During my years as a missionary, I loved the opportunity to speak to young people about missions. This included more than one bored youth group, a girls’ retreat in West Virginia where little girls had a gum spitting contest off the balcony above my hotel room, and several young adults’ small groups in living rooms. I could consistently expect one question to come up time and time again: How did you know you were called?
(Spoiler alert: I didn’t.)
I showed up at my first missionary associate training event in 2008, packed into a room with other people getting ready to launch out on their first missions adventure, and one of our first assignments was to share our story of calling. Some of the stories were incredible. There were people who had been a child at church camp when they felt a call to missions. There were stories of prophecies and unexplainable coincidences. As I sat there, if I was honest with myself, I still wasn’t even sure I wanted to go.
The years that would follow that first training would lead me to new depths in my faith as I moved abroad and established a life on the field. The question of calling, however, stuck with me for a long time. If I didn’t have a fantastic story, was I still called? On the worst days, how could I be sure I’d made the right call? Was I giving up important opportunities back home for nothing?
These are huge, heavy questions. Sitting here today, I am 100% confident that God led me in that season, and that I was absolutely called. And looking back, I’m able to define it a little better than I could have at 24. I’ve learned over the last few years that calling isn’t about a great, mystical origin story. It isn’t about some writing on the wall or an oracle that tells you you’ve been chosen to be among the elite. Calling means the same thing to all believers – it means obedience. It means availability. It means a willingness to examine the gifts God has given you and let them make the biggest possible impact for the Kingdom, no matter where on the globe that happens. Being 100% sure of your path on the front end is not as important as being faithful to the path you choose in obedience.
So if you’re asking this question now, here are a few questions for you to consider on the way to a career in global missions.
Are you available?
The most important thing when we’re looking at saying ‘yes’ to the call of God on our lives is our availability. Being available really just means having an open willingness to be obedient to wherever the Lord may lead us. Availability isn’t limited to seeking a call to vocational ministry – every believer is called to live in obedience. Whether that means being available to pick up a neighbor’s friends from school or move across the globe to do humanitarian work, the first, non-negotiable step to discovering God’s call for your life is to live with an open “yes” to Him.
Is there a need?
My missiology was transformed in 2014 when I traveled to Northern Africa and met with a global worker there. He shared his heart with me, that we over-romanticize calling to geographical location, rather than calling to where the need is. Christ’s desire is that all would come to know Him. In the words of Paul in Romans 10:14, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
Assessing need can’t happen in a vacuum. It has to happen by gleaning from the wisdom of people with experience and knowledge. We cannot impose a need on a people. We have to become students of people who are different than us, to learn rather than to teach. We must prayerfully consider going where the gospel has not yet been made known.
What does wisdom say?
The process I went through to be commissioned as a missionary had many layers that required seeking wisdom from trusted voices in my life. I had to get a reference from my home church pastor, other spiritual leaders in my life, as well as leaders with authority in my denomination at various levels. Beyond the required process, I spoke with mentors and friends who were invested in my life. I leaned on their wisdom to help me make this weighty decision.
Drawing from the wisdom of a trusted spiritual community is not a one-time thing. At every turning point in my vocational ministry career, I sought the wisdom of my community. Proverbs 15:22 tells us, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers, they succeed.” In Acts 15:28, the Jerusalem Council mentions that their instruction “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”
There is wisdom in a multitude of spiritually healthy elders and friends.
Will you keep going?
I remember when I was starting out in missions, all of the talk about calling culminated in a quiet dinner meeting with my district missions director. After a lot of questions about what was motivating me to go, he gently said, “The reason you need to talk about this so much is you’ll need it to keep you going when you want to quit.” As a former missionary, he knew the truth that often isn’t spoken – all missionaries want to quit at some point. The road is hard and lonely, and the price is high.
My laptop wallpaper image has had the same image for years. It’s a golden hour shot across the rooftops of Paris, over which I inserted a quote that my friend Sarah Dillon posted to her Facebook years ago. It reads, “Most of success is just outlasting the people who quit. You can’t fail if you won’t quit.”
It’s easy to say you won’t quit at the missionary training event, worshipping with like-minded people about going to the nations. It’s easy to say you won’t quit when you’re speaking to a congregation full of people who call you a hero. It’s not so easy when you’re alone in a foreign country, feeling defeated and tired of the work of culture adjustment.
But calling doesn’t quit. So you have to know you’re signing up for the hard, hidden stuff too.
Live faithfully where you are, and trust the leading of the Lord. He is faithful to lead us. When we live with the sincere desire to be obedient, and we have the wisdom of healthy community around us, we can move forward with confidence, knowing His plans for us are sure.