SOUTHERN BAPTIST JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY
David Sills — July 12, 2016
Much missions activity throughout the years has been zeal without knowledge and action without forethought. Many returned missionaries continue to wrestle with false guilt about putting their hand to the plow but looking back, wondering if they are fit for the kingdom any longer. Often, the “plow” was one of their own choosing, and it was chosen in haste.
An old saying goes, “Marry in haste, repent in leisure,” which assumes that the unhappy married person will not divorce but will quietly regret his or her decision for life. That same dynamic is true in missions, but because the self-called missionary unwisely launched into the work, he realizes far too late that he is not a good fit for the team or agency, or that she does not have the blessing and support of her church, or that God was actually leading in a different direction.
When the rocket burns off the fuel for lift-off and the fluttering fall to earth is over, the regrets, the “if-onlys”, and “what-ifs” haunt them for years—unnecessarily. Those considering long-term missions should ask the following questions to minimize the dangers of rushing in unadvisedly, and the answers received should be the result of prayer, counsel, and searching the Scriptures.
1. Is my desire to be a missionary simply the residual emotion of a mission trip or temporary excitement/guilt from a conference speaker?
It would be a fascinating to know how many career missionaries go back to the first place they went on a short-term trip. Some point to this frequent phenomenon and doubt those missionaries’ call. While I did not go to the first place I visited on a mission trip, the Lord did indeed call my wife and me to missions through short-term trips. Rather than belittling the missionary call of someone returning to a place previously visited, we should remember that the God who calls is also sovereign over where Christians go on their first mission trip, and perhaps he used that trip to guide to his calling. Still, it is wise to discern the difference between a call to career missions in that place and an abiding love for the people and a good memory of a week of his favor and blessing in another country.
Discern the difference between a call to career missions and a good memory of a week in another…
Similarly, many conference speakers stir up passions and challenge believers to go to the mission field. They cite statistics about the numbers of lost and preach on verses about Christ’s command to go and make disciples. All of what they say is true, but sometimes these speakers do more than call out the called.
Some Christians with especially tender consciences are easily “guilted” into surrendering to a call that is imagined in the moment, but evaporates in time. When I was young I would go with my friends to the movies on Saturday afternoons. The endings of intense action movies often left us with hearts still pounding as the hero narrowly escaped disaster and defeated the bad guys, but walking out into the blinding sun after the movie was over melted the excitement, and we were ready for the next activity of the day. Sometimes, a season of maturing the call that came through a trip or conference can help reveal whether it’s the real deal or a fleeting feeling.
2. Am I willing to invest my life in language and cultural acquisition for the long haul?
As a general rule, men need significance and women need security. No, I am not being sexist or politically incorrect. To be more precise, both need both. But when I talk to men/husbands/fathers, I “hear” a desire to know that what they are doing with their life matters. Women/wives/mothers tend to need to know that they and their families will be secure. I help young couples recognize this dynamic when considering the missionary call so they will be sensitive to what may be driving or giving caution to their spouse’s response, but also to remember that this is not a casual decision. “Are we in it for the long-haul?” “Is that our mutual understanding?”
One of the failures I have seen many times is people (often men) wanting to rush into the work of missions before they take the time to learn the language and learn it well. Language learning is not just some stopover on the journey to get to the field, treading water, or wasting time until real missions work begins. It is drilling a well that you, your family, and your hearers will drink from for the rest of your life.
Language learning is drilling a well that you, your family, and your hearers will drink from for…
To be the most significant missionary you can be and to have a family that feels as secure as possible, the husband and wife need to know the language well. To learn the language, you must learn the culture. Words do not have meaning, people do—that is, words do not have meaning, they have usage. Memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules is essential, but you do not know the language until you know the culture and how people use that language. That takes time, and it is time well spent. Don’t blast out from your pew, through the airport, and to the mission field without taking the time to learn the culture and language because both are essential for the long haul.
3. Has God called me?
This is the most important question anyone can ask. Some say a call is not necessary and often brashly quote Jim Elliot who said, “Why do you need a voice when you have a verse.” And again, “Our young men are going into the professional fields because they don’t ‘feel called’ to the mission field. We don’t need a call; we need a kick in the pants.” They take Jim’s words out of the context of his overall beliefs. That same Jim Elliot also wrote a pastoral letter to his friend Pete Fleming, who was struggling with whether to accompany Jim to Ecuador, telling him that if he had not heard from the Lord, Elliot had no word for him either. The hurdles were too high and dangerous to go forth without God’s sending.
God does call individuals, though each call is as unique as every pastor’s call to ministry. I have walked through the theological, biblical, historical, and practical considerations in a book, The Missionary Call.
The practical considerations are important and should not be overlooked. The sustaining, staying power to get you through homesickness, physical sickness, being sick and tired of the customs, language challenge, and even of other missionaries during culture shock is fueled by the missionary call.
When the conference message’s guilt is gone, the emotions of a mission trip hit career missionary realities, and romantic adventure of being Jason Bourne for Jesus in another land wear off, the absence of a missionary call is painful.
Ask yourself these questions. The answers can help you take wise steps to a fruitful missions career and fuel you for the long haul.
David Sills is professor of missions and cultural anthropology at THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, and is president of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries. He has served with the International Mission Board in Ecuador as church planter and general evangelist among the Highland Quichua people in the Andes, and as a seminary professor at the Ecuadorian Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of numerous books on missions and missiology, including The Missionary Call: Finding Your Place in God’s World (Moody) and Changing World, Unchanging Mission: Responding to Global Challenges (IVP).