In a separate post, we delved into some of the confusion surrounding missionary support figures – what they are, what they AREN’T, and how they work. It seemed to get reasonable feedback, so I thought we might try that approach again.
Today’s post will follow a similar format, except THIS topic is more emotionally charged than the other. Hopefully, I will be able to navigate the content without unnecessarily offending the 15 people that regularly read our blog posts. So, without further ado, let’s tackle the infamous “CALL to missions!”
I am fairly certain that nearly every reader is familiar with the basic premise of this topic, but in the off-chance that you’re a little fuzzy on the details, here is a quick summary of the generally accepted concept, as best as I can tell:
The CALL is a unique experience.
When God wants someone to get actively involved in the lives of people outside of that individual’s regular sphere of influence, say, in another city, or country, or language, then God CALLS that person.
This CALL is remarkable and usually attributed to a specific occurrence: a rousing missions challenge, an emotional interaction with orphans, an eye-opening short-term trip, etc. The CALL, it is held, is an intangible, convicting, purposeful, life-altering experience. Those who have undergone this divine, slightly mystical, happening are indwelt with such intense passion for the cause they were CALLED to that their lives are utterly consumed by it.
Indeed, the CALL to missions is generally accepted as the great dividing line between the Christian who is sent out by the local church (missionary) and the Christians who make up the local church: The missionary was CALLED, so he went. The listeners were NOT CALLED, so they did not go.
That is the thought process that is often represented when one hears a discussion of an individual’s CALLING.*
It’s really a very simple concept. It’s also largely inaccurate.
I don’t want to be a wet blanket, and I’m not trying to unnecessarily ruffle anyone’s feathers, but that’s just not how it works. Don’t misunderstand this as me playing the “I’m the missionary and you’re not, so I’m right and you’re wrong” card, because that’s not what I’m going for, but here’s the thing about the form of CALLING that I just outlined above: Missionaries (AKA: the CALLED people) don’t talk about their calling like that.
When my missionary friends – and I have A LOT of missionary friends – talk about how they were CALLED to their ministry, they describe a process, not a momentary experience. The only people I’ve heard reference God’s call as an event are people who maintain that God HASN’T CALLED THEM.
Are you following? Those who have been convicted to bold action consistently claim that they were moved to that place (CALLED) via a thoughtful PROCESS, while many of those who have NOT been convicted to action (CALLED) claim it is because they were not moved by a divine EXPERIENCE.
This is concerning, because it means that we have a term being bandied about among us Christians, regarding a very important aspect of the Christian life, and we’re not agreed on its definition. Actually, the definitions we are using are almost exclusive to each other. This is less-than-ideal, as miscommunication rarely breeds beneficial results.
So, let’s try to clear this up. I gave a lengthy description early on of the rationale that is generally behind the “event-focused calling” perspective. Here is an example of the “God’s call is a process” side of the discussion.
The CALL is the normal result of a regularly occurring process.
When an individual allows himself to become more concerned with the MERITS of a task or occupation than he is with its accompanying trials, tribulations, and hardships, then that individual will find himself compelled (called) towards pursuing that endeavor.
To phrase it differently, when we perceive the positive ramifications of a decision to drastically outweigh the negatives, we will feel a strong pull (call) towards choosing the most rewarding option. A good prize becomes a lame prize when compared with a great prize.
For example, let’s suppose that you were offered two jobs. The first job offered you $100,000 a year, plus 6 weeks paid vacation. It was doing something easy that you enjoy doing anyway. It had a pleasant commute and full job security.
The second job consisted of you bagging up the waste at a tuna processing plant. You would spend 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, scooping up fish guts with your bare hands, and slopping them into trash cans. You would make minimum wage and get no vacation days.
Which job do you feel compelled/called to take?
Now let’s suppose that you were informed that after one year of employment at the fish factory you would be given a bonus of 50 million dollars (tax-free) and you could stop working for the rest of your life.
Which job would you feel compelled/called to take now?
I would wager that if such an offer were made to you, you would feel a VERY strong pull towards getting your hands into some fish guts!
What changed? Not your daily experience. Not the detestable nature of the work. Not your aversion to the vomit-inducing smells and textures of aquatic intestines. The only thing that changed was that you chose to place trust in information that promised a HIGHER RETURN from the work that you had initially believed was LESS rewarding.**
We each feel CALLED to pursue the path that we believe leads us to the greatest reward. This is true in ALL areas of life.
My missionary friends do not claim to have gone to the uttermost parts of the earth because of a mystical experience or an ambiguous conviction. Nor are they just vaguely “serving Jesus.” They are compelled by the value of the Gospel. And they are convinced that the value of putting that Gospel into the hands of unreached people groups adds up to far more worth than their own dreams, or ambitions, or comforts ever could.***
This is the main difference between the all-too-common expectation for God to send you an individualized CALL on your life, and the belief that we are responsible to choose what is the best use of our lives in His service. The former requires one to experience something out-of-the-ordinary before a life-altering decision is made, whereas the latter expects any decision to be made using the same decision-making paradigm that we should always be using.
As believers, our decisions in life should be based on our intelligent engagement with Biblical truths, and a sensitivity to the Spirit’s working in our lives, not our natural inclinations towards or against a given opportunity.
And let me state explicitly, while we’re on the subject, I am NOT saying that someone who bases their involvement in an endeavor on whether or not they “feel called” is a BAD person. I am simply asserting that they are utilizing a faulty matrix in their decision-making. Namely, that for them to consider deviating from their current path they need to experience an abnormal occurrence of some kind.
We don’t do this with other Christian-life principles (and we shouldn’t). Yet we regularly encourage each other to assume that, when dealing with formal ministry (especially missions) or major life-altering decisions, the impetus behind our actions should be something MORE than merely walking in the Spirit and applying God’s Word to our lives.
I think it is fair to say that, as a general rule, whenever we find ourselves laying out extra-biblical hoops for God to jump through before we feel the need to apply clear Biblical principles specifically to our lives, we are probably not promoting good theology.
As I wrap this up, I recognize that this post is fairly simplistic in its assessments and claims, and that to fully discuss such a sensitive topic would obviously require a much more comprehensive discussion.
But, what can I say, I’m just a guy in a jungle swamp, with very little free time, and this is the best I can offer right now. If all this little write-up ever accomplishes is that it stirs the pot a little and brings the topic up to the surface to be discussed, then I’ll be content.
And, finally, in an effort to tie up a few loose ends I may have left…
- I am NOT saying that if someone decides not to pursue full-time ministry or engage in some new pursuit in their Christian life, that they are wrong to refrain. I AM saying that we need to be able to clearly articulate why what we ARE choosing to engage with is of more eternal value than what we AREN’T actively engaging with. Appealing to the absence of a mystical experience, or “feeling,” is an illegitimate response to an open door of ministry.
- I am NOT saying that the main driving force behind our ambition to serve God should be our eternal rewards. I AM saying that there are definitely things that are of greater intrinsic eternal value than some others, and we would do well to sit down and evaluate which of these things we are investing our lives in. For example, which is of greater eternal value, the comfort of my family’s living situation or seeing the Gospel made available to someone who otherwise would never hear of Christ?
- I am NOT saying that God never uses specific, individual calls in people’s lives (the prophet Samuel, the Apostle Paul…). I AM saying that these instances are presented in Scripture as exceptions to the rule, not as the modus operandi. And I am DEFINITELY saying that to exempt yourself from engaging in a clearly presented aspect of the Christian life (specifically foreign missions) because you haven’t received a divine communique is total horse pucky.
*I say this having been on the receiving end of questions regarding this topic on numerous occasions, and having heard the same from countless peers engaged in unique full-time ministries.
** Of course, every analogy breaks down eventually, and this one is no exception. The illustration uses money as an incentive, and money is tangible and of inherent value to all of us. The Christian life has a more abstract value system, but the core tenets are the same.
***I used the example of unreached people groups here because that is our personal niche. This reasoning applies to many other ministries as well.