“Called” Overseas: A Look at Missionary Assignments Throughout Church History

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What does it mean to be “called” to be a missionary? Well, it depends on who you ask. Christians who serve in positions at a local church or an organization such as Reaching & Teaching will often talk of being “called” to their role. We’ve used the word so much in our Christian communities that it’s at risk of losing its original meaning. At our orientation two years ago, Greg Gilbert (my pastor at Third Avenue Baptist Church) taught a session that I have referred to on a number of occasions. Last year, Jon Deedrick and I hosted a podcast on the topic with Greg (Listen Here: https://rtim.org/podcast/episode-14-calling-greg-gilbert/). In the months ahead, Rachel Ware and I will be writing a series of blogs about the subject as we examine the lives of historical missionaries.

Why so much on this subject? First of all, we want to encourage Christians everywhere to flourish in whatever the Lord has assigned to them. Second, we want to encourage potential sending churches and missionaries to consider the subject thoroughly because it’s so important. Third, we want to be part of a new conversation on “calling.” Reaching & Teaching wants to help missionary candidates evaluate their assignments through this filter in the years ahead, and while these blogs are written for anyone interested in the subject, our hope is that they will also reshape our internal conversations in this organization.

Why was that orientation session two years ago so pivotal? Personally, it took a very abstract topic and gave it some concrete parameters to consider. Greg helpfully pushed back on the contemporary use of the word “calling” and encouraged us to speak of the Lord giving us different ‘assignments’ that may vary at different seasons in our life. Let’s get to the question at hand: How does one determine whether or not they are “assigned” to be a missionary? As we explore the answer to that, my prayer is that you’re encouraged to consider the question in the context of Christian community, specifically your local church. I’m going to use the same three categories as Greg does, so please don’t credit me with the definition (I would have loved to have him write this introduction, but we just had him write a blog on the importance of church planting in missions strategy and speak at our most recent Preview Day on the topic. So, I’ve called in all my favours for now and need to give him time to rest).

We will discuss the evaluation of the missionary assignment as consisting of the following three ingredients: Desire, Opportunity, and Gifting.

Desire

Do you want to serve overseas? Generally speaking, the Lord places a desire in us for what he has in store for us. I’ve yet to meet a missionary who moved overseas because they hated every bit of the idea of it. In this series of short biographical sketches, we’ll discover that desire in each of the subjects. They sacrificed everything because they wanted to!  Often, a missionary describes a burning desire to forsake their life and comfort at home to cross oceans and cultures to serve the Lord overseas. However, it’s also possible to limit the concept of “calling” to only this ingredient. Basically, if we really desire to do something and attach the “calling” word to it, who can stand in our way? Well, it’s more involved than that, which brings us to our second ingredient.

Opportunity

Is there actually an opportunity for you to serve overseas in the context that you want to serve?  Not a conceptual opportunity, but an actual opportunity. With today’s technology, we have the opportunity to communicate with workers around the world who can help us to discern if there’s an actual opportunity on the ground in which we can serve. We are often talking about potential global opportunities at Reaching & Teaching so that we can make individuals aware of them. If you’re banned from entering a closed country and there is not an opportunity to live there, it’s hard to say that you’re assigned to that place. You may have a desire to do so, but not the opportunity. Historically, missionaries crossed oceans before discovering if there was an actual opportunity for them to serve in a specific location. Sometimes they “desired” to serve in a place and then discovered there wasn’t an actual opportunity when they landed—or that the actual opportunity was very different from what they expected.

Gifting

This component is best discovered in community—and by community I mean your local church, not your immediate family. When I was in middle school I was a really bad art student. So bad, in fact, that my eighth grade teacher gave me a passing grade in art if I promised to never take the subject again. My art teacher was honest with me, but do you know who had a hard time being honest? My mom! She had a hard time telling her son that he couldn’t do something, and that included drawing and painting. 

Find a grace- and truth-filled congregation with faithful shepherds and honest members and serve in that local church. Be honest about your desire to serve overseas and be open to the feedback you receive. If your elders recommend seminary training, go and pursue it. If they provide some coaching after you teach a Sunday school lesson, pay attention to it. I’ve loved seeing faithful church members sent out of my own local church with hearty amens as they go and serve overseas to do what we’ve observed them doing up close. As we explore the lives of the missionaries of the past, we’ll pay attention to how their gifting was confirmed by those around them. 

In this series, we’ll search for the threads of Desire, Opportunity, and Gifting that are woven together in the missionary assignments of those who have gone before us so that we can better ascertain those threads as they appear in our own lives.

Ryan Robertson

Ryan Robertson serves as President of Reaching & Teaching. He is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Missiology program at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Ryan and his wife Erin have three children and are members of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

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