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Why I don’t talk about a missionary “call”

March 6, 2016

I actually do believe the missionary call exists. I know many people who have received guidance to specific people groups and places for God’s kingdom. I know God is intimately involved in our lives and gives guidance and wisdom to people who ask. However, I also believe we have elevated this guidance beyond God’s intent. We have muddied the waters of missions and ministry with our desire for direction. Here are five reasons I often hesitate to use the phrase “call to ministry.”

We’ve muddied the waters of ministry with a desire for direction—personal experience can’t replace biblical doctrine

The normal language of the Bible should be my normal language.

The normal usage of “call” in the New Testament refers to salvation. When people are called from darkness to light they are also called into living a life of ministry. This is the norm. The few specific “calls” we see in Scripture are often to people who have already been engaged in full time ministry. Paul’s call to Macedonia comes after he tries to take the gospel to Asia, which he did without specific direction. That seems to be the Scriptural norm. Advance the gospel. Let God redirect. We don’t need people who are “called to ministry” to serve as full time workers. We need people who are “called to Christ.” The secular becomes sacred in all areas of their life. If we redefine the word “call” to refer to the occupation of a select few, we inadvertently excuse everyone else from the work of the gospel that Christ has called every believer to join.

I don’t want to make personal experience my doctrine.

I will agree that God speaks specifically to some people about individual tasks. He does this occasionally in the Bible. However, there are people who live a life of obedience yet never receive a specific call. On a smaller scale, have you ever been obedient to a command of scripture (pray, love others, etc) without a special experience or guidance from the Lord? What makes us think we need more special revelation to participate in ministry? The missionary who tries to beg others into missionary service by sharing the story of their “call” conveys that a “call” is necessary, not with the Bible but with a personal experience. You should never make one person’s experience your doctrine. We should make the clear statements and commands of the Bible our doctrine.

It is unnecessary for service.

“Sometimes the call is the only thing that keeps you on the field.” While that may be the experience of some, I would ask why the great commission wasn’t enough? Why the needs of souls with little to no access to the gospel couldn’t keep them there? Why the joy of filling the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea couldn’t keep them there? Why the blessings and prayer support of partners from home couldn’t keep them there? Are we that unsure of God’s plan to reach the nations that we need some kind of bonus commission? Missionaries and pastors exist who never had an experiential “call” to service. In First Timothy 3, Paul commends people who “aspire” to lead the church. In Romans 15:20 Paul “made it his ambition to preach the gospel where it had not been named.” These two examples of motivations for ministry without specific experiential “calls” should provide enough support for us to abandon this illegitimate requirement for ministry. The qualifications for an elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 have to do with his aspirations and character, not his calling.

It can be manipulated, and left unquestioned.

When my wife and I were interviewing with a mission agency, they said they weren’t sure about our calling. I reiterated that the great commission was the basis for our calling and they responded with the unbiblical cliché “sometimes the call is the only thing that keeps you on the field.” They said that we needed to do a better job of explaining our call. I felt like they were saying “we don’t care how you do it, but get a story of a ‘call’ from God.” It’s a self-perpetuating problem. In order to get into many seminaries or serve with many mission agencies you must demonstrate a “call” to service. Often well meaning people latch onto an experience or emotion they felt and redefine that as their “call” when in reality it was simply them coming to the realization that to follow Christ means their life is abandoned to Him. The danger is giving people a trump card that the leaders of their church seemingly cannot question. If someone experienced a personal calling to somewhere, is there room for the church to speak into their life? The priority we place on a personal call has excused the body of Christ from planning and praying for corporate direction. We should help people live committed to the work of Christ through the church, not to a personal call.

It allows an exit from involvement in ministry.

This is what terrifies me. I believe many people today feel excused from doing ministry because of the sinful infatuation we have created with the experiential “calling.” Because that has been seen as a “necessary” requirement for ministry, people know God’s plan and direction yet excuse themselves because they “don’t feel called.” People should not ask, “Am I called?” People should ask, “How can my life be most leveraged for the advancement of God’s kingdom?”