Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The missionary call – what is it and to whom does it belong?

A confession

I confess, this is a partial retraction. A clarification. I have not so much been wrong, but I have been incomplete – and incompleteness regarding Scripture is often error. To give half the story is not to give the story at all.

What have I done? Virtually every month I have sent appeals such as this: “Have you ever wondered if you could be a missionary.” I have sent emails entitled, “An appeal for workers.” Very frequently I have urged individuals to look into God’s will for themselves and see if God is calling them into missions. I have been incessant.

What’s wrong with that?

Here is what is wrong: world missions is not the private and personal calling of a chosen few; it is a body of Christ decision. Missions is not the work of a separated few, but the work of the whole church.

My former appeals to individuals urging, “Pray about what God would have you to do” were well-motivated. These appeals, however, were incomplete as far as Scripture is concerned.

Incomplete? How?

In the New Testament, the calling of missionaries was much more than an individual or a married couple feeling some amorphous “call of God” and then pursuing it – informing their local church later, often as an afterthought. In contrast, the call of God was a “whole body” decision. The church called, the church separated, the church sent!

Today, here is a normal scenario: A young man desires to serve. He often waits to feel some sort of “call” to proceed. Once he feels this strange call (that presumably is more than just a firm conviction as seconded by Scripture and his home church) he applies to agencies. Sometimes during this process and oftentimes afterwards, he then informs his church – not for permission – but as part of his notification that he is now a missionary appointee. Now, in the loop, the local church begins to help and advise the appointee.

I personally knew one appointee family that were accepted and were a year and a half as appointees before their home church, presumably their sending-church-to-be, voted to support them.

What does it say about mission boards, home churches and the candidates if (1) sometimes mission organizations accept candidates who are largely unknown and untested in their local contexts, (2) potential candidates sometimes get halfway or more through the process even before informing their local church, and (3) local churches often are the last to know that God is calling someone up from among their very midst.

How does this contrast with the New Testament practice of sending?

Acts 13:2 “While they [the assembled church] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."

The assembled saints fasted, a deliberate act of preparation. The assembled saints set apart Paul and Barnabas. Later the assembled saints sent (literally, “released”) them to the Gentiles.

Paul speaks of himself as being set apart for the Gospel. He heard as much from the risen Christ in a trance (Acts 22:21) “I will send you far away to the Gentiles...” And yet, this Apostle still waited for his “home church” to send or release him. Immediately upon returning home, he also reported back to his “home church” concerning all he had seen and heard. Paul was no lone ranger. He was a servant of his church, who fulfilled the Great Commission through him.

Western Christianity has not only privatized their religion, but has also privatized the missionary call. Only now, as I have entered into another culture more communal in its worldview than my own, have I come to see this incompleteness. Wanna know about water...don’t ask a fish! He’s too close.

Missions and, indeed, all of church life is life in community. We are saved personally but are saved into the church. The Trinity, one God in three persons is our model; unity in the midst of diversity. As I labor in mission it is not I who am laboring, but it is the whole church who is laboring through me. Even more so, all this is not even accurately referred to as the mission of the church but is ultimately the mission of God Himself, the Missio Dei.

Every Christian is not a missionary, but missions is the focus of every Christian. In World War II, the whole nation worked as part of the war effort. Though the actual members of the Armed Forces were but a minority of the population as a whole, yet America was at war. The whole nation fought, through the efforts of those they sent. The nation called, the nation set apart, and the nation sent.

Many will object to what I am writing, “But Paul speaks of his own personal call; the Prophets did too.” Yes, in regards to salvation we are saved because we are called by God. Yes, in the Old Testament many prophets literally heard the audible voice of God recruiting them into service.

The same textual evidence is absent, however, regarding New Testament cross-cultural evangelism. When a “sending” occurs in the New Testament the focus is never on the person volunteering to be sent, but on those who send that person. Look at the evidence:

• Upon Judas’ betrayal and death the gathered assembly chose Matthias.

• Philip might have briefly worked alone at first, but "When the apostles that were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the Word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John..." (Acts 8:14-15).

• When the conflict with the Judaizers arose, the churches sent an official delegation and these were not only "brought on their way by the church" but were also "received of the church" when they arrived (Acts 15).

• In Acts 13:1-3, as quoted above, the assembled church chose and set apart those who would serve.

• After the Jerusalem council, Paul chooses Silas and they depart, being commended by the brethren (Act 15:40).

• The very next chapter mentions that Timothy, whom Paul chooses to work with, was also well-spoken of by the brethren.

In the New Testament we do not have a volunteer system based on individual appeals at all; if forced between one extreme or another I would have to call the method of New Testament sending more like a draft!

Now what?

Okay, so I have hereby printed a clarification to my incessant appeals for more missionaries to join me. What now? Do I cease my appeals?

Not on your life!

Instead, now my appeals have more force and Biblical backing. These appeals are not merely given to lone individuals to navel gaze and try to discern some intangible missionary call. Now these appeals can be backed up by the authority of local churches!

In no way have I ceased my recruitment efforts, but I now seek a stronger ally, the key agent in the evangelization of the world – the local church!

Churches, pastors, and elders, please consider these steps. They require boldness and much prayer, yet they mirror New Testament practice. In Matthew 28 the Great Commission was given to the representatives of the church. In Acts 1, the command to go to the ends of the earth was given to the assembled representatives of the church. Churches - this command now belongs to you!

A bold plan: Churches, set apart your people!

I challenge you pastors, elders and churches, set apart those whom God is calling among you! If the early church deliberately fasted and prayed and sought God’s will in reference to this, shouldn’t we? If they were so bold as to seek, identify and set apart gifted individuals, shouldn’t we? If they owned their role in world missions aside from mere financial support, shouldn’t we?

Send me your own!

NOTE: I do not want to belittle “the missionary call,” only investigate it more and free it from being shackled to the myth that a powerful subjective certainty is its key feature. I rejoice for those who are “set in their minds” that they are called into missions; I merely want this to be backed up by the larger body of Christ. In the ReMAP study of missionary attrition it was recommended that agencies screen for “a clear missionary call” (however defined by the missionary) and those agencies that did not screen for such a call suffered twice the level of attrition (published in, Too Valuable to Lose).

No comments:

Post a Comment