

For years I joked that I received my missionary call by telephone. Just after completing my college education, a friend’s mother urged me prayerfully to consider becoming a short-term missionary. Following her prompting, I turned to God and told him that although I had never considered missions before, I was willing to become a missionary if he would show me that it was his will. The next week my phone rang. On the other end was a woman who had come to America to find someone willing to join a Christian ministry and teach English in Taiwan. I needed no convincing that God had used this means to let me know he wanted me to be actively involved in missions overseas.

Although I have never heard of anyone else who received their call to missions via telephone, I have taken part in numerous discussions on how God calls people into missions. Typically, there are three opinions on this. The first group believes that every Christian should be considered a missionary and that most of these individuals should go overseas. The often repeated refrain is, “If you are not called to stay, you are called to go!” From this perspective, Jesus’ charge to his disciples to “go and make disciples” serves as a mandate to enter cross-cultural ministry. The second group, aware of the difficulties of the missionary lifestyle, warns of the need to be absolutely certain that God has specifically called a person into missions. Their warning is, “You should not go to the mission field unless you have an unmistakable call.” For these individuals, something like Paul’s Damascus Road experience or Macedonian vision is essential for someone to be sure God wants him or her to become a missionary. The third group sees no difference between deciding to be a missionary and choosing any other vocation. If a person wants to be a doctor, he or she studies medicine. If he or she chooses to be a secretary, the individual studies word processing. If the person desires to be a missionary, he or she studies the Bible and missiology. With these different ideas about the missionary call, it would be good for us to consider what the Bible has to say about the concept.

We must begin by acknowledging that the Bible never specifically mentions a call to missions. Most of the calls mentioned in scripture entreat people either to begin or to live out the Christian life, not to engage in particular forms of Christian service. The call to begin the Christian life is referred to in a variety of ways. It is termed a call to salvation (Acts 2:28-40), a call to repentance (Luke 5:32), a call to belong to, have fellowship with or share in the glory of Jesus (Rom. 1:6; 1 Cor. 19; 2 Thess. 2:14), a call to be saints (Rom. 1:7), a call to be God’s children (1 John 3:1) or a call to eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12; cf. Heb. 9:15). This most basic call is extended to encourage people to live out their Christianity. Thus, believers are informed of a call to holiness (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Thess. 4:7; 2 Tim. 1:9), a call to freedom (Gal. 5:13) and a call to live in peace (1 Cor. 7:15; Col. 3:15). These two aspects of calling—to salvation and for ethical living—are brought together in Ephesians 4:1 where Paul urges his readers “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received,” and then goes on to list things that should characterize their calling. It therefore seems that all Christians are called to be saved and to work out their salvation through service and sanctification, with little said about a call to ministry.

The closest the Bible comes to identifying a call to missions concerns the rare call to apostleship (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1, 15:9). The connection between these concepts can be identified through a bit of word play. The Greek word for apostle (apostolos) literally means “one who is sent,” and the word “mission” comes from the Latin verb for “I send” (mitto). One might therefore conclude that since a missionary is “one who is sent” he or she could also be said to have the gift of apostleship. However, in spite of the similarity in the meanings, this conclusion finds support neither in scripture nor in the way people today typically use the expressions. Thus, in the Latin versions the term apostolos was consistently transliterated apostolus instead of being translated missionarius. The Church Fathers recognized that apostleship was not an ordinary gift or office and thus chose to use a specialized term that would not lead to confusion.
Similarly, most missionaries today acknowledge that their role is different from the apostles. It is difficult to imagine a missionary aviator in Papua New Guinea or someone teaching MKs in the Ivory Coast claiming to have the gift of apostleship. Even though linguistic connections can be made between the words, it is best not to attach theological significance to the similarity in meanings between missionary and apostle.

The distinction between these terms reminds us that although the Bible mentions apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor-teachers and other gifted people, it never mentions missionaries as we think of them. This may be because (1) the word “missionary” has its roots in Latin instead of Greek and (2) the specialized meaning connects the word to those who participate in the modern missionary movement. In today’s Christian circles, a missionary is someone who performs some type of Christian work in an international and/or cross-cultural setting. In many cases the missionary is expected to be supported by churches at home while they are overseas and serve under a mission organization. Because this understanding of the missionary task was unknown to the early Church, the recognition of a “call” to such a task would have been inconceivable.

The Bible is also silent about the possibility of a call to a specific country, field or people group. This may not find easy acceptance by those who locate such a call in Acts 16:10 where Paul and his companions concluded that God had called them to preach the gospel in Macedonia. The context of the passage, however, makes it clear that the call received had almost nothing in common with the popular notion of a missionary call. The Macedonian vision was not God’s way of informing Paul that he should become a missionary—that was settled from the beginning of Paul’s Christian life. The vision came during what is normally called Paul’s second missionary journey, by which time he had been serving God in many different settings, such as Tarsus (Acts 9:30), Arabia (Gal. 1:17), Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:21-23) and Antioch (Acts 11:24-25, 13:1), for a number of years.

Neither did God use the Macedonian vision to inform Paul which ethnic group he would serve or which country he would serve in. Paul had already worked with both Jews and Greeks, and would continue to do so throughout his career. And although the vision directed the missionary band to Macedonia, Paul remained there for a fairly short period of time. This call simply guided Paul to Macedonia for a reasonably short, but important, ministry opportunity.

The Bible’s only real statement about being called to a particular ethnic group is found in Galatians 2:6-9 where Paul asserts that God called Peter to be an apostle to the Jews and himself to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Generally speaking, their roles in evangelism and founding churches lay in those directions. Even so, the apostles never restricted themselves to a particular group. Peter served non-Jews in Samaria and took the gospel to Cornelius and his family and friends. Wherever he went, Paul made it his practice to preach the gospel to his fellow Jews before preaching it to the Gentiles. Those who see Paul and Peter’s reputation as apostles to distinct ethnic groups as biblical grounds to support a personal call to some ethnic group or nation need to face at least three problems: (1) only these two apostles are said to be called in this way, and both of them evangelized Jews and Gentiles, (2) nothing in the text leads to the conclusion that this statement should be taken as prescriptive for all people rather than simply descriptive of the apostles’ experience and (3) Peter’s call to be an apostle to the Jews goes against the common idea that missions should be cross-cultural. The point is not that God does not lead individuals to serve particular ethnic groups, but simply that the biblical basis of such a position is shaky at best.

It is clear that the standard understanding of a missionary call lacks biblical support. Thus Herbert Kane insists that, “the term missionary call should never have been coined. It is not scriptural and therefore can be harmful” (1982, 41). While agreeing that the term may provide some people with an excuse from taking part in the missionary task and cause others to feel guilty due to their lack of engagement, I am not ready to dispense with the concept. Rather, I would suggest that we understand the “call” not as a special biblical experience, but as an ordinary way for God to reveal his will to a person, a way that will be recognized and corroborated by the Church. From this perspective, Bruce Waltke’s definition of “call” is extremely helpful: “A call is an inner desire given by the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God and confirmed by the community of Christ” (1995, 128).

Rather than sensing it as a revelation of biblical proportions or as a summons that cannot be refused, we should see it as either specific or general guidance by which God directs our lives. In other words, the call to missions is very similar to the call to any other vocation. Far from making it more difficult for a person to become a missionary, this re-evaluation of the call could actually free more people to consider going into missions. Instead of passively waiting for a spectacular call, one should continue doing what the Lord has given him or her to do while remaining open for further guidance. This approach to living one’s life is far more in line with biblical Christianity and will help prevent individuals from engaging in some form of divination such as “casting a fleece” (see Judg. 6) in their desire to discern God’s will about whether they should become missionaries or take up some other vocation.

A number of practical benefits can be derived from this reappraisal of the missionary call that will affect both those who are currently involved in mission activity and those who are not. The benefits for those who are not involved in missions are surprisingly significant. By redefining the call to God’s general leading, the door will be opened for many who have not considered their part in missions to become more actively involved. No excuse remains for those who lack a striking experience or do not wish to receive one.

Defining the missionary call as God’s guidance into a new ministry opportunity and/or vocation means that anyone involved in Christian ministry may be called upon to continue that ministry in another cultural or national setting. We should be sensitive to the needs that exist in the world and the possibility that we might be able to meet those needs. As Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (1973, 95). In the same way that God guided Paul away from Tarsus and Antioch for other ministry, he can direct a pastor to change churches, a professor to change seminaries or anyone in Christian ministry to take up their work in a “missionary” setting.

This redefinition of the missionary call makes it easier to inform Christians who are not involved in full-time ministry that they can work both at home and abroad to enhance the spread of the gospel. Most mission agencies are crying out for people with specialized and practical training to use their gifts to help evangelists, church planters and Bible teachers build up the Church in other settings. Administrators, teachers for MKs, medical personnel, IT experts and other professionals are greatly needed in modern missions.

In addition to opening doors for new people to get involved in missions, downplaying the specific missionary call is also a benefit for missionaries. While the feeling of having received a call has encouraged many to persevere in their vocation, it has also led to feelings of guilt in the hearts of many who thought they had received a call but either did not go or returned from the mission field. By reassessing the meaning of their “call,” such individuals might be freed from the pressure of thinking they failed God by not becoming or remaining a missionary. Seeing the call as part of God’s guidance can help a person accept that God can call a person out of missions as well as call them into it. It may also help some individuals see that God may desire them to become involved in missions (perhaps through prayer and/or financial support) without changing their vocation.

A revised understanding of the call should also influence the way a home church looks upon missionaries who have returned from the field. Unless there are clear signs of spiritual failure, returned missionaries should not be made to feel that they have let the Lord down or abandoned their post. Indeed, the Bible says nothing about a call to a specific place, people group or organization. It is a call to be and live as a Christian; location and target group are secondary. Because it is common for people ministering in their own country to change their sphere of ministry, it should not be thought strange for missionaries to return home to engage in a new ministry or even change vocations. The same Spirit who led Paul to serve in various locations (including his home town of Tarsus) can also lead people today to serve in a number of different places (and even lead them to return home).

Redefining the missionary call in terms of God’s guidance allows us to consider a number of ways God leads people into mission work. He used distinct ways to inform Moses, Isaiah and Timothy that he wanted them to serve him; we should not expect that he will not use distinct methods today. How then does God guide us? He has used the ten following means in the past and he will undoubtedly use them in the future.

1. An unexpected or crisis experience. Although few will ever have an experience like Moses had in the desert, Isaiah had when he saw the vision of God in the temple or Paul had on the road to Damascus, God could use a phone call, a traffic accident or the death of a relative or acquaintance to lead someone into missions.

2. Scripture reading, meditation and prayer. Through reading the Bible we discover God’s heart for the world. As we become more like Jesus, we may find that our heart aches for the world and that we want to do something spiritually beneficial for others. By praying the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers, we may find that he chooses to send us.

3. The study of other books. Missionary biographies have had a tremendous influence upon many who have become missionaries. Christians have been greatly impacted by the lives of missionaries such as David Brainerd, Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Gladys Alyward, J. O. Fraser and Jim Elliot. Many have responded to the stories of these great men and women of God by dedicating themselves to continue the work which these faithful servants left behind.

4. The influence of godly people. If missionary biographies are important, so too is the influence of godly people. God uses parents, pastors, Sunday school teachers, Christian professors and missionaries to stir up a love for the people of the world.

5. A deep personal concern for the spiritual needs of others. It is essential that potential missionaries be concerned for the souls of others. The thrill of leading one person to Christ has given many individuals the desire to tell others about the Lord. We might even question the suitability of a person who is not burdened for the souls of others.

6. A feeling that the person can do no other work. Many missionaries can echo Paul’s statement that “I am compelled to preach. Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). And whereas some might limit this feeling to ministry in general, ignoring issues of geography, others testify that their compulsion for ministry is focused on a particular country or people group.

7. Personal recognition of the gifts needed to perform the task. It is not necessary to have the gift of apostleship to be a missionary. Neither does one have to be a brilliant biblical expositor or street evangelist. But what is needed is some gift, talent, skill or training that will be of use for the spreading of the gospel. Such skills may be very practical in nature and may help the cause of missions by freeing evangelists, church planters and others to do their jobs.

8. Recognition of one’s gifts by the church. In addition to having a “feeling” that God wants an individual to be a missionary, the leaders of the person’s home church should also recognize that the individual has the gifts necessary to serve in this way. Before the church of Antioch sent out Paul and Barnabas, the Holy Spirit revealed to the men involved and to the church that he had set them apart for that task. God will not hide a person’s desire to be a missionary from the Christian community that knows him or her best.

9. One’s personal health. Good health—both physically and psychologically—is essential for full-time missionary work in many parts of the world. This neither means that those who are not perfectly healthy are not useful in God’s kingdom nor that handicaps cannot be overcome. It is simply a recognition that certain physical conditions or chronic ailments could make overseas mission work extremely difficult if not impossible. However, if the door for overseas ministry is closed, one’s enthusiasm for missions should not be quashed. Rather, it should be re-channeled into prayer or other support ministry.

10. Financial support. This could come through sponsorship by a local church, a group of churches, a denomination, family, personal friends or a combination of the above. It could also come through finding a way to support oneself overseas, whether by finding a “secular” job or by living off one’s retirement or other independent income.

Few missionaries would say that God guided them in all of these ways, but most will acknowledge that God used a combination of these to confirm his guidance. Even so, God does not always give one hundred percent assurance that a person should become a missionary. To do so would extinguish the need for faith. There comes a time for those who sense God’s leading to step out, trusting fully that they are in God’s will. The problem is that some want to be absolutely certain God has called them so they never move at all. As Kane says, “Some would-be missionaries give the impression that they are waiting for God to pack their trunks, buy their tickets and see them off at the airport” (1982, 49). That God will not fulfill this desire is clear.

God’s calling for missions is usually unspectacular. He will guide a person through his or her daily life, give the person the desire to serve him and reinforce this conviction through the recognition of one’s church and perhaps a mission organization. Along the way, he may have someone give the person a phone call, provide contacts who can support the person financially and arrange for people to help the individual prepare for mission work and remain on the field. The individual, however, must follow God’s leading in faith. The fact that God may yet send me another phone call or use some other means to direct my steps for future ministry means that I need to be ready to hear his voice, trust in his guidance and follow his leading even if I do not receive a sensational experience. Are you ready for him to do the same for you?

Buechner, Frederick. 1973. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York: Harper and Row.

Kane, J. Herbert. 1982. Understanding Christian Missions. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Waltke, Bruce. 1995. Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? Gresham, Ore.: Vision House.


Walter McConnell teaches at Singapore Bible College and serves as the director of the Ichthus Research Centre for Biblical and Theological Studies. He worked in Taiwan for ten years before earning his doctorate in Old Testament.

Copyright © 2007 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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