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Missions 101

What is a Missionary Call? (Part 2)

Nov. 28, 2012By: Evan Burns

In this post and the previous one, the uniqueness of a missionary call is being discussed.

HOW DO YOU DISCERN THE CALL?

What separates a missionary from the common Christian?  What does it mean to be called?  So many young people have wondered, “What exactly is a missionary call and how can I know I have that call?”  J. Herbert Kane says that some people claim the missionary has to have a “Macedonian call” like Paul as seen in Acts 16:9-10.  Kane goes on to say that such a call is often connected to visions, dreams, voices, and the like. According to this viewpoint, without the existential experience it is impossible to receive a missionary call.  Thus, every Christian should seek out such an experience and wait until it comes.[1]

The second common viewpoint, according to Kane, is similar to what has already been mentioned in yesterday's post.  It says that all Christians are missionaries, so no call of any kind is required.  Missionary work is no different from any other Christian service.  However, both of these positions are inaccurate.  An adherent to the first position may wait around too long, waiting for a vision.  An adherent to the second position may go overseas and then return home frustrated and thus feel like a failure. 

A BIBLICAL MODEL

The New Testament model is often overlooked. In Acts 11:22, the church in Jerusalem sent out Barnabas when they heard that certain men in Cyprus and Cyrene were evangelizing Greeks in Syrian Antioch.  Nothing is said of calls for volunteers, nothing of Barnabas’ own personal subjective call.  It does not mean he did have one; but it should be noted that the church sent him.  He was a Cypriot Jewish Christian and therefore known to the Antioch evangelists (Acts 11:20), many of whom were Cypriots.  He was full of the Holy Spirit, and he was a good man.  He was named “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36).  He was a great encourager and probably a soul-mender.  He appears to have been selected according to his suitability.  He was sent by the church as the best man for the job.

A year later Paul and Barnabas set out on their first missionary endeavor, which was not an individualistic decision.  Acts 13:1-3 clearly says that the Lord spoke to the whole group of leaders in the Antioch church.  It was a group decision.  Later Paul chooses Silas (Acts 15:40) who was a leader among the brethren (Acts 15:22), a prophet himself (15:32), and he was therefore qualified to aid Paul on his mission. 

When they return to Galatia, they meet Timothy, “well spoken of by the bretheren in Lystra and Iconium” (Acts 16:2).  The text says Paul wanted to take him.  It does not say what Timothy felt or wanted, but it does say that Paul took the initiative and called Timothy. 

In all three examples, (sending of Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy) the Bible neither emphasizes the individual initiative, nor the subjective sense of a call.  Rather, it always shows the initiative of others, either of a congregation or of other Christians already active in such work.  This does not eliminate the value of a personal subjective call altogether.  But it at least demonstrates the biblical priority for how to discern who should be sent.

So, how in the world do we know if what we are feeling is a true call?  Is it only an invitation by a second party, or is it the individual’s initiative?  I propose that the missionary call is both an individual, subjective conviction and a corporate, objective confirmation.  A potential missionary must have a subjective call—an unwavering, resolute conviction that is truly from God Himself.  However, at the same time the individual must be careful not to confuse the “quiver in his liver” with the voice of God.  The solution to this uncertainty is objective confirmation of one’s own genuine subjective call.  Michael Griffiths outlines two steps in hearing this objective call.  First, he says that the congregation which knows the candidate best must make an objective recognition of his strengths.  Such people know his gifts and usefulness.  Secondly, the call may also be confirmed by the invitation of those involved already in some distant work of cross-cultural ministry, who, on recommendation of the church, see here a potential fellow worker.  Therefore, with the subjective sense of the call of God (“I feel the Lord wants me”), there is the objective confirmation of the sending church (“We feel the Lord has set you apart to go and he wants us to send you”), and of the receiving missionary (“We know there is a need and we believe that you are the kind of person the Lord want to be with us”).[2]  This model from Acts is not only individual, but it is also corporate.  This is how God so often works with us.  He uses the Body of Christ to accomplish His tasks.

 


[1] J. Herbert Kane, Life and Work on the Mission Field (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 1.

[2] Michael Griffiths, Give Up Your Small Ambitions (Nashville: Accelerated Christian Education, 1993), 17.

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