Exploring the Call to Missions
Below is a blog post on exploring the call to missions written by a global missionary partner we support.
What is a call to missions? If we have been in the faith long enough, we have heard this phrase thrown around in various situations. But in order to really get at this we need some definitions first because the words mission, missions, and missionary are not explicitly found in the Bible. But they are helpful terms to summarize certain activities and roles that we do see in Scripture and we need to understand these in order to rightly view the missionary call.
Scholars who study this field (who are called missiologists) often define mission (without an s) something like this:
“Mission is everything in the world that Christians are called to do as they reflect the nature of our Creator God by obeying His commandments.” Activities listed as mission-activities typically include things like poverty relief, orphan and widow care, evangelism, Bible translation and even cross-cultural church-planting. This is used as a catch-all term to encompass lots of different things. Missiologists also frequently highlight that the mission of the church is actually God’s mission in the sense that He is the one who told Christians to do these things and that he gives us the gifts and strength we need to carry these things out. Indeed, God is the one who is on mission and we are the ones who get to join him in this work.
Missions (with and s) is often defined as a subset of mission (without an s) that focuses on taking the gospel of Jesus Christ across linguistic, cultural and/or geopolitical boundaries in order to plant healthy churches in places that have very few (if any) Christians or churches. We see various people throughout the NT engaging in this type of pioneering gospel work.
Missionary is often defined as someone who participates in the task of taking the gospel across boundaries aka missions (with an s). Examples of these people in the NT include Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Titus, etc. BUT there are some who do not want to limit this word to those are engaged in missions (with an s) and instead want to say that a missionary is someone who participates in the mission (without an s) of God in any way. Thus, you will sometimes hear the phrase everyone is a missionary.
And while I can appreciate the desire contained in this phrase to stimulate every Christian to obey Christ by loving our neighbors and sharing the gospel with people around them, it is helpful to guard the word missionary for those who take the gospel across boundaries and seek to cooperate with the Lord to build his church where it doesn’t really exist yet. This activity is very close to God’s heart since his plan is to draw people to himself from every tribe, tongue, nation and people. This is where all of history is heading! By guarding a descriptor for people who do this, we can make sure to prioritize this particular task. We do not want to let this crucially important undertaking get lost in the shuffle with all of the other good things we can and should do for God and His Kingdom.
So as we look the call to missions over the next few minutes, we will do so with these above definitions in mind.
So what do I really mean when I speak about the call to missions?
It is the process by which someone discerns that the Lord wants them to spend their lives proclaiming the gospel and participating in church planting/strengthening in an area of the world that has little to no access to the gospel message.
This can seem like a pretty nebulous thing that is difficult to get our arms around or understand completely. But thankfully we have several examples of people whose names and stories are in the NT who went through this exact process, came to this conclusion and then walked it out.
Example 1: Paul
In Acts 9, Paul is literally and supernaturally knocked to the ground by the Lord Jesus and towards the middle of this chapter God says that he has chosen Paul to carry his name before the Gentiles and the kings of Israel. He then begins to preach about Jesus, spends some time in both the desert and with the church in Jerusalem, and eventually makes his way to the church of Antioch where he spent a good bit of time serving and teaching in the church there before he was officially sent off in Acts 13 on the first of his three missionary journeys in the book of Acts. And the rest is history. He spent the rest of his earthly life making Christ known where he had not yet been named.
Example 2: Timothy
Another person in Scripture who obeyed this call to missions on their life was Timothy. Paul passed through Timothy’s hometown of Lystra during his first missionary journey and returned there near the beginning of his second missionary journey. From Acts 16 and 2 Tim. 1:5, we learn that Timothy was a young man who had a good reputation in the church there and who knew the Scriptures well because of the godly influence of his family. Paul learned these things about him and decided he would be a good fit and Timothy agreed that he wanted to go with Paul…so he did. From this point on Timothy was a constant companion of Paul’s throughout the rest of his life. Perhaps his most difficult task involved temporarily pastoring the church in Ephesus and putting it back into order. This is the occasion for the two letters (1 and 2 Tim) written by Paul to Timothy to encourage him in this task.
So what do we do with all of this info? These men became convinced that they needed to do this important work of planting and strengthening churches in places where the gospel had not yet taken root on a large scale. So how did they come to the decision to embrace this call and how did they function after receiving this call?
Let’s look at similarities and differences in their respective calls and glean some things as we go along.
- Both of them were heavily involved in the life of the church before they dedicated themselves to leaving their homes and lives behind in order to heed this missionary call. They had good reputations as normal, faithful Christians and were affirmed by their churches as being particularly fit for this type of task due to their maturity level and giftings. Their decision to heed this call to go was not a purely individual one but also a collective one. This is an extremely important piece that needs to be in place for anyone thinking about going into missions and heeding this missionary call.
- Both of them clearly displayed an internal desire to do this type of work…even if God did have to temporarily blind Paul to get his attention…he did eventually come around and displayed such a strong desire to plant and strengthen new churches that even 3 shipwrecks didn’t stop him from doing so.
- Paul’s initial call to missions came directly from God himself and was undoubtedly supernatural. While the impetus behind Timothy’s decision to spend his life doing missions was much simpler and even unexciting compared to Paul’s. Basically, there was a need and he volunteered to go and then he did. No supernatural signs occurred at the moment that this decision was made and yet his decision to go was obviously blessed by the Lord as well just like Paul’s was.
Now if you have spent much time around missionaries they will often have pretty remarkable stories concerning how they decided to go into missions. Sometimes they describe an audible (or inaudible) voice that came to them during their quiet time telling them to go. Or sometimes they flip open their Bible and land on a verse about going to the nations and God grips them in a very real way that they just can’t shake. I have even heard a guy say that he was thinking about going and asked the Lord to make it clear to him if this is what he was supposed to do…and then three people in the same day called him and told him that they thought the Lord wanted him to go into missions. But for the grand majority of people…their story is much more bland. They were growing in their faith and in their commitment to the church, were hearing about God’s love for the nations as they heard the Bible taught, got involved in doing evangelism in their community and then an opportunity arose to do this in a cross-cultural setting and they took this opportunity and really loved it. And then they decided to eventually do this full-time. So when we are processing this decision let’s neither overvalue nor discount the supernatural type of call, but let’s also affirm the more normal means that God often uses to bring people to this decision of spending their life for the sake of the gospel among those who are unreached.
- Another key difference between Paul and Timothy’s experience of the call to missions was the role they envisioned and ultimately played in this task. When Timothy was processing whether to go or not, he knew that he would not be taking the lead but would be learning from Paul as he went. Furthermore, throughout his life Paul seemed to stay in the role of pioneer missionary who was constantly going to new places, while Timothy was often tasked with staying in these new congregations and teaching them how to live the Christian life together.
What does this mean? Well it means that there are different roles to play in getting the gospel to the nations and that we should not make the mistake of rejecting a call to missions because we are not theological enough or because we are not bold enough evangelistically. By working in a team, missionaries can fill in where others on their team lack. One urgent need, for example in the Muslim world, is for single and married women to work together in order to get the good news to Muslim women because it is culturally inappropriate for men to do so.
So to sum up some of the things concerning the call to missions in the pages of the NT, there are both subjective and objective components to this call.
Subjectively-speaking, for the person who is trying to discern whether or not God wants them to heed a call to missions there must be an internal desire to go and participate in this type of work. If this desire is not currently in place in the life of a person then this is fine. Not everyone is called to go. But we know this type of desire pleases the Lord and even if it is not currently present in someone’s life, it could be in the future, so it is good to keep this as a regular conversation topic in our lives as Christians.
Objectively-speaking, there should be a certain, visible level of Christian maturity and doctrinal understanding in place if someone is considering embarking on this task. And their maturity and doctrinal understanding need to correspond to the role they are going to play. This is common sense, but if a person is wanting to move to an uncontacted tribe in order to learn their language, communicate the gospel and plant a church among them…all while keeping their sanity and family afloat, then they are going to be particularly mature, well-trained and doctrinally sound. But if, for example, a young person is considering joining an existing missionary team for a few years and will be under the supervision of an experienced missionary…and their primary role is to share the gospel with students, then they definitely need to be somewhat mature and understand the gospel. But they do not need to be as mature or well-trained as the person reaching out to the uncontacted tribe.
And since these objective elements of the missionary call are best measured in community (since left to ourselves we typically grade ourselves on a curve), a person trying to discern whether or not to go needs to do so by fully involving their local church and particularly the leadership throughout the process. Paul and Timothy were known and loved by their fellow church members, were tested, approved and then sent out by them to do the work of missions. One of the great tragedies in missions today is that many missionaries operate completely independently from a local church body back in their home countries and this leads to all kinds of problems.
So, practically-speaking, what should a person who is interested in trying to discern a call to missions actually do in order to explore this further?
- Be a good church member. Get to know those in the church who are different than you and serve in various ministry capacities. Ask the leadership for feedback on both your life and spiritual giftings.
- Learn and appropriate the grand narrative of the Bible so that you can better articulate the gospel message to others. And then actually portion out some time each week to share the gospel and/or read the Bible with non-believers.
- Become an expert in the doctrine of the church. Since the goal of missions is the planting of churches among those who have little to no access to the gospel, then you need to know what the Bible teaches about what a church is and does.
- Pray, fast and read good books (Ex: Operation World, Let the Nations Be Glad, Missions by Andy Johnson).
- Go on a short-term trip with others from CCC.
- Go on a medium-term assignment (6 months to 2 years) to see what daily life is really like in a cross-cultural setting.
God is infinitely worthy of being worshipped by all peoples. May more and more people from our own congregation pray, give and ultimately go so that those who have never heard might enter into the joy of their Master.