by Dave Hare
My family and I are currently on our home ministry assignment, and we’ve been talking to people about what it’s like to be a missionary. We’ve found that there is a very common perception that certain people are “called” to be missionaries in a unique way. While I certainly have met a lot of unique missionaries, I believe that there are some misunderstandings undergirding this belief. Here are four of these misconceptions that I hope to clear up today.
1. Normal people are not “called.”
My wife Stacey remembers hearing a song in her church where she grew up that said something to the effect that they were willing to do anything for the Lord so long as the Lord did not send them to Africa. The line at the end of the chorus was: “Lord, please don’t send me to Africa.”
There are two main problems with this type of song (which, by the way I think was written to be tongue-in-cheek). The first problem is that many people do not consider missions because they believe it is something that they could never do. Whether it be the snakes, or the heat, they believe that they personally are incapable of enduring in that type of situation. The error in this thinking is not people saying that they are weak; that part is true. The problem is that the focus in on us.
Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 9:8: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”
We as Christians serve a powerful God who is able to make all grace abound to us. God is able to give us grace, for instance, to abound in thankless service to our children. Have you ever felt like you could not handle hearing your baby scream ONE MORE TIME? I have felt that. But what happened when the baby screamed? You handled it. Either you sought God’s grace to deal with the child, and felt his power. Or you sinned against him and sought God’s grace for forgiveness (and hopefully for the strength to be victorious the next time).
God is able to give us the strength to fight anxiety and speak to our unsaved family members about the Gospel. He is able to give us the power to wake up early to stand in front of an abortion clinic at 6 am begging women to turn away. And God is “even” able to give us the grace to abound in the good work of leaving everything and going overseas.
Missionaries are not able to go because they have some power within themselves that others do not have. There is nothing stronger about missionaries than about anyone else. We are just people who rely on God’s grace, both to endure through the harder aspects of the missionary life, and to repent when we have sinned in the face of these difficulties.
2. The missionary call seeks us out.
The second aspect of the song “Lord, don’t send me to Africa” reveals another misconception of the missionary life. When we say “Lord don’t send me to Africa,” the implication is that God seeks out an elect few to send into missions, but not others. We have found that people think that in order for them to go into missions Jesus needs to appear in the sky like he appeared to the Apostle Paul and say, “I am sending you as a light to the Gentiles.” This is not how it works.
I do not believe that the missionary call is something that seeks people out. Instead, I see that when Jesus left his disciples, he left them with a task: make disciples of all the nations. This task has passed from the disciples to us and is not yet complete. Thus, every person in the church plays some role in seeing this task fulfilled.
If we are asking, “Am I called?” the answer is always “Yes!” But just like any other task that we work toward in the church, we need to ask how we can best serve. Not everyone would be best teaching a kids Sunday School class. But generally, when we are deciding on whether or not we are going to teach, we are not looking for a calling. Instead, we weigh our strengths and weaknesses, our availability, and whether or not children tend to run from us screaming.
I believe it ought to be the same for missions. I don’t think we should ask the question “Am I called?” I think we should ask: ‘How can I best serve in this Kingdom, with the ultimate purpose of seeing the nations saved?” And for some, the way in which they will best be used is to stay in their home town. For others, the best way is to be a part of reaching out to Native Americans, or the unchurched of New England, or, of course, more exotic locations.
3. The call of Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20 is insufficient.
When we look for some sort of calling outside of Matthew 28, I believe we are erring into this third misconception. In asking for an external experiential call, we are saying that we need something other than the Great Commission, something specific to us. But if we look at the Great Commission, we see Jesus leaving the disciples with the purpose of the New Testament Church. If you think about it, right before Jesus left the earth, he could have said anything to his disciples. He could have said, “remember the poor” or “do small groups in your churches” or “seek the spiritual gifts,” all important aspects of the church age.
Instead, his final call was: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
This is one of the clearest passages that demonstrates the difference between the Old Covenant method of saving the nations, and that of the New Covenant. No longer were God’s people called to build a kingdom and then bring the nations to themselves. No longer was God’s presence dwelling in a physical temple, to which the people were called to bring sacrifices. Instead, Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit was going to come to live in them. Then they were to go everywhere, like mobile temples. He was calling them to go and make more disciples.
I think when we read this passage we do believe that it applies to us. Yet, when it comes to moving overseas, we are looking for something more. When we read the Bible in Ephesians 5 where Paul calls husbands to love their wives, do husbands sit their idly and say, “well, I can’t love my wife until I’m called to.” What would we say to that man? “You ARE called.” In the same way, Jesus gave us the responsibility to make disciples in very clear speech and thus we don’t need to wait for another call. The first call is sufficient.
4. You have to be adventurous in order to go into missions.
This is the final misconception, and it is just a lie, I think from Satan, to keep more Christians from going out. This is the lie that says you have to enjoy poisonous snakes inside your house to become a missionary. No one likes poisonous snakes in their house. This lie says that you have to enjoy travelling to become a missionary. I don’t like travelling. I used to like travelling, but then I had kids. I don’t like the jungle. I don’t like the dirt. I don’t like hiking through the bush with a machete. You know what I like? Pavement. Air conditioning. Cheese. Having an ER that I can take my kids to. That’s what I like.
People tend to think that missionaries go because they somehow like to live in miserable places. This is just not true. Missionaries like comforts just as much as the next guy. But, the reality is that the unreached are generally unreached for a reason: they are usually the ones with the snakes, with the bugs, with the humidity. Even in Cameroon, when we were looking for a place to work, we were told that the languages by the beach were already taken.
I write all this because I want the church to see that first of all, missionaries are just regular Christians. I am convinced that the vast majority of missionaries are not “called” in the subjective sense, but persuaded from Scripture. We are persuaded that the task of the church today is the spread of the Gospel to the nations. And we are persuaded that the God-chosen method of spreading the Gospel is by normal people going to far away places.
We are persuaded that the message that we carry is that people by nature are separated from God, and without the Gospel they will spend eternity without Him. We are persuaded that this world is not our home, and we shouldn’t love the things of this world. We are persuaded that God is made strong in our weakness. And finally, we are persuaded that the job is not yet done. There is still so much work to do.
While I find that a lot of people do not genuinely consider the missionary life as an option, I believe that all Christians should consider the missionary life. Many will decide in the end that they should not move overseas and become a missionary. But this decision should not be based on the misconceptions above. It should not be because they are waiting for supernatural confirmation. Instead, those who choose to stay ought to do so because they believe that they are best used in God’s kingdom in that role.