Whether There is a Call

It has been common in modern missionary circles to talk about a ‘missionary call’. Although there was little agreement as to what that ‘call’ consisted of or how to define it, there was general agreement, until a generation ago that such a ‘call’ was needed to become a missionary. Missionary leaders struggled to clarify the confusion related to a call and eliminate the many myths surrounding it. For example, Harold Cook wrote the following in 1954:

To sum up: (1) a special divine call is not necessary to witness for Christ beyond the national border; (2) the striking vision that Paul received at Troas, the so-called “Macedonian call,” was not his missionary call, nor is it typical of such a call; and (3) the call to missionary service is not necessarily associated with a definite field at home or abroad.

It might seem from this that we have completely ruled out the idea of a call. But that is not so.

Later, however, he goes on to say, “Sometimes in order to see the matter in its proper relationships, we might do well to drop the word call and speak of this as a matter of guidance.” He goes on to give the testimonies of seven great missionaries and show that there is no pattern or mold into which they can be forced, nor can we get a definition from their experience.

Herbert Kane is more definite: “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 and waited for some mysterious ‘missionary call’ that never came.

The Biblical Doctrine of ‘Calling’

How can we find out the reality of the ‘missionary call’? Do we take a cross section of missionary experience? Of course not! We must go back to our sufficient authority: the Bible. The major usage of the word ‘call’ in the New Testament is the call to salvation. It would seem that the Apostle Paul used the word as a comprehensive term to encompass all that pertains to our conversion to Christ: hearing the gospel, believing, and the immediate consequence of the new birth, etc. The Apostle Paul also used this word of his call to apostleship in Roman 1:1 and 1 Corinthians 1:1, but we do not find any reference to a ‘missionary call’!

There are two passages which might be so interpreted. One is Acts 13:2: “set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Note that Saul of Tarsus was called at his conversion to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Ananias informed him of that (Acts 9:16; 22:21; 26:16-18) and God later confirmed it long before the leaders of the Antioch church were commanded by the Spirit to set apart Barnabas and Saul. So apparently this was just a confirmation of the call to ministry that Barnabas and Saul had already received. It was not a separate and distinct call to missionary service. In a sense both Saul and Barnabas were already missionaries working among Gentiles, but the ultimate dimension to which the Spirit was moving them as cross-cultural missionaries yet needed to be fulfilled.

The other passage which has been taken superficially as basis for a missionary call is the account in Acts 16 of the vision of the man of Macedonia which the Spirit used to lead the missionaries to cross over to Macedonia. “And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:10). One of our great missionary hymns refers to the “Macedonian call,” but the fact is quite obvious that Paul and Silas were already missionaries, indeed Paul was on his second missionary journey. This event was just part of a process that God used to move the apostles on into virgin territory.

The key issue then is whether there is a separate call necessary to cross “geographical and/or cultural boundaries to preach the gospel in those areas of the world where Jesus Christ is largely, if not entirely, unknown.” This much is clear: that whatever is needed, it is not referred to as a “call.” Cook felt we should refer to it as guidance. James Weber feels that we should refer to is as direction. Other words like ‘appointment’, ‘conviction’ and ‘burden’ could be suggested as a basis for missionary service, but it is clear that some sort of a visionary experience is not needed.

Relative Spiritual Need

The missionary speaker in the Bible college missions conference was very blunt: “The need constitutes the call.” He went on to illustrate it by having ten student try to lift the piano by positioning nine at one end and one at the other. He made his point by saying that the fact that nine out of ten Christian workers are ministering to the one-tenth of the world which is most evangelized while only one out of ten workers are thinly spread through the nine-tenths of the world which has the greatest need; this is appalling. It is as ridiculous as nine men at one end of the piano ignoring the one poor guy trying to lift the other end all by himself. After the meeting the students were very perplexed because the day before another missionary had said, “If you don’t have a clear-cut missionary call, don’t become a missionary, whatever you do. You’ll do more harm than good if you go.” This missionary was just reflecting the view of many in the past like Robert Hall Glover, author of several classic missions textbooks: “Nothing could be more vital to anyone setting out for the mission field than to be clearly assured of the call and leading of the Lord in taking that step.” On the other hand Glover goes on to quote some missionary greats on the other side of the issue:

It has been truly said that “a need, knowledge of that need, and ability to meet that need constitutes a call.” It was this logic of facts that appealed to Keith Falconer, that heroic Scottish nobleman who blazed the Gospel trail into the “ignored peninsula” of Arabia. He said: “While vast continents still lie shrouded in almost utter darkness, and hundreds of millions suffer the horrors of heathanism and Islam, the burden of proof rests upon you to show that the circumstances in which God has placed you were meant by Him to keep you out of the foreign mission field.” James Gilmour, the brave pioneer among the nomads of Mongolia, spoke in words no less forceful and convicting: “To me the question was not ‘Why go?’ but ‘Why not go?’ Even on the low ground of common sense I seemed called to be a missionary. For is the kingdom not a harvest field? Then I thought it only reasonable to seek the work where the work was most abundant and the workers were fewest.”

Again we must come back to the Scripture. The Apostle Paul strongly supported the principle of need in Romans 15:20, 23: “And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, that I might not build upon another man’s foundation, but now with no further place for me in these regions…” Certainly need must play a prominent part in our sense of guidance toward a place of ministry. If we have a choice and unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary, the Christian worker should choose the place of greatest need! Failure to give adequate consideration to this factor has caused the incredible inequity in the distribution of workers. As someone has said with a great measure of accuracy, “Why should anyone have a chance to hear the gospel twice until all have had a chance to hear it once?” This may be an overstatement, but it raises a valid question which must be answered. I suspect that most mission boards would far rather have a flood of candidates apply and have to screen out a large percentage of unqualified ones, than have the present shortage of candidates, which sometimes forces boards to accept too many marginally qualified people.

Today in America we have the spectacle of modest churches receiving hundreds of resumes from prospective pastoral candidates. Something is ‘out of whack’! Mission boards don’t receive even two applications for each opening on the mission field. They are happy to get even one. Bible colleges here in America receive many resumes that Bible institutes and colleges abroad have a hard time filling faculty positions. The ministry is the same (albeit usually in a different language). Could it be that some mysterious ‘calling’ is lacking in one case and not in the other?

When Paul co-opted Timothy as a member of his missionary team, it was because he was “well spoken of by the brethren” in his hometown (Acts 16:1-2), not because he had a ‘missionary call’.

By Gordon Olson