When my wife and I first became missionaries, we heard a pastor speak about “calling” to ministry. In his message, he argued that Christians shouldn’t really think about ministry in terms of a “calling” but rather a “gifting” that each believer could use as they see fit, so long as it is in service to the kingdom. The message was a difficult one for me to hear, because we really did believe (and still do) that God had called us to be missionaries.
In the book of Ephesians, Paul says that Christ, “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry...” (Eph. 4:11-12). Paul did not say that Christ simply gave these positions of ministry in the church, but He gave the individuals who would fill them; He didn’t just give the ministry of evangelism, he gave “the evangelists.” Furthermore, didn’t God prepare all of our good works “beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10)? All of these objections raced in my mind as I tried remind myself to listen with a spirit of generosity.
I do understand the rationale behind the pastor’s argument. I have met my fair share of individuals who were convinced that God had called them to vocational ministry and—because of this conviction—refused to serve in any other area of church ministry while awaiting their “big break” (i.e., “I can’t serve in the nursery, God has called me to preach,” etc.) I have also known a number of people who were attracted to various ministries of the church who—for a variety of reasons—would never serve in those positions. To be fair to this pastor, we were right about God calling us to missions, but wrong about Him calling us to India.
I believe there can be a middle ground between the “no one is called” and the “I can only serve where I feel called” positions. I propose the following principles on which I believe both sides can (or at least should) agree:
Just because a person “feels called” to a position of ministry, doesn’t mean they are.
God may use a person in various areas of service over the course of their life.
Even if God is directing someone to a specific area of ministry, there may be seasons (even long ones) that God may use to prepare their abilities and heart.
When / where should I go?
For these reasons, Christians should approach a call (or aspiration) to missions or vocational ministry with great care. We cannot simply trust our own emotions and desires to guide us into God’s will (Pr 3:5-6). I propose five questions that each Christian should consider before pursuing the move to missionary work or other vocational ministry. These are illustrated in the biblical account of (arguably) the first missionary venture (Acts 11:19-26).
Question 1: Is there a body of believers to affirm my call?
19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.
Barnabas didn’t just decide to go to Antioch, he was sent by his church. A call to ministry should extend beyond simply a desire in us see lost people come to know Christ. There should be godly people in our life who can affirm our gifts and calling. It has been said of heaven that “Christ is preparing a place for us, and he is preparing us for that place.” The same could be said of vocational ministry. Just because a person feels called or feels ready doesn’t mean they are. We all need the local church to disciple us, affirm us, and help us examine our motives. If you don’t have godly believers who can affirm your call to a particular ministry, it likely means that either God is not directing you to that particular ministry or He is still preparing your heart and mind.
Question 2: Where do we see God’s hand moving?
21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas because God made it clear He was doing something there. They didn’t just have a missions strategist identify Antioch as a potential launch site, send a missionary, and ask God to start moving in the hearts of the people. This doesn’t mean missionaries should only go where people are “receptive” (sometimes what we perceive as “receptivity” can be unreliable). It does mean that we should seek to be attentive to where God is working and providing opportunities for us to join Him.
There can be a temptation in the world of missions to simply go wherever (and whenever) we see a need. If we are not careful, we can begin to believe that WE are the savior of lost people rather than Christ. While people everywhere need to hear the gospel, only the Holy Spirit can open their hearts to receive it. Jesus warned his disciples that, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6:44). Because of this, we should go where God is opening doors. We cannot conjure the Holy Spirit, we can only submit to Him. We must be mindful that we are entering into God’s labor (cf., Mt 9:38) not just asking Him to enter into ours.
Question 3: Do the needs of the location match my gifting?
23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.
Barnabas’ real name was actually Joseph. “Barnabas” was a nickname given to him by the apostles that meant “son of encouragement” (Ac 4:36-37). In the verses above we see that Barnabas immediately celebrated with the church and began to encourage them. The fact that Barnabas was also native of Cyprus probably gave him greater ability in the Greek language to fellowship with the church in Antioch. The point is, Barnabas’ giftings made him uniquely suited to the field that he was entering.
I once heard a story of an older missionary meeting a new missionary on an airplane. The younger missionary began to talk about the lost culture in which he would be living.
“What will you be doing there?” the older missionary asked.
“Leading lost people to Jesus,” the young missionary answered.
“And how many lost people have you led to Jesus in your own culture?” the older pressed.
The reality is that vocational ministry and missionary work is difficult; no one should come to it hoping to “try their hand” at it, or because they have struck out somewhere else. To use an imperfect metaphor, before I become a professional at something, I should probably see how I fare at the amateur level. A call to vocational ministry should follow from years of faithful service in a local church where one can practice and hone their skills under the direction of godly leaders and church members. This principle echoes Jesus’ teaching that more would be given to the one who was faithful with small things (Mt. 25:21, 23).
Question 4: Who will I partner with on the field?
25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch.
As the church in Antioch began to grow, Barnabas recognized he needed help. He knew firsthand that Saul (i.e., the apostle Paul) was particularly equipped to minister among the Gentiles (cf. Acts 9:27-30). Instead of seeking to meet every need the growing church had, Barnabas sought workers who would partner with him. Prospective missionaries would be wise to follow his examples.
One of the great dangers in the Christian faith is the temptation of self-reliance. It is not an accident that Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs (Luke 10:1) or that he described ministry as a group project (John 4:37-38). We need partners in ministry not merely to offset our weaknesses but also to hold us accountable, encourage us, and challenge our ideas. This is all the more true in contexts where we are engaging with people whose language and culture is much different than our own.
It can be tempting to seek out fields where we see a great need. The world is full of places like Bangladesh, India, and Japan where there is little or no access to the gospel. But before missionaries trek out into any of these places, one of the first questions we should ask is, “Who will I be working with?”. If you do not have a potential partner on the field, I would encourage you to prayerfully wait until the Lord provides a ministry partner.
Question 5: Can I stay the course?
For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
Before coming to the field where I currently serve, my wife and I explored several missionary opportunities. While exploring these locations, two questions helped filter what places would be potential options for us:
Are there ministry needs that our family can potentially meet?
Is there a good English language school and community?
Some people might argue that this second question is inappropriate for someone who takes missions seriously, but nothing can be further from the truth. As a husband and father, my family is my primary ministry. I knew that, given the ages and needs of my kids, asking them to learn a new language before they could have friends would make a difficult transition unbearable. Ultimately, if my family can’t thrive on the field, we will not be able to stay.
Of course, the needs of each person’s family are different, and every location will come with some challenges. But, when considering all the information available, no one should enter a field or ministry without the confidence they can endure it long term. Statements like, “I don’t know how we will make it, but we will just trust God,” do not arise from faithfulness, but foolishness. Just as Jesus speaks of the unwise person who is not willing to count the cost of being his disciple, we do not want to be like the man who “began to build and was not able to finish” (Luke 14:25-29).
The world needs more ministers and missionaries, but we need men and women who are willing to lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel. Is it you? Have you been seasoned and affirmed by a body of believers? Has the Lord made a specific opportunity to serve clear? Will you be teachable and do the hard work whether it means going or waiting? Will you take up the mantle of the Great Commission and bring it to a dying world? Come forth O men and women of God, and take up the work; the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.