By Paul Borthwick
Paul is a leading mission speaker and senior consultant for Development Associates International. He is also a leader in the SVM2 network.
“No aspect of the Christian mission is more puzzling than the problem of a call.”
That’s how J. Herbert Kane starts his book, Life and Work on the Mission Field. He knows that nothing needs to be said about ministering in a cross-cultural situation until the issue of “the call” is settled in people’s minds.
Yet we still flounder around – What is the “call?” How do I know if I’m “called?” Where do my desires fit in? If I’m “called,” how do I know where I am called to?
Some message bearer leaders have tried to deal with the problem of the call by discounting it. Back in the early 1980’s, Keith Green’s pamphlet “Why You Should Go to the Mission Field” basically reaffirmed his belief that “we don’t need a call; we need a kick in the pants!”
Others seem to imply that common sense knowledge is enough: “if the needs are greater overseas, then every one of us should be “planning to go” until God directly intervenes and calls us to stay home. Still others take a “the Bible says it; that settles it” approach: “just read your Bible and God will show you.”
But this still leaves most of us confused when it comes to where we should go, what we should do, and what team we should join.
(Author’s note: my experience has shown that people’s sense of call often falls into three categories.
People sense a call to a) a location or a people group (as in Paul’s desire to go to Spain or Hudson Taylor’s zeal for China); b) a task (for example: pioneer evangelism or health care or Bible translation or church planting movements); or c) a team (as illustrated by the couple who said, “We love Frontiers and we just want to go with them.”
These three directions for the call, however, should be the subject of a separate article.)
Back to “The Call”: the problem with negating the concept of the call is that it overlooks the scriptures, for many disciples and message bearers were Indeed “called.”
On the other hand, the scriptures can be abused when we all want to be called in the same dramatic, miraculous way that Isaiah was (see Isaiah 6:1-8) or Jonah was (see Jonah 1-3).
So where do we find the answers? Do we just imitate our understanding of message bearers of the past and try to feel called as they were? Where do the scriptures fit in? And how does our expanded base of knowledge about the world fit?
For guidance, let’s look to the book of Acts, the primary “message bearer” text of the scriptures. In the accounts in the book of Acts, we have at least three types of “calls,” and, by evaluating these calls, we can learn for ourselves the various ways that God may lead us out into cross-cultural ministry.
CALL #1 – The Mysterious Call. In this example, the call comes directly (and even audibly) from God Himself. Peter received a direct dream (three times!) from God which commanded him to go to the Gentiles with the Gospel (see Acts 10).
Paul heard the Lords voice and became a Christian (Acts 9), and later he went to the Macedonians in response to a dream from God (16:9). These (like the call of Isaiah or Jonah referred to earlier) were mysterious, miraculous interventions by God.
The problem with mysterious calls is that everyone wants one. When someone says, “God hasn’t called me into missions,” they often mean, “I have received no dream or revelation to go.” But the error here is that these mysterious calls are exceptional, not normal.
There are other, more common ways that God calls us into missions.
CALL #2 – The Commissioned Call. This type of call occurs in Acts 13, when the church in Jerusalem specifically Identifies (through prayer and fasting) two individuals to go out as missionaries to Antioch.
In this case, there is not so much mystery; instead, it is the Holy Spirit speaking through the church leadership. (If you can find a copy, read Michael Griffith’s book Who Really Sends the Missionary? based on this text.)
How does this apply to today? Those interested in ministry get involved. Church leaders and elders can affirm and identify spiritual gifts and leadership abilities. And then – in the spirit of prayer and reliance on the Holy Spirit, the leadership affirms and commissions the person or people ministering for cross-cultural outreach.
So, next time an elder or church leader tells you that you have cross-cultural gifts that could benefit the church of Jesus Christ, don’t take these words lightly. They may be God’s words to you, designed to be part of God’s call on your life.
If we are to be serious about this commissioning type of call, we must be open to the advice of others. Perhaps we should go to the elders to ask them to pray for us as we seek God’s direction with our lives.
Perhaps we need to request the prayers of our pastors or even the missions committee regarding where God wants us. If we do this, we can be assured that more people are listening to God with us and for us, and when we get sent out, we’ll know that the church is behind us.
CALL #3 – The “Common Sense” Call. In this case, the example of Acts shows us how God works through our minds, our knowledge, and our common sense. When Philip was put into the presence of the Ethiopian eunuch, he was told by the Holy Spirit to go up to the guy’s chariot.
Philip did not pray, “Now Lord, what should I do?” No, he did the obvious; he “opened his mouth and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him” (Acts 8:26-40).
When Paul and Barnabas were selected out, the church made some other decisions regarding sending Judas and Silas. Although there was a strong sense of the Holy Spirit’s leading when they sent the first two, they sent the second two because “it seemed good to the apostles and the elders” (Acts 15:22).
Imagine doing something because “it seemed good to us,” yet the church leaders felt comfortable in doing so. Perhaps, as we build our own relationships with Christ and are assured of His Spirit’s guidance, we too can make decisions because “it seemed good to us.”
Perhaps some of us will see needs and respond to them because our common sense tells us that we can meet these needs. If God keeps putting Kurds in your path, use your common sense: God could be calling you to work with Kurds.
If your emails and reading are always exposing you to the spiritual hunger of the Muslim world, use your mind: this could be the way in which God will direct you into cross-cultural service.
So how does God call us? Maybe it will be a miraculous voice out of heaven. Maybe it will be a result of the counsel of others. Or it might just be God speaking through our common sense telling us, “This seems to be the right thing to do.”
It might actually come as a combination of all three. Not everyone hears the call in the same way, and we fall short when we overlook the various ways that God may call us into missions around the world.