Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Missionary Call - from a Member Care Perspective PART I


In this paper, we will focus on the missionary call. This topic will require some theological treatment. The main focus of this paper, however, is to address the missionary call within a member care focus. This paper focuses on the question of how the missionary call affects recruitment, screening and sustainment of missionaries on the field. What is the relationship between the missionary call and missionary attrition? Finally, what best practices can sending agencies implement based on what we know about the missionary call from a member care focus?

The Missionary Call: Its Existence

I have never personally met a missionary or a church that denied the existence of the missionary call. It seems largely agreed upon that the missionary call exists. The exact nature of this missionary call, however, is often disputed. J. Herbert Kane goes so far as to muse, “No aspect of the Christian mission is more puzzling than this problem of a call.”

Writers differ in regards to this call. Even among those writers who largely agree, particular emphases emerge. Knowing that definitions of the missionary call vary, my attempt is as follows: a missionary call is a strong desire upon a believer, based on God’s Word and confirmed by the larger body of Christ, to serve full-time as one who crosses cultures and gives the Gospel to peoples, tongues and tribes that do not yet have it.

In more detail, a missionary call is the desire to serve God among peoples that do not yet have the Gospel. This usually entails cross-cultural service. While some are called as pastors to existing churches within one’s own cultural con-text, the missionary call is a special call to cross cultures with the Gospel and help establish the church where it is absent or weak. The Great Commission was given to the church to fulfill and the church fulfills this commission through her designated representatives, whose gifts are confirmed by the larger corporate body of Christ. These “sent out ones” expand the kingdom of God where the light of the Gospel has not yet been introduced or has not yet taken hold. Many other writers similarly define the missionary call. William E. Goff gives this definition:

It is feasible to conclude that the missionary call is a specific role given to some to share Christ with the unreached peoples of the world. The call to be a pastor, for example, is to shepherd a particular flock of those who have been reached; in contrast, the missionary call relates to adding to the flock those who would also be saved.

The Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions defines the missionary call in the following manner:

All Christians are called to the service of the church with every part of their lives. But the missionary call is more than this. It is a special and unique call to full-time ministry. Simply put, the missionary call is the command of God and the setting apart by the Holy Spirit of an individual Christian to serve God in a culture, a geographical location, and, very likely, in a language very different from the missionary’s own. The personal recognition of this call comes from a growing conviction that God has set the recipient apart for this service. The result of this conviction is an intense desire to obey and go wherever God leads.

Differences of opinion will become apparent in many definition of a missio-nary call. This is due to differences of opinion when answering more basic questions. For instance, “Is the call necessarily to a different culture?” some will ask. What of “home missions?” Does one need to be called to “plant new churches” or can a mis-sionary call compel one to work in church-equipping roles or advisory roles where the church is already established but still young and weak? What about linguists, pilots, mechanics, dentists and the many specialists who serve overseas? Should they be called “missionaries?” Can one be called to clean teeth as a “ministry?” Or should we maintain a distinction between “missionaries” and those that perform “missionary support” roles? What is the difference between a missionary call and the Christian doctrine of vocation? Below are several more of these points of conflicting tensions.

Do you choose to be a missionary or are you chosen?

Thomas Hale in his book On Being a Missionary begins his chapter entitled “The call” with this paragraph:

Being a missionary begins with being called. You don’t choose to be a missionary; you’re called to be one. The only choice is whether to obey.

Is this statement true, can one who is truly called into missions actually dis-obey this call? If Hale’s statement was entirely true then we would witness missionaries being accepted into agencies who did not want to be accepted as well as thousands of “missionaries” sitting in their home churches, not obedient to the call. While Hale’s intention is to show the divine initiative in the call, he errs.

A person’s desires and drives should measure largely in any definition of a missionary call. Paul, in giving the qualifications of bishops and deacons (offices that presumably require a “call”), begins with the phrase, “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good thing” (I Timothy 3:1b). Desire, therefore, appears to be an integral part of being “called” by God. Divine initiative is perfectly met with the hu-man response of desire. God’s sovereign choice of a missionary is in perfect harmony with the desires and sometimes intense longings of a missionary who is newly aware of his calling.

Motives play a vital part. Missionary candidates are often wracked with in-tense emotions and desires. J. Verkuyl in his volume Contemporary Missiology: An Introduction lists good and bad motives for missions. He lists such good motivations as obedience, love, mercy, pity, and others. Then he lists bad motivations such as im-perialist, colonial or commercial desires. Motives that cause one to serve as a missionary can be good or bad. A comprehensive list of “good” and “bad” motives is not desired here, but what is desired is to stress that motivations play a central role in the missionary call. One is never a mere passive and disinterested recipient of this missionary call and missionaries are highly driven and goal-oriented people. Getting to the field and staying on the field, after all, requires much deliberate effort towards specific goals.

What Thomas Hale is trying to emphasize by his quote, “You don’t choose to be a missionary; you’re called to be one. The only choice is whether to obey.” is that one does not merely choose to be a missionary alone. A missionary candidate’s desire is only part of the bigger picture. He desires and chooses missions because he is chosen and because God desires that he serve. We need not create any false dilemmas here. If a person is truly “called” into missions then this person’s desires and motivations match up with God’s desires. These desires are confirmed by His Word and seconded by the larger body of Christ. If a person “runs without being sent,” and embarks on a journey into missions in his own strength without the Divine Wind of calling he will quickly faint or be stopped in his journey.

A missionary call must be full-time?

J. Herbert Kane asserts that there exists a definite call to full-time Christian service and Christ’s disciples are our examples. They left their old lives and devoted all their time to fulltime service. When Kane stresses that this calling is a calling into “full-time service,” he seems to eliminate the possibility of continuing to work at old secular employments. Since the pattern of the early church was that those called were not to leave the ministry of the Word to wait tables, J. Herbert Kane stresses this “full-time” aspect as a necessary part to this missionary call.

The question that arises with this emphasis on “full-time” service as being a necessary component of the missionary call is this; why did Paul himself make tents? How do we affirm and encourage the many “tent-makers” who endure secular em-ployments in hard countries designated as “Restricted access” in order to spread the Gospel? These “tentmakers” have not left their secular professions and yet most would report feeling a call to missions that sustains them in their work.

Scriptural examples of God calling individuals into service - normative for us?

When speaking of the “callings” of God, distinctions must be made. First, there is the “general call” of the Gospel. Wherever the Gospel goes forth men are called to repent and believe. Only those possessing the “effectual call” of God, how-ever, come to faith. In this manner, all who are new creatures in Christ are “called to be saints,” as Romans 1:7 and many other Scriptures attest. Yet not all who are called to be saints are called to exercise church office or called for individual tasks.

In Scripture we have God calling individuals to specific tasks. In the Old Tes-tament, Isaiah and other prophets heard this call. In the New Testament, Jesus Himself called the disciples. Paul also was called by the audible voice of Jesus Himself.

The audible voice of God called some. Some were called by means of visions. Most missionary candidates, however, thankfully do not claim to receive their “call” by these extraordinary means. If a missionary candidate did claim to receive a call through the audible voice of God or in a vision, this would alarm most mission agen-cies. Most Protestant mission agencies agree that the normal means by which missionaries ascertain the call of God in their lives does not involve the hearing of the audible voice of God, visions, dream or trances. A large number of books on missions, however, when explaining the missionary call, focus on these very examples of the extraordinary call of God being received through dreams, visions and God’s audible voice, reinforcing the myth that a missionary needs to have some dramatic and even supernatural encounter to show that they are called. This lack of an “extraordinary call” may reinforce missionary candidates’ fears that what they are feeling and what their home church is affirming is somehow not enough.

J. Herbert Kane echoes this suspicion of “mystical” calls when he states, “The term missionary call should never have been coined. It is not Scriptural and therefore can be harmful. Thousands of youth desiring to serve the Lord have waited for some mysterious “missionary call” that never came.”

There is no need to wait for a vision or a trance. Our desires, in accord with the Word of God and the approval of the larg-er Body of Christ confirming that the missionary candidate is, in fact, appropriate and suitable for the desired task, are the main means by which God equips the harvest force. No missionary should have his confidence eaten away because they lack some spectacular call to missions. Solid member care requires doing away with false mys-tical notions of the call which may erode a missionary’s confidence. Agencies and churches need to communicate to candidates that an “ordinary call” is good enough.

An effort at formulating a definition

The scope of this paper is limited, and so the working definition of the missio-nary call will be as simple as possible and contain two basic elements, a desire to serve and a confirmation by others that one is suitable to serve. First, a strong desire to serve God cross-culturally where there is a lack of Gospel truth is needed. Second, a confirmation by Scripture and the larger body of Christ in the form of the missionary’s home church and sending agency is also essential.

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