What constitutes a missionary call? A deep inner feeling? A burning bush experience? Something just for the spiritual elite? Popular but misguided notions can confuse and hinder your discernment for God’s call. Drawing from Rev. Mack Stiles’ message at the 2013 Cross Student Missions Conference, let us clarify the fundamentals, then illustrate them with Mitch and Zoe’s story
What Is A Missionary Calling?
All Christians are called to participate in missions, but that does not make everyone a missionary. In Acts 13, only Paul and Barnabas from the Antioch Church were set apart and sent as missionaries.
Then people can go to the mission field for all kinds of reasons: to find out if they have a missionary call, to travel the world, or get a fresh start in life, etc. Some may even go to do the hardest thing and make the ultimate sacrifice in order to earn God’s love! All may feel strongly that they want to be overseas, but a strong feeling does not make a call, nor crossing the ocean a missionary.
A missionary is someone whose purpose and vocation takes him or her across cultures to make disciples. Christians who happen to live and work cross-culturally but do not have a driving intent to make disciples are not missionaries. Conversely, professionals and business people, who look nothing like traditional missionaries but live cross- culturally to make disciples through the work that they do, are. We call them bi-vocational missionaries or tentmakers after Paul, who made good tents and preached the gospel.
Missionaries are ordinary people. The missionary calling is not so high and holy that unless God splits the sky to speak from heaven you have not been called. Christians can aspire to be a missionary. You can learn about missions and pre- pare yourself for missionary work. But the missionary call is God’s initiative. It is His call.
Often, we think of calling as what we do for God. But the Bible speaks more about the call as a calling to God. When God calls, He chooses us for Himself. In the New Testament, there are thirty-nine uses of the word “calling” for salvation (e.g. Acts 2:21), and twenty instances where God calls us to live for Him as Christ-followers, maturing in holiness and Christlikeness (e.g. 2 Tim 1:8-9, Gal 5:13, Eph 4:1). Discipleship—a life called to Christ—is prerequisite in any call.
But in 1 Corinthians 1: 26-29, Paul points to the fact that God did not call the wise, the powerful, or those of noble birth; rather, He called the weak, the foolish, humble nobodies to demonstrate in them His sovereignty, wisdom, and power. The calling is not about us, whether we feel qualified or if we look the part. It is about God who calls. It is, however, up to us to respond by seeking confirmation, and obeying every step of the way.
What Inspires The Call
If you feel called to be a missionary, feelings can be a starting point. But more importantly, the inspiration should come from God’s Word. From creation to the fall, to redemption, and Christ’s return, the Bible narrative points to the missionary heart of God. God’s own Son left His home in heaven and entered our world at great cost to rescue a broken, sinful people for Himself and for His glory. Christ, the missionary God, inspires and summons us to join Him in His mission.
What Informs the Call
The calling of the would-be missionary is inform- ed by the gospel itself. You are compelled by what is at stake in people’s lives. Without the Good News. people will perish eternally. Judgment will come, and hell is real. Compelled by the compassion of Christ, you choose to go to unfamiliar, even hostile places as His ambassadors to the lost (2 Cor 5:10-19). You long for others to know the love of Christ that you have known so that He can do for them what He has done for you. Christ’s death makes you alive to God and calls you to live for others. So you choose not to prioritize yourself, your circumstances, your wants and fears, and say yes to God’s missionary call.
The gospel, rightly proclaimed, does the best long-term good for the individual and his community. Wherever the gospel goes, it not only saves souls but brings literacy, health, social and economic change. While it inspires good works and mercy, the soul-saving gospel is always at the heart of everything the missionary is called to do.
What Confirms The Call
Finally, the confirmation of the call is a personal one as well as a corporate one. It is personal for God shows you the who, what, when, where and how of the calling. It is corporate too for the Body of Christ validates your love for the church, your Christian character and witness, gifting and fruitfulness. Then you are commissioned, sent out with your church’s blessing and support.
TO KNOW IT IS HIS WILL
John Piper has this to say about the missionary calling: “The calling is not authoritative the way the Scriptures are, never beyond question. You can’t claim it to others the way you quote Scripture to them. Nevertheless your calling can be profoundly and durably sure in your own heart. It is the work of God to bring your heart to a point of conviction that, all things considered—including Scripture—this path is the path of obedience. The conviction is not infallible. But when it is of God, it brings peace.”
Piper suggests ten ways that the missionary calling is awakened in you. The Word from the Bible is the one that is infallible. All the others are relative, and they are not exhaustive. God uses ways and means in sundry combinations to let you know it is His will.
First and foremost, know your Bible. Saturate your mind with it. God’s Word will shape your mind for mission sustainability (Ps 1: 1-3) and keep the fire within you alive (Lk 24:32).
Know your gifts and know yourself. Knowing your gifts strengthens your convictions. Knowing yourself informs you of your fitness for ministry.
Consider the needs of the world. Be informed. What we know can move our hearts and minds toward commitment and action (Mt 9:36-38).
Read missionary biographies & frontline stories. Beholding so great a cloud of witnesses, your vision and desire to serve will grow (Heb 13:7).
Search your soul. Ask where your burden lies.
Know your circumstances. Family, health, finances—they all matter in your calling. You count the cost. But these can all be overridden when you are fully surrendered to Christ (Mk 10:29-30).
Pray to be used to the fullest for God’s glory. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (Jas 1:5). Pray, pray, and pray.
Do not neglect Christ-exalting worship. The call to Barnabas and Saul came in the midst of corporate worship and fasting (Acts 13:2).
Seek the counsel of mentors (2 Tim 1: 5-7).
Be fully yielded to Christ. Give your all to God. A half-hearted worker is ineffective, bears little fruit, and will not last on the field (Lk 14:26-27).
THE MISSIONARY CALL — GETTING ALIGNED
Mitch and Zoe’s faith and obedience to God brought wonder, joy, peace and thanksgiving to their six-year journey with God and with one another. During this time, God unveiled His plan for them to serve in the Middle East.
“The Middle East! Are you kidding? Why?” Mitch’s friends were shocked. To answer the question, his story goes back to 2014.
Mitch went on two short-term missions trips, and two things happened to him: he was deeply touched by God’s work out there, and he felt a growing emptiness in his heart. Somehow, the career that he had always enjoyed seemed lackluster in comparison to the compelling work of reaching the lost for Christ. Mitch wanted to quit his job and enroll in seminary full-time to prepare for ministry. He coveted Zoe’s support, especially with their son college bound. They prayed. She was on board. At once, that empty feeling vanished. With joy, he resigned from his company and started seminary in early 2015.
The Quest Begins
In the two years of theological studies, Mitch and Zoe prayerfully explored various mission fields, continually seeking God for guidance. They applied to join mission trips to places and ministries supported by their home church—China Mainland, Taiwan, Cambodia, and Russia. Oddly, each time they had been prevented from going at the last minute due to unexpected circumstances, including family sickness. These obstacles were puzzling and disappointing to them. But they knew they must be patient with God’s timing.
Winter of 2016, they were finally able to join a medical mission to the Middle East. Zoe is a medical professional. Another two years would go by before they visited this part of the world again. This second time, Zoe was presented with a professional opportunity, which could land them on the mission field.
Unlike Mitch, Zoe did not have a burden for missions to begin with. But when she accompanied him on a trip to Taiwan, that launched her faith journey toward missions.
Missions trips are transformative. Almost all missionaries started their journeys with short- term trips. The middle school students Zoe worked with taught her patience and flexibility. Furthermore, she found a new identity that changed her self image. Zoe had always seen herself as a successful career woman, which she was. But to the youth, she was this fun and endearing mother figure they could open up to and embrace. Zoe saw a new way to serve.
She and Mitch opened up their home to start a wonderful hospitality ministry, mentoring students and young professionals. They discovered their gift in many rewarding relationships—great preparation for the Middle East where hospitality is a big part of the culture.
Meantime, like Mitch, Zoe began to feel a growing debt to the gospel. Her professional aspirations seemed almost trifling in light of it. It was fall of 2016 when Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer spoke to Zoe at a conference: “Not My will but Yours be done”. The hour had come to say yes to the missionary call. There was no hesitation. Zoe’s heart was ready. Mitch and Zoe are now completely aligned.
Previously, the doors to missions that they had been knocking on kept closing. Then in the winter of 2016, shortly after Zoe responded to her call, the door to the Middle East opened.
HE WHO CALLS, CARES
Although missions is not so much about us as it is about God, God on the other hand cares not just about the mission but also about the missionary.
From a functional point of view, missionaries are important to the mission because they are the bearers of the message, the incarnation of the gospel. How they live and work, the kind of people that they are, showcase how and why the gospel is good news. The Lord who calls has reason to care about the emissaries of His mission.
At the same time, it is from His Father-heart that God calls and cares too. Missionaries are not mere servants, but sons and daughters. God offers them His fatherly wisdom and love, His power, provision, and faithfulness. What His children have experienced and known firsthand, that they can proclaim to others with confidence (1 John 1: 1-4).
Now God knew there was a child inside of Zoe that was hurting. No worldly blessing or professional accomplishment could heal it. Through a Spiritual Formation course that she took with Mitch in seminary, Zoe was enabled to face long buried wounds that were still affecting her sense of self and worth. With the ministry of the Holy Spirit, she was able to forgive, receive healing, and embrace her identity in Christ. Without this new, restored identity in Him, Zoe would not have been able to fulfill God’s calling and plan for her.
God called Zoe and cared for her. God would also show His care for Mitch before they left for the field. But it happened in a most unexpected way.
HIS TESTING & BLESSING
When Mitch and Zoe went to the refugee camp that winter of 2016, they saw the multitudes that Jesus saw in Matthew 9:36-38—sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless. “Lord, is this our mission field? Are these the people you will send us to?” they asked. “But how?” The calling was clear, the specifics were not.
God reaffirmed them with Romans 15:20-21— Paul’s ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, that those who were not told about Him would see, and those who have not heard would understand. With these words, they waited for circumstantial confirmation—how to get there.
On their second visit to the Middle East in 2018, Zoe and Mitch visited a new university that was looking to hire faculty for several departments. The provost recognized that Zoe’s expertise was what they needed, and gave her a verbal offer on the spot. What is the likelihood of a Chinese woman from the US being offered a leadership role in the academic institution of a Muslim country?
Mitch and Zoe’s faith was put to the test by many twists and turns in the candidacy process that followed. Determined not to rely on human effort and solely trust in God, they waited. “Just go with the flow,” Zoe said. They had peace.
This spring, Zoe received the official offer letter. They were thrilled. Their home church invited GLS as the partner agency to send them. All gears were set in motion. Mitch and Zoe booked an Alaskan cruise with a June 15 start date. Departure for the Middle East would be August 25.
On June 6, Mitch was rushed to the hospital with a severe flare up of chronic hepatitis. His condition deteriorated rapidly. The doctor suggested liver transplant. Incredulous and shaken that this should be happening to him, Mitch clung on to Psalm 23. It was spiritual warfare. Many people prayed. Then as suddenly as he was taken ill, Mitch turned the corner. To everyone’s surprise, he improved just enough to be discharged in time for the cruise!
Still, Zoe was worried. What if Mitch had another flare up at sea? He too was anxious. On Father’s Day, a text came from their twenty-two year old son, sharing from Mark 4:35-41. “Fear not because Jesus who stilled the tempest is Lord over nature. Trust and lean on Him so you can fully relax!” This Father’s Day text was the best gift ever. It greatly encouraged Mitch—a blessing amidst testing.
That afternoon, Mitch and Zoe were on deck to see the glacier. Although partially obscured by clouds, it was an awesome sight. When others had left for dinner and they were alone, Mitch on a whim prayed for the Lord to part the clouds and grant them a second private viewing. At 6:16 pm, the glacier reappeared for four minutes before their very eyes!
That night, unable to sleep, Mitch had the idea to look up John 6:16-20. John’s Gospel was his favorite book; 6:16 pm to 6:20 pm was when God opened up the sky. The passage tells the story of Jesus walking on water. The sea is rough, a strong wind is blowing, and the disciples are afraid. Jesus approaches their boat and tells them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Can the message be any clearer?
Mitch repented of his lack of faith, his earthbound thoughts and ways. God’s voice speaking through sickness, nature, and Scripture revived and changed him from the inside out. It gave him faith in God’s miracles for the sick in body and spirit to whom they are called to reach in the Middle East. That night, Zoe too had assurance from the Lord in a dream that put to rest all her worries.
Their commissioning service was one of joy and thanksgiving. All were challenged and blessed.