As we close out nearly three decades on the mission field and approach an imminent transition back to the United States, I have become more reflective and thoughtful about the process that God used to lead us and sustain us overseas for so many years.
I have noticed a recent tendency in the US church to downplay a missionary or cross-cultural call and gifting. I believe that the motive is to highlight every believer’s responsibility to “make disciples of all nations.” And while the sentiment is appreciated, it seems like the rhetoric may be misplaced.
“I have seen hundreds travel to new cultures because they felt a sense of duty but did not stay long because they had no sense of calling.”
Some would say that every disciple is a missionary. I have not found the chapter and verse for such a conclusion. (I have never heard these same pastors declare “every disciple is a pastor.”) The closest I see in Scripture is that every believer is a witness (Acts 1:8). Some are equipped and called to witness in their home culture and others are called to cross linguistic and cultural barriers to share the hope of the gospel, make disciples, establish communities of faith (i.e. churches), and train leaders in other cultures.
Proponents of the universal missionary call for believers may assert that they do not find a chapter and verse for such a call. I agree with others who conclude that the role of apostleship (small “a”) carries the intention of “sent ones” taking the message of the kingdom beyond current locales and restraints. Passages like Ephesian 4:11-12 illuminate the various roles that Spirit-filled disciples fill and describe apostles as gifts to the church so that it will function fully and vibrantly. These small “a” apostles are called and sent with a message, especially to places where the message has not gone.
Describing the Call
A mission agency leader recently referred to the “missionary call” as a nebulous, subjective experience with no clear biblical warrant. I found myself trying to describe such a call to someone who has never experienced it. I liken it to describing the taste of a banana to someone who has never eaten one. I was also tempted to conclude that according to such logic, Nepal does not exist simply because I have not been there or experienced it.
One may argue that we would really be better off if we dropped an expectation for a missionary call. Does this not limit those who may “want” to go? Would it give an “out” to those who secretly are frightened and can claim a “no call” exemption or 4-F designation from active duty? Possibly, but I have seen hundreds travel to new cultures because they felt a sense of duty but did not stay long because they had no sense of calling.
“The Great Commission was given to the church. The church is ultimately responsible for making disciples of every nation.”
Considerations of the Call
What about practical considerations? It is currently popular to conclude that millennials will simply not stay in an overseas assignment for more than 10 years. First, I disagree that a person’s year of birth determines their level of obedience to their Lord and Master. Second, I personally have seen the fruit of raising the bar, not lowering it, with clear expectations and a mission that is worth pursuing. Also, the damage done by those who are attracted to the adventure of missions without the basic certainty of their marching orders is incalculable. We do not need to change the clear trajection of the biblical story because of currently perceived norms.
Should we conclude that missions must, therefore, be limited to the hands of the missionaries? A similar question would be, should we conclude that the work of the church must be limited to the hands of the pastors? No! The Great Commission was given to the church. The church is ultimately responsible for making disciples of every nation. The church has gifted individuals with specific roles and vast members with assorted gifts, which should be used to pursue the Great Commission in current Jerusalems, Judeas, Samarias, and to the far corners of the world.
Celebrating the Call
The International Mission Board not only affirms the missionary call but celebrates it! Such a call does not designate the recipient as a greater follower of the Master, nor an inferior one, but simply one with clear marching orders to cross-cultural and linguistic barriers to take the gospel to unserved or underserved locations. As we transition back to the United States, I pray that the Lord of the harvest will call and thrust out more workers to his global field.