“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.” —Romans 1:13 NIV
Matt Anderson was one of those guys in school that carried himself with confidence. His father had a successful law practice and became a judge. During the time I knew Matt in school, his dad was always known as Judge Anderson. The Andersons raised their son to be confident, proud of the family name, and represent their name well in the community. Matt was always a good kid. He was humble, tall, and handsome; always picked to be captain of the basketball team. He was a first string quarterback. He was a natural leader. Doors opened for Matt, and he confidently walked through them. When Matt was given a job to do, he did it well. People wanted to be around Matt which always resulted in more opportunity. He was teachable; a quick learner. He learned lessons early in life that most what many of us take a lifetime to learn. It was the reputation of his father that opened doors. His own ability to learn quickly and to do a job well that gave him the confidence that the opportunities would keep coming.
Confidence in calling
Paul was confident in his calling. Paul knew that what God did in the past He would continue to do in the future. He knew that wherever he went, because he was specifically chosen by God, there would be a harvest of souls. In the Book of Acts, Jesus specifically, told Paul that he would be a witness to Him to the Gentiles. Paul planned and prepared every task in his life around this.
Paul’s call was confirmed by Jesus to Ananias when He said, “he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.”
God confirms the call in your heart, and he also confirms it in the hearts and minds of those who know you. This is something you can have confidence in.
If you’re a missionary, you know it; you’re called. People don’t make themselves a missionary, God does.
While it has become very popular in the past couple of decades to say “if you are a Christian, you are a missionary,” it’s important to make this very important distinction: missionaries are all Christians, but not all Christians are missionaries. Being a missionary is a calling.
There are two callings Christians have on their lives. The first one is a general call. The second is a specific call.
All Christians are called to be a witness for Jesus. Each and everyone of us has a story of how we came to Christ. We are called to share that story – our testimony – of how Jesus drew us into relationship with Himself and the impact that has had on our lives. The story of our calling to Christ will impact the lives of others. We’re called to share that good news. When we tell our story (whether we see it immediately or not) the Holy Spirit stimulates the hearts of our listeners. That is our privilege, duty, and calling as a Christian.
The specific call of a Christian begins to emerge when the Holy Spirit guides someone to a specific location, ministry, or group of people. You’ll hear someone that has a specific call say things like, “I think I’m supposed to minister to men in prison,” or “I’m praying about leaving the country I live in to plant a church among the Masai people in Kenya.” In these two cases, the former is a call to a ministry and the latter a call to missions.
This is the kind of calling Paul had. Rome is strategic. That’s what Paul is thinking in Romans 1:13 where we began. Paul hopes to use Rome as a launching off point for future missions into unreached parts of Europe. This letter he writes to believers in Rome is theologically heavy because he wants his readers to feel the full weight of the power of the Gospel and the role of believers in the worldwide mission of God.
Paul knows wherever he plants his flag, God moves.
You start to recognize your own specific call within your interests and giftings. If you’re reading this and don’t think God is specifically calling you to ministry or missions, that’s perfectly fine. Specific calling is where the creativity of God (the Caller) and uniqueness of the one called intersect. This is where the call gets exciting. This is where God loves to work and bear fruit.
Connection to the Caller
Os Guinness writes in his book The Call, “There can be no calling without a Caller.” This is important: stay connected to the Caller. Paul says, “Pray without ceasing.” I’m not asking if you are a “Christian” or if you have a “personal relationship” with Jesus. You can check both of these boxes and not be fully engaged with the Caller. You can’t recognize your own calling with a connection to the Caller.
So what does it mean to be specifically called as a missionary? How can you know. Here are some ways:
»striking, unmistakable call
This happens, but only in a minority of cases. God uses a dream or a vision to call a missionary. This isn’t something you hear about often, but it happens occasionally and there is a biblical precedence for it. The Apostle Paul’s call fits into this category. Jesus spoke to Paul in an audible voice and even inflicted Paul with temporary blindness. To confirm it further, Jesus spoke to Ananias in a vision.
In the Middle East where Islam dominates all areas of culture, stories like this are being told by missionaries. Anecdotal incidents of Jesus appearing in dreams of Muslim people are opening their hearts to greater curiosity about who Jesus is as well as the missionaries he sends. Don Richardson also writes about these kinds of events in his books Eternity in their Hearts and Lords of the Earth.
I love the story of the calling of Patrick, the missionary apostle to Ireland, which, as far as Europe was concerned, was the “uttermost parts” of the earth. Patrick was the child of Christian parents in Roman Britain around the year 389. When he was twelve years old, Patrick was carried off to Ireland as a slave. The experience had the opposite effect you might expect. His faith was transformed and he fell in love with the Irish people he lived among. But when he was a young man, he escaped captivity and fled to France where he served as a monk. Later, he was reunited with his family in England.
His heart did not let him rest at home, however. “In a dream,” J. Herbert Kane writes in his book A Concise History of the Christian World Mission, “he heard voices calling him: ‘We beseech thee, holy youth, to come and walk again amongst us as before.’”
In spite of being in danger from pagan priests, armed soldiers, and bandits, Patrick baptized thousands of converts. Patrick is definitely a giant among missionary heroes.
»An increasing conviction
There are times when God gives you a conviction that only grows. This gives an assurance about what’s unfolding in your life. Your desire to reach or work among a particular people deepens. This is how missionary calling worked in my life. As a young man, I never dreamed I’d be a missionary. But I started to hear about a ministry to soldiers in South Sudan that trained chaplains. Being an ex-marine, I was intrigued. As I learned about the civil war in South Sudan, my heart was broken and I began to pray. Then as God opened doors, I began to travel to that region of the world and watch the Lord begin to bear fruit through ministry I was involved in. As relationships began to develop with missionaries in South Sudan, it began to make sense that this was a fit and God was in this. Men I looked to as leaders sensed God at work, too. Finally, my wife and family sensed that this was a direction we were called to pursue. This process took a little over three years, but everyone involved believed and affirmed that this was God’s call on our lives for a season. To not move forward would have been disobedience to God’s call.
»Stimulating the call
Stimulate the call. Begin to pray with your whole heart and write down what you think the Holy Spirit is showing you. Read missionary biographies and talk to the pastors at your church. Go on a “vision trip”. Go to a missions conference. Find out which churches in your city are most missions minded. Find out what they’re doing and why.
When you sense the call, don’t ignore it. Don’t try to distract yourself with frivolous pursuits in an attempt to shake free of God’s call. You’ll make yourself miserable. It would be healthy for you to read the book of Jonah.
Underwhelming minority but still called
Just because you can’t get most of the Christians in your life on board with what God has called you too doesn’t mean you’re not called. If you only have one other person confirming your call, you’re still called. If you seem to be called to something unfashionable, unsafe, or difficult, that doesn’t mean you’re not called. Paul’s missionary journey lead to prison, isolation, and abandonment from his friends. Yet some of his most insightful epistles came from his time in prison. You have no idea what kind of fruit God is going to bring from your life as you obey Him, even if it seems like you’re all alone. These are the times you’ll refer back to in the journal you’re keeping of God’s original stirrings in your life. You’re not keeping a journal? You need to start! Make sure you’re writing this stuff down. This is the time in your life God is using to build your faith and confirm His call on your life.