Article by Daniel Topf, PhD
Many believers wonder, “Am I really called to missions?” It’s an important question because a sense of calling can sustain us in difficult times when the going gets rough. Becoming a missionary usually requires careful preparation and a sacrificial lifestyle, which is why it is crucial to have a high level of conviction regarding being in the center of God’s will. In the following, let’s look at a few principles that can help you in identifying God’s calling for your life, especially regarding cross-cultural ministry.
Recognize that your primary calling is to follow Jesus
In some sense, if you are a Christian, then you have already been called. At some point in your life, Jesus called you to follow him, and you answered that call by having a conversion experience (being born again). This is the context in which the word “called” or “calling” is often used in the New Testament (e.g., Matt. 9:13; Rom. 1:6–7; 8:28–30; 1 Cor. 1:9, 24–26; Eph. 4:1; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Peter 2:9).[i]
One way to describe this foundational experience and reality is to speak of a primary calling. However, besides that primary calling toward a relationship with Jesus, there is also a secondary calling – a specific ministry or task that Jesus may be calling you to fulfill.[ii] Sometimes, these two callings are directly linked to each other, such as when Jesus called his first disciples by saying: “Come, follow me [primary calling], and I will send you out to fish for people [secondary calling]” (Matt. 4:19, NIV).
Similarly, when Paul was on the road to Damascus, he had a dramatic conversion experience as he encountered the risen Christ and then was baptized (his primary calling, Acts 9:3–19). But during that encounter Jesus also revealed a particular assignment to Paul, telling him: “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light” (26:16–18; cf. 9:15–16; 13:2; 22:15; Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1).
Reflect on the things God has entrusted to you over the years
So, how can you identify your secondary calling, the one toward a particular ministry or people group? Some people may have an experience similar to Paul’s in that their conversion and calling to ministry happened simultaneously (or within a relatively short period of time). However, for many others, this sense of being called to a specific task only comes later in life, without any kind of dramatic experience; rather, it is often a long and slow process in which a growing conviction develops over time.[iii]
To identify whether God is leading and guiding you toward cross-cultural ministry, it may be beneficial to take an inventory of your life, identifying the things that God has already entrusted to you over the years. Here are some questions that might be helpful in this regard:
- What kinds of experiences have shaped your walk as a Christian?
- What kind of promises have you received from God over the years?
- What are some of the problems or injustices in the world that you are passionate about?
- What kind of gifts, talents, abilities, and qualifications has God blessed you with?
Identify ministry areas in which you are seeing fruit
Another way to discover what God may be calling you to more specifically is to identify areas in your life where you are seeing fruit. For instance, maybe God has placed it on your heart to reach out to Muslims, and you have already started to do so in your own city. Or maybe you read a biography about a missionary to China many years ago, which really touched you. As a result, you made an effort to learn about China’s history and culture, and maybe you have even begun to learn Chinese (or another language – this is just an example, of course).
Listen to what others within the body of Christ are saying
Sometimes we do not even know what we are good at, or maybe we have overlooked an area in our lives in which God has gifted us. That is one reason why it will be extremely helpful for you to seek the counsel of other believers, especially from those in leadership positions. Ask other mature Christians what they see in you. If you already have a sense of direction regarding missions, make sure you tell your pastor(s) about it, and then see how they respond.
If God is calling you, He will not only speak to you but to others as well, and the prayers and wise counsel of others within the body of Christ will always be an essential element in your desire to serve God in a particular context.[v]
Points to Think and Talk About
- In your own words, how would you describe the difference between “primary calling” and “secondary calling”?
- Read Matthew 28:18–20, Mark 16:15, and Acts 1:8. Do you believe these passages only apply to a certain group of people or to all believers? If they apply to all Christians, then what is (or should be) your response?
- As you take an “inventory” of your life (identifying your past experiences, your interests, your gifts, and abilities, etc.), do you notice any patterns or repeated themes?
- In what kinds of ministries or situations do you feel that God has been using you in the past?
- What has been the response of other people when you told them that you are thinking about becoming a missionary? If you have never talked to anybody about missions, who are two or three people that you could approach in this regard in the coming weeks?
Endnotes / Suggestions for Further Reading
- i This perspective is important because sometimes people place a lot of emphasis on a special sense of calling when what they would really need is simple obedience. See also, Richard Cronk, Not Called: Recovering the Biblical Framework of Divine Guidance (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2022).
- ii The distinction between primary and secondary call is developed by: Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling God’s Purpose for Your Life (Nashville, TN: W Publishing, 2018), 61–73.
- iii Jack Hempfling, Before You Go: Forty Days of Preparation for a Short Term Mission (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2009), 34.
- iiii Such a conviction can grow by reflecting on the priorities and needs found on global harvest fields, such as Keith Green does in his appeal, “Why You Should Go to the Mission Field” (Last Days Ministries: Why YOU Should Go to the Mission Field).
- iv For a current example, see the testimony of Pat and Jeannie Hartsfield, “Called to Obedience”.
- v This may also involve learning from others who have been on this journey before, such as by reading missionary biographies like, J. Hudson Taylor, J. Hudson Taylor: The Classic Autobiography (Compass Circle, 2019); Elisabeth Eliott, A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 1987); and Bruce Olson, Bruchko (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2006).