J. Herbert Kane said that
“the term ‘missionary call’
should never have been coined.
It is not Scriptural and therefore can be harmful.
Thousands of youth desiring to serve the Lord have waited and waited for
some mysterious ‘missionary call’ that never came.’ ”
And I remember once sitting at breakfast with a young man by the name of Tony, and he told me that if he just knew that God was calling him, he would immediately start pursuing it. And I said, “Tony, you’re going to sit there forever. He is not going to give you anything. He’s not going to tell you anything. He wants you to know what He wants, and He just wants you to start doing it.”
Paul’s “Macedonian Call”
We’ve been talking about the missionary call, and the question obviously would come up: Why should I go to the world? And a sense of divine call is not necessary to witness to your neighbor or to go beyond any national border.
In Acts 16, Paul saw a vision at Troas of a Macedonian call. But you have to understand that that’s often used out of context because this was not his missionary call. In fact, it’s not even normative for everyone. It’s not the typical thing that anybody else we even see experiencing. But it can. It’s just that it’s not normative. After all, Paul was on his second missionary journey already, and when he saw the vision of the Macedonian, it was kind of like God opening his mind to a ministry that he had never seriously considered. So God just wanted to kind of point him in that direction with this idea, and it wasn’t a call. It was just an invitation from a Macedonian. It wasn’t Christ that was in the picture; it was just a Macedonian. So he had just this image, but he immediately put one and two together and got three and decided that this was God’s idea and he’s going to follow it. And that’s how he pursues it going into Macedonia.
Kane suggests dropping the idea of the call and instead
[speaking] of guidance.
So how does God lead us?
Thousands of you wait in vain for a call experience and then dismiss the possibility or the necessity of serving the Lord somewhere in the world because they’ve never had that experience. And as a result of it, they just miss a high potential for their life. It’s not the only potential for their life, but it’s a high potential of being a player in God’s global plan.
all the above was taken from
Fanning, Don. MI101 Introducing Global Missions. Logos Mobile Education. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014.
Is the Concept of a Missionary Call Biblical?
Nearly every missionary “hero” in recent times has articulated some manner of missionary call. Countless testimonies are heard from missionaries whose clear sense of calling sustained them through difficult and discouraging times when they felt like giving up or that their work was in vain. This calling is usually considered to be supernatural and continuing for an entire lifetime.
Many if not most evangelical mission agencies have expected candidates to be able to articulate in some persuasive manner how God has called them to missionary service,
even if the nature of the call remains undefined.
Louis R. Cobbs writes, for example, “Throughout history Southern Baptists have expected their missionaries to be called of God. While there has been no great effort to define the term, most Southern Baptists have had a general understanding of what is meant by God’s call” (1994, 29).
The WEA Mission Commission conducted a massive international study on missionary attrition asking leaders of mission agencies
what they believed to be the most important factors to prevent missionary attrition.
“A clear calling to mission work from God” was ranked as most important by 61 percent of newer missionary-sending countries and by 36 percent of older sending countries. However, in data on both avoidable and unavoidable reasons actually given for missionary attrition, “lack of call” ranked only nineteenth on a list of twenty-five reasons (or 1.8 percent of all attrition) for older sending country attrition and second (8 percent) for newer sending countries (W. D. Taylor 1997, 92). Some sense of missionary calling is clearly perceived to be of central importance to missionary service in most evangelical mission agencies.
James Stamoolis asserts,
“The actual concept of missions may wax and wane in popularity, but the call of God to be involved in God’s mission does not disappear” (2002, 12).
But many argue today that the idea of the missionary call should disappear.
Biblical personalities such as Jesus’s twelve disciples received a clear “call” to leave their former occupations for Christ’s service (e.g., Matt. 4:19–20; 10:1–2). Paul’s call on the Damascus road was quite supernatural and dramatic. At his conversion he received the divine revelation that he would be sent to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21). Later in Antioch the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). Because Paul was called to the Gentile mission at his conversion (Acts 9:15–16; 22:14–15) and had already been active as a missionary in Arabia, Cilicia, and Syria (Gal. 1:15–24), Schnabel (2008, 386–87) argues that Acts 13:1–4 describes not Paul’s missionary call but a new ministry assignment (cf. Moreau, Corwin, and McGee 2004, 167–68).
Much like the call of prophets in the Old Testament, such instances can be viewed as exceptional and unique to their place in salvation history. They are rare occurrences in the New Testament. The so-called Macedonian call, which occurred in a vision revealed to Paul (Acts 16:9), is not an example of vocational calling to missionary service (Paul was already a missionary) but rather a singular incident of divine guidance for the apostolic missionary band (Moreau, Corwin, McGee 2004, 168).
Scripture is silent about Paul’s numerous other missionary coworkers having received a specific call to mission work. Timothy is recommended for service by his home church in Lystra (Acts 16:1–3), and he was gifted (or confirmed) for ministry by prophetic utterance and the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6). But there is no report of a subjective experience of calling. We know even less about Paul’s other coworkers.
Questioning the Missionary Call
During the early centuries of the church, there were relatively few formally commissioned missionaries, yet the gospel spread dramatically through ordinary Christians as they traveled and shared their faith. As church structures became more established, over time a formalized system of vocational ministry and ordination was developed, making a clear distinction between clergy and laity. Prior to the Reformation, most Roman Catholic missionaries were members of religious orders. During the Reformation the teaching of the priesthood of all believers was rediscovered, but, with the exception of smaller Pietist and free church movements, in practice the clergy/laity distinction was retained. Indeed, Lutheran orthodoxy’s emphasis on the necessity of an extraordinary call as a prerequisite for a missionary vocation “made real mission impossible” (Aagaard 1987, 16). Though Protestant missionaries were seldom fully ordained, their vocation came to be viewed as similar to that of clergy: a lifetime calling to missionary service involving a commissioning and public recognition by the sending church or body.
Already in the mid-nineteenth century, the necessity of a special missionary call was in a curious way being questioned. Some argued that the universal command of the Great Commission in itself constitutes a foreign missionary call to every Christian. Influential leaders such as
J. Hudson Taylor argued that
unless one is called to remain at home, every Christian is commanded and qualified to go
(Taylor and Taylor 1965, 167). Similar arguments were made by Southern Baptists, the Student Volunteer Movement, and others (Cobbs 1994, 29; Beaver 1968a, 149; Sills 2008, 63–64). James Gilmore (1843–91), a missionary to Mongolia, could say, “In place of seeking to assign a reason for going abroad, I would prefer to say that I have failed to discover any reason why I should stay at home” (cited in Gannett 1960, 33). Keith Green, a popular Christian songwriter and artist of the 1970s, also reflected this view, writing, “In fact, if you don’t go, you need a specific calling from God to stay home” (1982, 3).
By the mid-twentieth century qualifications for missionary service became increasingly focused on educational and psychological factors assessed by extensive interview and testing procedures; a subjective call alone was no longer considered sufficient. By the 1960s mission agencies were also creating various associate missionary roles for professionals, short-term workers, and retired people who were not commissioned for career service. The average length of missionary “career” service also steadily declined from twenty-three years in the early twentieth century to about ten years by the end of the century (Cobbs 1994). Missionary service came to be increasingly seen as more a career option than a lifelong calling (Donovan and Myors 1997). Such developments have blurred the nature and necessity of a special missionary call.
Emphasis on a clear, supernatural missionary call has also been criticized for creating an unnecessary hurdle for people otherwise qualified and interested in missionary service. Kane describes the problem in an earlier generation: “Thousands of youth desiring to serve the Lord have waited and waited for some mysterious ‘missionary call’ that never came. After a time they became weary in waiting and gave up the idea of going to the mission field” (1974, 41). Though this may be less the case today, the mystery of a missionary call remains elusive and confusing to many considering missionary service. In the past the missionary call was generally considered a lifetime calling, often to a single country. In some instances this placed great pressure on missionaries to remain faithful to their call, even though wisdom or obvious circumstances might have dictated a return to their country of origin.
The biblical witness presents a diverse picture of how people may be led into missionary service:
- some by supernatural calling,
- others by apparently more ordinary guidance;
- some for life, others only for a season.
Paul was supernaturally called as an “apostle to the Gentiles” (or “nations”; Acts 9:15; Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:8), indicating a particular cross-cultural or at least cross-ethnic ministry. His entire life was committed to the pioneering spread of the gospel, not limited to one geographical location or people, preaching the gospel wherever Christ was still unknown (Rom. 15:20). Timothy, on the other hand, was for a time Paul’s coworker in itinerant pioneer mission work, then for a time settled into a more pastoral ministry in Ephesus, before being summoned to rejoin Paul in Rome (2 Tim. 4:21). Many of Paul’s coworkers seem to have been only temporary assistants or emissaries for him (Ollrog 1979).
Today some make a distinction between a calling to vocational ministry, which is more a matter of spiritual gifts and is permanent, and a calling to a specific ministry assignment that may be temporary and change. Vocation in this view is more about what one does and less about where one does it (Bemis 1981; Moreau, Corwin, and McGee 2004, 170). Others maintain that there is a special gifting for cross-cultural ministry, an apostolic calling or vocation, thus making the cross-cultural nature of ministry integral to the vocation.
Throughout biblical history we read of God setting people apart for his service in a special manner. Though surely the prophets, Paul, and the Twelve played unique roles in salvation history, there is no reason to doubt that God continues to set apart people for his service—missionary or otherwise—through supernatural calling. Eckhard J. Schnabel (2008, 385–86) distinguishes between a general call of all Christians to be salt and light in the world (Matt. 5:13–16) and those called to vocational, full-time Christian ministry, citing the call of the Twelve and Paul as a model. As we discuss later, the gift of “apostle” (which can be understood as “missionary”) is a “person-gift,” seemingly indicating a more comprehensive role or office that God has assigned to certain people. The biblical language of “setting apart” and laying on of hands, as in the case of Timothy, further indicates that such a role was identified and publicly recognized as a special gifting or calling of particular people.
Jesus himself commanded his disciples to pray that the Lord of the harvest send workers into his harvest (Matt. 9:38). He is still answering this prayer today. He is the sender, and it is thus perhaps more accurate to speak of a divine “sending” rather than a “calling” to mission work (cf., Rom. 10:14–15).
Given the enormous challenges of missionary service, we should, however, not be surprised that God should in an exceptional way call, set apart, equip, and sustain those he sends. We cannot limit the manner by which the Spirit of God may lead people into his service, nor can we deny the testimony of those who with deep conviction have sensed such a divine call. At the same time, we should refrain from promoting an overly romanticized, formulaic, or dramatized scheme by which God leads or calls people into his service (see sidebar 9.1).
Several common factors, however, can be observed regarding God’s guidance of both Paul and Timothy into missionary service.
- First, we recognize that ultimately it is God who equips, directs, and sends into missionary service.
Paul could say he was “an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Gal. 1:1). Timothy’s ministry was confirmed by prophecy (1 Tim. 1:18). It is not a human decision nor merely a matter of human discernment. God is the one who distributes spiritual gifts and appoints apostles, prophets, teachers, and various ministries to individuals (1 Cor. 12:7–11, 28).
- Second, the local church had a role in confirming, if not explicitly articulating, the will of God that a person enter missionary service.
Though Paul had received his call at his conversion (Acts 22:21), this call was confirmed by Ananias (Acts 9:15) and the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1–2). Timothy was recommended by the church in Lystra (Acts 16:1–3).
- Finally, the missionaries were commissioned by the church through the laying on of hands and prayer (Acts 13:3; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6).
This indicated a special anointing of the Spirit, a setting aside for ministry, as well as the public recognition of the person’s gifting and spiritual role.
M. David Sills summarizes the various factors that might define and contribute to discerning God’s calling into missionary service:
“The missionary call includes
- an awareness of the needs of a lost world,
- the commands of Christ,
- a concern for the lost,
- a radical commitment to God,
- your church’s affirmation,
- blessing and commissioning,
- a passionate desire,
- the Spirit’s gifting,
- and an indescribable yearning that motivates beyond all understanding” (2008, 30).
all the above was taken from
Ott, Craig, Stephen J. Strauss, and Timothy C. Tennent. Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues. Edited by A. Scott Moreau. Encountering Mission. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010.