Seminary Viewpoints

Is There a Call to Missions?

Greg Mazak | September 23, 2020
Viewpoint Blog

A student stopped by my office after class. Not raised in a Christian home, she had come to Christ as a young adult. Zealous to glorify God, and burdened to make disciples for His kingdom, she was prayerfully considering missionary service. I suggested that she contact a mission agency to share her burden and gather information. She was hesitant to do this—fearing that they would ask about her missionary “call.” As she understood it, she didn’t have one. 

Many Christians have wondered if they should enter vocational ministry. They have heard moving testimonies describing how others were called into Christian service as God clearly spoke to them. Others don’t claim to have actually received extra-biblical revelation, but testify to having sensed a specific supernatural summons while listening to a sermon, attending a conference or viewing a missionary presentation. They were overcome with a conviction that they should enter vocational service. The intensity of the experience made it seem as if God was directly and specifically speaking to them. They refer to this as the day that God called them into the ministry, or the moment that they were called to be a missionary.  

the divine voice

Of course, it is difficult to know what others actually mean as they testify of such a call. We wonder if they are speaking literally as they explain that they heard the voice of God. Certainly, we know that God is able to directly communicate with audible words, having done this in the past. As the first missionary journey commenced,

The Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).

The early church leaders weren’t responding to what they felt (a burden, urge, or impulse) but what the Holy Spirit said. This leads to many questions. Is God currently revealing truth apart from Scripture to select individuals through audible speech—or visions, dreams or impulses? [1] Does God have an “individual will” that each believer must somehow discover, a will that is more specific than his revealed moral will, yet not the same as his secret or sovereign will? [2] To what extent is God’s supernatural communication to that early church in Antioch to send forth Paul and Barnabas normative for today? These are all related to the question at hand, i.e., is there a call to be a missionary?                 

In one sense all followers of Christ have been called. There is a general call or invitation for sinners to put faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Lk. 5:32), a call that many reject (cf. Mt. 22:1-9). Yet believers are recipients of a more specific call, an effectual call to salvation which is given to all whom God predestined (Rom 8:30).  Recipients of this call believe the gospel and put faith in Christ. As Paul explains,

But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I Cor. 1:23-24)

desire isn’t enough

To clarify our question, is there a select group of believers that receive a supernaturally communicated divine invitation to engage in vocational Christian ministry in general, or to missionary service in particular? No doubt many feel that way, having an incredibly strong desire to serve Christ in vocational ministry. I share that desire. [3] Perhaps this is a good place to start, as we consider the pastoral epistles.  Paul wrote,

If any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. (I Tim. 3:1)

To long to serve Christ as an elder is to desire a good work. [4] I can’t imagine any church hiring a pastor who didn’t want to be their pastor, or supporting a missionary who didn’t want to be a missionary. [5] Desire is necessary, yet desire is not enough. The person must also be qualified for the task, evidencing both moral integrity and ability (cf. I Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Men who possess these attributes may have the providential opportunity to serve as elders in the office of overseer as they shepherd/pastor an assembly, one or more giving special emphasis to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word (I Tim. 5:17). The person’s integrity and ability must be recognized by the church, who would issue an invitation or “call” to serve in this way. [6] Hopefully, they would give this careful and prayerful consideration, reflecting on Paul’s counsel,

Don’t be too quick to appoint anyone as an elder (I Tim. 5:22; HCSB). 

The emphasis appears to be on allowing enough time to evaluate the candidate’s qualifications and character rather than seeking to determine if he has experienced a supernatural summons.                                  

This in no way discounts the ministry of the Holy Spirit, but acknowledges that the Holy Spirit often works through means. Returning to the account of that first great missionary trip, Luke records that the church in Antioch “sent them away” on their journey (Acts 13:3), yet one verse later describes them as “being sent out by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:4). The Spirit used the church to send forth these missionaries. In a similar way the Spirit illumines ours mind to the Scriptures enabling us to understand the gospel, to know God, to love Him and others, and to apply the truth of His Word to every decision we face, including vocational decision making.    

asking the right questions

What then does it mean to be “called” to be a missionary? Perhaps it is less mystical than some suggest as basic questions are considered. Has the person prayerfully considered how he can best use his or her gifts to serve the church and glorify God? Peter wrote,  

As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.  Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (I Pet. 4:10-11)

Are they providentially able to serve Christ in the desired role? Do they meet the moral requirements for those in ministry? Does the person’s local church recognize these realities in the candidate, and are they willing to send them forth to labor? [7]   

Many believers wrestle with these questions. As they struggle to answer them, they wisely pray, listen to sermons, attend conferences, read missionary biographies, counsel with church leaders and go for long walks. Should they expect to receive a supernaturally communicated summons as they are divinely called to be a vocational missionary? There is no reason to expect it. Would seeking or requiring such a “call” actually result in fewer people pursuing missionary service? That is a difficult question to answer, but it did for at least one of my students. Others have observed this same phenomenon.[8] 

Greg Mazak (PhD) is a professor of Biblical Counseling at BJU Seminary. In addition to teaching, he also serves as the primary pastor-teacher of Trinity Bible Church in Greer, South Carolina .

[1] When presented with this question in class, most of my undergraduate students answer, “Yes.”  When asked if they believe in extra-biblical revelation, most answer, “No.”

[2] “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” (Dt. 29:29) This verse suggests a secret / sovereign will, as well as a revealed / moral will.  Yet is there an individual will that a person must somehow discover, e.g., one specific vocation in which to labor, one specific person to marry, one specific church to join, one specific vehicle to purchase or one specific pair of shoes to wear?  For a practical treatment of this issue from a cessationist viewpoint, see David Swavely, Decisions, Decisions: How (and How Not) to Make Them (P & R Publishing, 2003).

[3] One of my greatest joys in life is serving as an elder of Trinity Bible Church, filling the role of the primary pastor-teacher. 

[4] Titus 1:5-7 equates an elder with an overseer.  An elder serves as an overseer as he shepherds a congregation (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; I Peter 5:1-2).

[5] Although Paul addresses the ministry of an elder, I am taking the liberty to loosely apply his requirements to missionaries as well, realizing that will at times include women.   

[6] When a church decides to hire a man to serve in pastoral ministry, they often describe it as issuing a “call,” a usage that further complicates this issue.

[7] This approach to determining if one is “called” is similar to James M. George, “The Call to Pastoral Ministry,” (pp. 102-15) in John MacArthur Jr., ed., Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry (Word, 1995).

[8] An example is Kevin DeYoung’s book, Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will (Moody, 2014).  The book cover includes the subtitle, “How to make a decision without dreams, visions, fleeces, impressions, open doors, random bible verses, casting lots, liver shivers, writing in the sky, etc.”

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