Go Ahead and Criticize Missions (Constructively)

When raising children, we know that it’s only God who can draw their hearts to himself. But that doesn’t stop us from reading the best books and looking for the best advice. We search for the church with the best youth group and spend way too much money on the best camps.

When we’re sick, we know that ultimately it’s God who heals. But that doesn’t stop us from buying insurance, looking for the best hospital, and researching the best methods.

When we travel, we know that God is the one who protects us. But that doesn’t stop us from finding the safest car seats, getting our brakes serviced, and using only reputable airlines.

When we do evangelism and missions, we know that God is ultimately the one who saves souls. But why then are we supposed to check our brains at the door?

I am a firm believer in the Sovereignty of God–that God is in control of all situations and all hearts. I also have no doubt that God can take our worst failures, our biggest sins, or even downright evil, and use it for his will and his glory.

Of course, God can take the most abusive parent and bring forth the most kind-hearted child. God can take the most run-down hospital or ill-equipped doctor and bring healing. He can preserve and protect us despite a rickety vehicle or failing brakes.

But that doesn’t mean we stop thinking. We don’t go recklessly running after failure if a better option is right in front of us. So why then, when it comes to evangelism and missions, are discussions about best practices considered taboo?

I keep hearing things like this:

If God called her, then who are we to judge if she is qualified or equipped?

If God led them to do that, then what right do we have to criticize?

If just one person is reached with the gospel, then it’s worth any expense of time, energy, and money. It doesn’t matter if there could be a better way to steward those resources.

Whether or not his evangelism method was effective, that’s between him and God. We should just keep our mouths shut.

If she says God called her, then she must be doing the right thing. Whether she was a success or not is between her and God.

If their intentions were good, then that’s all that really matters. God only cares about the heart, not the end result.

We wouldn’t say that about anything else. If 90% of the people who entered a hospital ended up dead, we wouldn’t say, “Well, as long as one life is saved, why try to improve it?” If a car seat got terrible safety reviews, we wouldn’t buy it anyway and say, “Well, ultimately it’s God who will protect my child.”

Of course, there is a balance to keep here. For example, as missionaries, sometimes we do choose to live in places where medical care or road conditions aren’t exactly stellar. And in those times, it absolutely is our comfort and confidence to rest in God’s sovereignty. Similarly, when we’ve laboured hard on the mission field and seen very little (if any) fruit, we can lean heavily on the promise that ultimately it is God who saves souls.

But that shouldn’t shut down conversation on how we could do it better next time!

Remember, saying “God called me” can be dangerous. So yeah, you do have a right to ask the hard questions of the under-equipped young person who wants to go out and change the world. We do have the responsibility of evaluating the fruit of evangelism methods of the past. It’s okay to delve into the potentially harmful impact of the short-term team. It’s important to question the methods of a ministry strategy that may actually be hindering the gospel. Robust discussion, constructive criticism, and listening with humility are all ways God uses to provide checks and balances for what could be sinful inclinations or just plain foolishness.

So for all of us involved in local evangelism or overseas missions–whether that be as a short or long-term missionary, financial supporter, trainer, recruiter, or partner–we must ask ourselves:  Are we willing to humbly listen to our biblically-based critics? In light of that criticism, are we willing to honestly evaluate our motives and methods? As iron sharpens iron, let us make each other better.  

Saying “God Called Me” Can Be Dangerous

Back when I was 23 and raising support to be a missionary in Tanzania, you would have heard me say, “God is calling me.” I would have told you that I had a heart for teaching missionary kids. I would have told you that I loved Africa and wanted to see God’s kingdom built there. And those things were 100% true. I wasn’t a deceiver who was trying to pull the wool over my supporter’s eyes. But there was more to it than that.

As a teenager, I was terrible at sports and fashion, and my very introverted personality meant that I had all sorts of interesting thoughts going around in my head but they rarely came out articulately. My best friend was a cello player and a track runner and Valedictorian; I was always a few steps behind. But I had spent six years of my childhood in Africa. That was my thing. That I had experienced this whole other life–that’s what made me different. And I clung to it. A guy in college told me that boys wouldn’t want to date me because I was so set on living in Africa, but that just made me more resolute.

And evangelical Christian culture made it easy. I could express my individuality and get lots of gold stars and pats on the back at the same time. Saying “God is calling me to Africa” put me on a higher spiritual plane; so very few people probed with deeper questions. But sometimes saying “God called me” can actually mask a lot of other motives.

When we want to be missionaries, it’s easier to say, “God called me,” than to say

“I really love traveling.”

“I’m looking for adventure.”

“I want to stand out, to be different.”

“If I start a new life, I can leave my problems behind.”

“If I do this big thing for God, he will give me what I want.”

“I really like looking/feeling spiritual and all the attention that gets me.”

“I want my life to feel significant.”


Equally important, when we want to go back home, it’s easier to say, “God called me,” than to say

“I don’t get along with my co-workers.”

“I can’t hack the way of life here.”

“My leadership hasn’t given me the support I wanted.”

“I miss my family too much.”

“I hate feeling incompetent all the time.”

“I’m so depressed/anxious/burned out that I can’t function anymore.”

The reality is, everyone falls for it. Saying, “God called me” shuts down any questions. No one is allowed to argue with that statement. Because who wants to argue with God?  But that’s why saying “God called me” can be dangerous. And we need to challenge the culture that allows it.

What do we even mean when we say, “God called me?” Christians will give various answers, but a call from God often boils down to some kind of supernatural experience or a very strong feeling. The same line of reasoning is used with “God hasn’t called me.” If a person hasn’t experienced some sort of supernatural experience or strong feeling, then we believe that is an indication that the status quo is sufficient.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Often, “God called me” basically means, “I want to” but with a spiritual veneer. So let’s think this through. Can God work through our desires? Absolutely. God gave us our emotions, our personalities, and the way we’re “wired,” and he will use all of these to lead us and guide us.


Our emotions are often selfish, fickle, and foolish. It’s quite possible for us to feel good about a terribly sinful choice (at least for a while). We are very capable of ignoring the Holy Spirit, misinterpreting Scripture, or “hearing” what we want to hear from God.

So how do we know when God is actually leading us in a certain direction? And if we discover that hiding behind “God called me” are some selfish motives, does that mean he hasn’t?

Not necessarily. It’s very possible to have noble motives and selfish ones mixed in together. I once read that as fallen people, our motives are never going to be completely pure. We must remember that we are complex beings–capable of feeling multiple emotions and desires at once. We aren’t usually honest even with ourselves, and sin will always be there, even when we’re being our most honorable.

So what does that mean for us as missionaries, whose whole lives are built on “a calling?” It means we need to ask ourselves the hard questions. We need to root out our deeper motives–all of them, even the ugly ones. And senders need to be careful not to be so dazzled by “God called me” that they hold back from asking those same hard questions. We (both the goers and the senders) need to remember that being a missionary doesn’t put us on a higher spiritual plane, immune from sinful motives.

When someone says, “God called me,” that should be the starting point for a lot of good questions and conversations. Why do you want to go (or return)? Why is it important? What does your church think about this? What does the team on the field think about this? What might you be running away from? How has God uniquely prepared you–not someone else–for this specific time and place? Or if you are leaving, what circumstances assure you that God is releasing you? And how does all of this match up with what God has spoken to us through Scripture?

This is why we need the Body of Christ. This is why we need to put ourselves under godly, strong, but humble leadership. This is why God intended the Church to be a part how he calls us.

When I think back to the mess of motives and emotions I felt when I was 23, I truly believe God did call me to Africa. But I was equipped: I had grown up on the African continent; I had been certified as a teacher; I had spent years in cross-cultural ministry in the States. I had the blessing of my church family. I had been well-vetted by my mission organization. Yes, I wanted to go. But it was the culmination of all of those things that confirmed that God was calling me.

Did that mean my motives were entirely pure? Absolutely not. And it would have been helpful if I had been honest with myself about it, or if I had someone in my life who asked me the hard, penetrating questions. Back then, coming to the realization about my desire to be different and significant probably would not have negated my assurance that I should go, but it would have helped me to learn some hard lessons a lot sooner.

Because that’s the thing about selfish motives–they are always there, but God has his ways of purifying them. Every missionary who stays on the mission field for any length of time knows this. I might have dreamed of gold stars or adventure or fulfillment, but that all came crashing down pretty quickly. And when it did, I needed a strong foothold to assure me that God really had directed me. But the weight behind “God called me” had to go a lot farther than just a feeling. God’s promises in Scripture, the Body of Christ back at home and on the field, and the ways God had uniquely prepared me for my role gave me assurance of his calling. Seventeen years later, that’s the calling I still lean on.

Is Calling in our DNA?

DNA Strands

“So” said the kindly woman at the Baptist church. “You must want to be a missionary too when you grow up! Do you think God will call you too?” 

I recoiled. I hoped she wouldn’t see the visible distress on my face. She was so kind. She was so excited about my potential. How could I disappoint?

But NO, I didn’t. I didn’t want to be a missionary when I grew up. I didn’t want to raise support. I didn’t want to go from church to church in small New England towns. I did not want prayer letters or ‘deputation’. No. No. No. 

I was 18 years old. I wanted college and boyfriends and travel and stamps in my passport. And then down the road? Down the road of course I would go overseas again – because that was home! But I didn’t even think about being a missionary. 

There are a couple of things that can be huge burdens to missionary kids and their parents.

One is behavior. Missionary kids have just as many reasons to rebel as any other kid. Some might argue, more. Our world contains pitfalls that can catch and take us down. I know. I was one who found marijuana growing in the back of Holy Trinity church, that noble and historic church in the town of Murree that the entire missionary community would attend every summer. It’s easy for us to use excuses of belonging and identity to rebel. And then it’s easy for a parent to feel guilt “if we hadn’t brought our kids half way around the world etc. this wouldn’t have happened…” while the reality is that when a kid is bent on bending rules it’s going to happen anywhere.

The second burden is ‘calling’. Because calling is a word loaded with question marks and misunderstanding.

It was a few years later that I began to really wrestle with this word and idea. I had seen the good, bad, and ugly related to call and calling.  I had seen the good that comes from faith and understanding God’s big story. I had seen a kid on the brink of death because a father was so committed to a call that he forgot the call included caring for his children. I had become acquainted with ugly legalism that forgets the beautiful story and call to redemption, reducing it to choking rules and regulations. 

In my wrestling, I  realized that the kind woman at that Baptist church was partially correct. My parents were called. But their first call was to God Himself. After that, their journey took them places where all was initially unfamiliar. Food, clothing, housing, plumbing, language, faith expression — all of it was new. It had to be learned and learned with humility and willingness to admit mistakes.

Along the way they had babies. And sometimes more babies. And what was unfamiliar to them was home to us, their children. We first heard words and phrases in English, Urdu, and Sindhi. Curry was a staple, the call to prayer the first alarm clock. None of this spelled strange, it was all familiar. Home was 18-hour train rides from the desert of Sindh to the lush Punjab; home was a boarding school community with all the good and the hard of dormitory living away from parents; home was plane trips and passports, learning how to negotiate cross-culturally at young ages. This was home.

So pressure that this life overseas would be a ‘calling’ simply because we were the children of missionaries was uncomfortable and so foreign. 

On the one hand it seemed to make sense, like a family business where one by one the kids take their place behind the counter talking to customers and learning how to negotiate transactions. But how many kids actually end up in the family business?  How many children of nurses, teachers, and mechanics become nurses, teachers, mechanics? Some do. But others follow another path, walk a different journey.

Ultimately the call of God isn’t a business, it isn’t an occupation. The call of God is heard in the heart and obeyed with the mind and body. It is a word, the Word, that is planted and watered until it grows into an active, living, breathing faith. It is a call to God himself. 

Missionary kids are called. But they are called to God Himself. After that – it’s anyone’s guess. After that it could be to a small town in England, a large city in North America, an international consulting business based in Holland, a law office in Seattle, a position in an international business degree program, a tenured professorship at a university, a foreign service position with the state department.

Rarely does it look the same as the parents. Our journey may begin through the faith and calling of our parents, but those roots are transplanted and sustained through our own decisions of faith. 

So is calling in our DNA?

Threaded through each strand of our DNA is indeed a Call. A Call described best by the ever-challenging words of St. Augustine to “Love God and enjoy Him forever”.  Only that Call is carefully entwined in our spiritual genetic code from head to toe, from heart to soul.

And after that it’s anyone’s guess.

This post has been adapted from an older version originally written in 2012 for Community Across Boundaries. 

The Cult of Calling


I don’t like to say that God “calls me” anymore.

When I graduated from a Christian college, I believed I would change the world.  I was determined to be useful, significant and different.  I wasn’t going to join the throng of sell-outs who eventually move to comfy white-picket homes in the suburbs and attend churches where conversations afterward are meaningless and trivial, because I was called to be a missionary–the highest calling a Christian can have.

Every decision I made propelled me on that path.  College?  A place that would offer overseas opportunities.  Major?  Something useful, but that could also slide under the radar if I went to a closed country that was anti-Christian.  First job?  Teaching in inner city Chicago until a door opened up to go overseas (obviously).  First chance to go abroad?  China, because closed countries are the place to be if you really love Jesus.

I finally had the chance to answer God’s call on my life to serve Him as a missionary after a few years of teaching in the states.  I sold my car, quit my job and moved to China.  Yes, I was lonely at times, but I was finally doing what I was called to do, so I loved knowing that I was living such a high calling and making a difference in the world.  And then something tragic happened:  I fell in love with an actor in Chicago, who was not “called to missions” (careful about short trips back home when you have your guard down).

And I had to face some hard questions.

What if God hadn’t called me to missions after all?

What if I was being just a tad prideful about my “calling”?

What if I was worshipping my call?

When I made the decision to move back to the states and get engaged, I felt like a failure.  Though God had made it unmistakably clear that this was the man He intended for me, I still struggled with all the demons in my head yelling at me that I was selling out by leaving the mission field.

But God.

He wanted more for me.  He wanted me to step down off my pedestal and walk among the “uncalled” for a while.  He wanted me to untangle my identity, unwinding all the programming I had received that led me to believe that I was “more,” that I was doing “more” and being “more” than other Christians.  The lies.  That my life was somehow more meaningful because I was serving Him in another country.  That I was special because I had that call on my life.

And He wanted me to understand something about the way He calls His children.

I am not called to missions, marriage, motherhood, writing or teaching.  I am called, first and foremost, to intimacy with Jesus Christ. 

That is my call.

Even art: writing, acting, singing, painting, sculpting, dancing or any other creative venture as a calling on our lives has the potential to lure us away from our First Love, to become a golden idol that we prostrate ourselves to.

So I no longer raise “calling” to the level that I once did, because I tried to find myself there and got lost.  When my calling was taken away, I was left wandering in the soul wilderness of despair, a place of despondency where those who are loved as image-bearers of Jesus have no place.

So to what—to whom–are we called?

We are called to Jesus Christ—to lean on His breast, wipe His feet with our hair, dance before Him, fall in love again and again, feast on His body and bread, and indulge in the love that died for us.  And out of the rush of that call, we are to give Him all that we have and all that we are.  If we have the gift of words, then we write for Him.  If He opens doors to serve Him through missions, we pour ourselves out abroad just as we would at home.  If He gives us family and children, then we enjoy them, work for them and love them hard.  And if He gifts us in dance, acting, song, painting or any other creative venture, we wildly hand back these gifts as an offering to Him.

And if He moves us to a place we don’t want to be?  If we are injured and can do longer paint or sculpt?  If we age and can no longer dance?  When our children grow up and move away?  Then we will not fall apart, because we are NOT our art.  We are not our ministry.  We are not our “calling.”  We belong to Christ and are stamped with the love of the Holy Spirit, in whom we live and move and have our being.  And He never looked at us and saw our gifts anyway (though they made Him smile).

He has always looked at us and seen us as His beloved adopted children, and He is the one that stands singing over us, dancing in joy to be with us and giving us the most profound words ever written.  Our callings are a taste of glory, a gift to be given back, an opportunity to experiment with creating like God creates.  But they can never define us, make us complete or bring us ultimate fulfillment, because they are an imperfect tool to glorify a perfect God.

So, no, I no longer say that “God calls me,” in the same smug way that I once did, assuming that a call is forever or even that there is a hierarchy of calls, with some being more holy than others.  Instead, if I use those words, I preface it by saying that I am called to this “for now.”  And if and when that calling shifts, I am left standing on solid ground, because my calling is to intimacy with Jesus Christ.  And He never changes.


Leslie VernerLeslie Verner is a goer who is learning how to stay.  A wife, mama of two, former teacher, student of cultures, runner, extrovert (with introvert tendencies) and lover of Jesus.  She has her BA in elementary education and MA in intercultural studies.  She has traveled all over the world and lived in Northwest China for five years before God U-turned her life and brought her back to the U.S. to get married.  She blogs regularly about faith, family and cross-cultural issues at www.scrapingraisins.blogspot.com and recently completed the series 31 Days of Re-Entry.