Ok, I know that “calling” is passive. It is something that God does not something that we do. However, the notion of calling is sometimes misused when talking about a decision for cross-cultural ministry.
The positive and helpful use of “calling” is a sense of God’s leadership for you to become a missionary. This sense comes from getting counsel and having an ongoing sense of oughtness over time that this is the right decision. If that is what calling means, then it is right to say that you are called to missions. Also don’t forget that calling has the same roots as vocation; any vocation, not just ministry is a special calling from God.
However, there is a negative and unhelpful use of “calling”. For example, I’ve seen some missionaries use the word calling to stop conversation about their decision. A missionary once told me that he was confident of his calling to serve in Turkey, but that he was breaking his commitment to return to the States early because God changed His calling. To me this wasn’t much more than telling me that he couldn’t handle overseas living, wanted to return “home”, and didn’t want me to challenge him on his decision. I’ve also seen this work the other way: missionaries who should leave the field because they have become ineffective for some reason and refuse to return because of their definition of calling. They think that their decision go to the field can not be reversed because of their understanding of calling. In both cases, a misuse of calling cuts off the conversation and application of wisdom in decision-making process.
How to communicate “calling:”
Once you have confidence in God’s direction there are a variety of ways to communicate the decision. For example, some people will have confidence to say “God has lead me to this decision”, others will say “God has called me to be a missionary” finally, others will say “based on the sense of rightness that I have from my decision process, I believe it is God’s will for me to be a missionary”.
The key is to acknowledge that unless you say that you have new revelation directly from God (and some sending agencies will immediately disqualify you for this!), you should add a sense of contingency to your language, e.g. “the best I understand it”, “my sense of God’s leadership”, etc. This rightfully communicates confidence without putting the decision outside of review and discussion when necessary.
Some agencies require that you use the word “calling” when explaining your decision process. For example, the IMB requires both the husband and wife to be able to say that they are called by God to be a missionary. For the IMB, the word “called” in both husband and wife’s story is necessary. Aside from requiring a certain word, there is wisdom behind asking for a very high level of conviction in the decision. Missionary service is often very difficult, and sending agencies want candidates to be very confident in their decision so that they won’t easily give up when the situation on the field becomes difficult. The idea behind asking both husband and wife to be “called” is to guard against the possibility that one of them is only along for the ride or to make the other spouse happy and isn’t that interested in missionary service themselves. When times get tough on the field, this will create unbearable stress on any marriage unless both are confident in the decision.
Do you have confidence in God’s leadership to become a missionary because of counsel, community affirmation, and sound decision-making? Consider yourself called, but be open to the wisdom of ongoing conversation about the decision.
What do you think about using the word calling to describe this decision process?
Tim Lubinus is on staff as a ministry director at a larger church in Iowa and has served overseas for six years in South Korea and ten years in Turkey. He blogs at http://www.worldchristians.info/.