Everyone who goes through the IMB appointment process to serve overseas hears the same question over and over again. “How were you called to missions?” The repetition is good because it’s an important and necessary question.
The task of overseas missions is not an easy one. It takes a toll on a person to move to another country, to be surrounded by and try to learn a language they don’t understand, to immerse themselves in a strange culture, and to try to share the gospel with people who have never heard it and may think the message is as foreign and out of place as the messenger is.
There comes a point—usually around the four- to six-month mark—when every new worker wants to pack up and move back to the States. It’s times like these that a solid sense of calling from God keeps you from doing so. The conviction of calling continues to do its work in the years that follow, keeping you on the field through the seasons of life and pressing you into the task when it gets hard. People who lack deep conviction that they are called by God to the missionary task often don’t last long on the field.
Calling is not Mystical
Evangelical culture has developed a form of mysticism around the idea of calling. We expect it to come in the form of a vision, an audible voice, or even the clouds arranging themselves into words in the sky. We act as though Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–19) is the normative pattern for the missionary call. In the process, we discount the fact that many effective missionaries have been called to service overseas simply through the mundane processes of studying the Word of God and learning about the need for the gospel around the world.
At the same time, perhaps unconsciously, we’ve reinvented the medieval hierarchy of levels of calling, with ordinary, uncalled believers at the bottom, those called to be pastors next, and those called to be missionaries at the top of this imaginary spiritual ladder. Many “normal” Christians excuse themselves from Christian service because they haven’t had a dramatic call and they don’t feel like super-saints.
All missionaries on furlough go through the experience of being put on a pedestal and hailed as heroes of the faith. It’s all very flattering, but could it be that it is actually an act of avoidance on the part of church members in the United States? After all, if Christians think that missionaries are heroic superstars set apart through a dream or vision, and if that’s never happened to them personally, then they’re off the hook.
What the Bible Means by “Call”
The Bible uses the word “call” very differently. Sometimes it is used in ordinary, secular ways, like when Herod “called the Magi” (Matt. 2:7). On the other hand, when God is the one doing the calling, it’s most often the call to salvation. God calls sinners to himself through the message of the gospel. This is the calling that the New Testament talks about the most by a huge margin, and it’s a calling that every Christian has received.
God calls sinners to himself through the message of the gospel.
Furthermore, this call to salvation comes as a package deal. Everyone who is called to salvation also is called to live a holy life (Eph. 4:1–16, 1 Pet. 1:14–2:3). We are all called to freedom in the gospel (Gal. 5:13). We are called to suffer for the gospel (John 15:18–21, Phil. 1:28–30, 2 Tim. 3:12, 1 Pet. 2:19–21). We are called to the mission God has given his people because everyone who responds to the call of the gospel becomes an heir of Jesus’s command to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20).
The call of God on our lives extends even to the ordinary activities and relationships of our station in life. Things like singleness or marriage, family, location and vocation, and church membership are not mere circumstances in the life of a disciple of Jesus, but aspects of God’s call on our lives to live for his glory (1 Cor. 1:26–31, 7:1–40; Eph. 4:1–16, 5:22–6:4).
The Call to Serve
Finally, the call of God to salvation includes an inseparable call to service—both service to the body of Christ and service to the spread of the gospel in the world. No one is unneeded and no one is excluded (Matt. 4:21; Acts 13:1–3, 16:10; 1 Cor. 12:1–31).
Therefore, there is no hierarchy of Christians with varying levels of calling. All believers are called by God to salvation, to holiness, to freedom, to suffering for the gospel, to station in life, and to service. The question is not, “Am I called?” The question for every believer, rather, is “How am I called?” The specifics of location, circumstances of life, and forms of service may vary over the course of our lives, but the fact of our calling remains constant.
The question is not, “Am I called?” The question for every believer, rather, is “How am I called?”
We are called to faithfulness of service in a particular place and through a particular vocation until God makes it clear that he wants us to go somewhere else or do something else. Difficulty or opposition to our work does not justify leaving or quitting. This is the why a strong conviction of call from God is essential for endurance in God’s service.
Called through the Local Church
The details of God’s call on our lives aren’t things we should determine on our own. Just as Paul and Barnabas were called to go on their first missionary journey in the company of the church and in the context of worship, God has given us the body of Christ to discern and affirm the gifts God has given us and the ways he has called us (Acts 13:1–3, 1 Cor. 12:1–11, Eph. 4:1–16).
It’s never wise to attempt to discern God’s call on your life in isolation. God has called every disciple of Jesus to serve him in the church and in the world. For some of us, that involves crossing cultural barriers to take the gospel to those who have never heard it. All of us, however, are to be involved in the process of getting the gospel to those who have never heard it. We figure out our part through study of Scripture, prayer, and the counsel of the body of Christ as we speak into one another’s lives.