While this might surprise many, there are a lot of people who want to go into missions. Perhaps they want to because they want “adventure” (whatever that is). Some want to because it is an escape from the stress and drudgery of what they are presently doing (“maybe in a foreign place, people won’t know how messed up I am.”) There are many possible reasons from the commendable to the laughable. But somewhere in the conversation, one will usually say that a major reason for going into missions is that he or she is “CALLED.”
For some people, it is hard to understand. How could one be turned down for missions if he is “called?” If a minister is “called” by God to pastor a church, how could a church have the audacity to go against that?
The idea of calling has a long history. In the Bible, there are people who were unambiguously called by God. Moses was (Exodus 3;1-20). so was Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8). Paul seems to have been called three times– two directly (Damascus and Asia Minor) and one indirectly (Antioch). Some, like Raymond Lull (1235-1315) can describe what they felt was a pretty unambiguous calling. However, for most people going into missions, what they describe as calling is more ambiguous— part feeling/burden, part affirmation by others, part circumstances/open doors. So why might a person who has been “called” to missions be rejected (and not necessarily be at war with God’s will).
1. The theological concept of “calling” is pretty weak Biblically. I have talked about this before. Most places in the Bible, calling describes a call to follow Christ, not to seek a specific profession. The few cases (like those mentioned above) where there is a clear calling to a direct profession or vocation were clear, unambiguous, and miraculous. Should the more ambiguous burden or passion to missions be lumped together as being equivalent with the miraculous events described before? Many in the Bible appear NOT to have been called in a miraculous way. One might argue, in some cases at least, that there was a miraculous calling that was not recorded, but should that be assumed?
2. The church is responsible to evaluate pastors and deacons and missionaries and prophets. In Revelation chapter 2, the church of Ephesus was commended for testing missionaries (“apostolos”) to see if they came from God. The Didache gave some guidelines for local churches in evaluating missionaries and prophets. Paul gave guidelines for evaluating candidates for pastors/elders and deacons. It is key to note that these tests or guidelines did not have anything to do with testing the veracity of their calling. Rather they focused on their character and faith. Paul said that desiring to be a pastor/bishop is a good thing (I Timothy 3). In my mind, if calling is a requirement, then the desire would not typically be a good thing for most… it would be presumptuous.
3. Even if calling as it is popularly understood is correct, the church must separate between calling from God and those who are self-called. If one watches American Idol or The Voice, it is clear that many feel destined (called) to be the winner. Yet only one wins per season. Clearly some of the callings were wrong numbers. The church can and should evaluate whether what you feel is your call to missions is valid or not.
Garry Friesen in “Decision Making and the Will of God” makes a strong case that God gives us freedom within His moral will to make decisions. Decisions (such as who to marry, where to work, etc) as long as they conform to God’s moral will, are ours to make using our own wisdom and that of those who are competent and close to us. While, maybe Friesen takes the point too far at times (I am probably not the one to judge) I think there is a lot of truth there. In other words, unless you get an unequivocal miraculous voice of God telling you to do something (and you are not insane or highly gullible) you have freedom.
But freedom is still limited by church and mission organization. They need to verify certain things:
1. Spiritual toughness. I use this term rather than spirituality, because the term often gets linked to being mystical, ethereal, ecstatic, or cloistered. Spiritual toughness is prepared to follow God on the tough roads for the long haul. It is evidenced by durable faithfulness rather than impressive prayers, fastings, readings, preachings, or such.
2. Self-control. Financial mismanagement, sexual infidelity, or laziness are huge problems in the mission field. If one is not self-controlled at home, one won’t be on the mission field. If they are self-controlled at home, they MIGHT be self-controlled on the mission field.
3. Flexibility. To me, the two great characteristics of a missionary are willingness (to be sent, to follow God) and flexibility. Adapting to new cultures, people, and varied circumstances and tasks needs a person of flexible mind, body, and habit. A lot of emotionally brittle, doctrinally rigid, and/or ethnocentric people want to go into missions. They really shouldn’t… usually.
4. Relative sanity. I suppose the classic Catch-22 applies. You need to be sane to be a missionary, but no one sane would choose to be a missionary. Maybe it would be best to say that the level of insanity should be known and evaluated. Personality Disorders are likely to cause great problems in the mission field. Inability to handle anger effectively will sabotage mission work. A high level of defendance will make things difficult as well. Problems should be known beforehand, acknowledged, and addressed. Psycho-emotional problems on the field do not go away… they often cause huge problems for the person, for the mission field, and for the work of God.
5. Philanthropy. Okay, you don’t have to be rich and throw your money around. But the term philanthropy comes from Phileo (love) and anthropos (man or mankind). Missionaries should have genuine compassion and concern for those they work with. This love should flow naturally from the love they have for God. This love for the people they work with should be greater than their love for their own denomination. This love should be greater than the love they have for certain doctrines. This love should be greater than just for those within the walls of their church. This love should not just be limited to those who think, act, or look like themselves. Bigots/ethnocentrists (repeating myself) need not apply. Missionaries should NOT be as interested in “saving souls” as “saving lives.” Lives means saving the entire person in the now and future, rather than just getting them a golden ticket to heaven. As such, concerns should include their physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and relational well-being. They should care about issues of social justice… not in place of spiritual conversion and growth, but as a related passion for the good of those they work with.
If a mission agency will not send you… it is okay, there are other mission agencies. If no mission agency will send you… perhaps your church will send you. If your church does not think you should go… be open to the idea that you should not go. Rather than simply focusing on your own confident sense of calling, seek the wisdom of others. God is probably speaking to them just as loudly as He is talking to you. Maybe you are supposed to go on mission… but maybe it is still a time for preparation. Paul and Moses took years of preparation… so did David. The answers to the question “Is it time to go now?” are YES! NO. and SOON… When your church and your mentors believe it is time to go… be ready… the time has come.