What is a Biblical Model of the ‘Missionary Call’?

What is a Biblical Model of the ‘Missionary Call’?

We often overlook and/or misunderstand the New Testament model. From the outset, we must remember that Acts is a transitional book in the history of the church, and the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to record many events in the book to highlight historical and theological themes that are significant for understanding the establishment of the New Testament church after Christ’s ascension. In other words, the narrative of Acts is primarily descriptive, but in some ways the narrative can serve as a timeless model to which we can look for wisdom.

In Acts 11:22, the church in Jerusalem sent out Barnabas when they heard that certain men from Cyprus and Cyrene were evangelizing Greeks in Syrian Antioch. There is no mention of calls for volunteers, nothing of Barnabas’ own personal subjective call. It does not mean he had no subjective call, but we should notice that the church took initiative to send him. He was a Cypriot Jewish Christian and therefore known to the Antioch evangelists (Acts 11:20), many of whom were Cypriots. He was full of the Holy Spirit, and he was a good man. His name meant, ‘Son of Encouragement’ (Acts 4:36), and he was probably a soul-mender, apparently selected according to his suitability. Sent by the Holy Spirit through the church, he was the best man for the job. Indeed, though he could have had an internal compulsion, it seemed necessary to the Holy Spirit to inspire Luke to record only these factors of Barnabas’ commission.

A year later Paul and Barnabas set out on their first missionary endeavor, which was not an individualistic decision. Acts 13:1-3 clearly says that the Lord guided the whole group of leaders in the Antioch church. It was a group decision. Later Paul chose Silas (Acts 15:40) who was a leader among the brethren (Acts 15:22), a prophet himself (15:32), and he was therefore qualified to aid Paul on his mission.

When they returned to Galatia, they met Timothy, ‘well spoken of by the brethren in Lystra and Iconium’ (Acts 16:2). The text says Paul wanted to take him. It does not say what Timothy felt or wanted but only that Paul took the initiative and called Timothy.

In all three examples, (sending of Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy) the Bible neither emphasizes the individual initiative, nor the subjective sense of a call. Rather, it always shows the initiative of others, either of a congregation or of other Christians already active in such work. This does not eliminate the value of a personal, subjective call altogether. But it at least demonstrates the biblical priority for how to discern whom churches should send. Moreover, Acts does not define how involved the initial sending church was with the missionaries after their departure. What is clear is that once the churches initially sent out the missionaries, they were on mission to serve and preach wherever the Holy Spirit enabled them to go. The church indeed approved and launched them, but the Holy Spirit guided and directed them. There were no ongoing emails and conference calls to collaborate on new ventures and field transitions.

So, how in the world do we know if what we are discerning is a true call? Is it only an invitation by a second party, or is it the individual’s initiative? The missionary call seems to be both an individual/subjective conviction and a corporate/objective confirmation. A potential missionary must have a subjective call—an unwavering, resolute conviction that is truly from God Himself. However, at the same time the individual must be careful not to confuse the ‘shiver in his liver’ with the voice of God. It is astounding how often we declare that we are called to cross a culture for the gospel’s sake and the reason we give is because we ‘love the people of that culture’. But what is more revealing is that usually those cultures that we initially profess to love and feel specifically called to reach are often very fun, polite, interesting, and hospitable; and for those cultures that rub us wrongly, ironically very few of us profess an equal enthusiasm.

A solution to this vacillating and uncertainty is objective confirmation of one’s own genuine subjective call. One author proposes two steps in hearing this objective call. First, he says that the congregation that knows the candidate best must objectively recognize his strengths. Such people know his gifts and usefulness. Secondly, those involved already in some distant work of cross-cultural ministry, who, on recommendation of the church, could also confirm the readiness of that missionary candidate for that global context. Therefore, with the subjective sense of the call of God (‘It seems that the Lord is calling me’), there is the objective confirmation of the sending church (‘It seems to us that the Lord has set you apart to go and that He wants us to send you’), and of the receiving team of missionaries on the field awaiting more workers (‘We know there is a need, and we believe that you are the kind of person the Lord could use with us’).[1] This model from Acts is not only individual, but it is also corporate. This is how God so often works with us. He uses the Body of Christ to accomplish His tasks.

[1] Michael Griffiths, Give Up Your Small Ambitions (Nashville: Accelerated Christian Education, 1993), 17.

E.D. Burns, PhD, has been a missionary in the Middle East, East Asia, Alaska, and currently Southeast Asia, where he develops theological resources and trains indigenous pastors and missionaries. From his international location, he also directs the MA in Global Leadership at Western Seminary. He is author of the new book The Missionary-Theologian.
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