Four Questions to Ask on the Path to Being a Missionary

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A few years ago, I was meeting with a couple who had been serving in an international school in East Asia for years. This was a wonderfully faithful couple, and it was a joy to hear how this school served families in that part of the world. But then, about mid-way through our conversation, they said something that I wasn’t expecting. They said, “We’re thankful for what we’re doing right now, but we really feel called to Russia.”

            “Oh, interesting,” I said. “Have you ever been to Russia?”

            “No.”

            “Do you know any Russian, or anyone in Russia?”

            “Nope, we just really feel called to go there and serve.”

I honestly can’t remember the remainder of our conversation, but I do remember leaving that interaction and thinking to myself, “That makes no sense at all! But . . . I don’t know. Maybe . . . I mean, who am I to question their ‘calling’?”

Perhaps you’ve had a similar conversation with a budding missionary or even with yourself as you try and sift through feelings, desires, and opportunities for serving overseas.

Well, it’s in conversations like this that we would all be helped by Bobby Jamieson’s incredibly helpful and practical book, The Path to Being a Pastor. Jamieson is sympathetic to the real experience of a deep desire to do ministry, like what my friends wanting to go to Russia had. But he’s also convinced that “the language of ‘calling to ministry’ points the whole conversation in the wrong direction.” [1] He argues that rather than claiming a “calling,” from a subjective inclination, we should instead say “I aspire to ministry.” The remainder of the book then teases out that such language is more biblically measurable and practically helpful.

Now before I get too far, an obvious disclaimer needs to be mentioned. You don’t even have to read the book to realize that The Path to Being a Pastor isn’t written directly to aspiring missionaries. All his exegetical work and practical application has a specific audience in mind: men who desire to become vocational pastors.
 
And yet, I’ve personally recommended this book to a lot of men and women who are wrestling with a desire to serve overseas as missionaries. I’ve told them to read this book with their pastor or small group leader. Of course, not everything is 100% applicable to missions, but The Path to Being a Pastor helps every aspiring missionary pursue at least four really good questions.

1. What do I do with this desire to be a missionary?

Desire can be a good thing and a normal means for God to shape our lives toward. But it must be cultivated and assessed. Jamieson’s book affirms ministry aspirations, and he shares about his own still-unmet aspiration to be a church’s primary preaching pastor one day. But he also shows that our desires aren’t incontrovertible; they often come with mixed motivations and emotions that should be examined and biblically calibrated.            

John Paton, after seeing that no one in his denomination was willing to answer a plea for laborers to join John Inglis in the New Hebrides, felt a strong inclination to, “Answer aloud, ‘Here am I, send me.’ But [he] . . . was dreadfully afraid of mistaking . . . mere human emotions for the will of God.” [2] Missionary desires shouldn’t be needlessly quenched, but helpfully questioned.

2. Am I growing in maturity in the faith?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could simply point to a chapter and verse for missionary qualifications? Aspiring to the office of pastor has the advantage of clear biblical qualifications, as recorded in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.

It’s helpful to remember that these letters were written by the missionary Paul to the former missionaries and now pastors Timothy and Titus. Much could be said and debated here, but at the very least, while not necessary, it’s certainly normal for men who are missionaries to become pastors. If that’s the case, then an aspiration to be a missionary should be coupled with an increasing growth in godliness.

Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, wrote out a relatively comprehensive list of qualifications for missionaries. But he began this list by saying, “What we require in all the members of the missionary community is unfeigned piety.” [3] Even if a missionary never becomes a pastor, the biblical qualifications for pastors is the compass for pursuing godliness.

3. Am I growing in my ability to do the work of a missionary?

You might hear aspiring pastors say, “Man, I just want to preach!” But perhaps less often do they ask themselves, “Can I preach?” In a similar way, it’s not uncommon to hear aspiring missionaries say, “Man, I just want to get to the field!” But less often will they admit that they have no idea of what they’ll do once they get there.

Jamieson doesn’t argue that someone must be a polished preacher before becoming a pastor, but he makes the case that aspiration should be coupled with a growing competency. While it’s impossible to fully prepare for both the pastorate and the mission field, an aspiring missionary should be regularly evangelizing, discipling, and serving the people around them. If not, their church should have little confidence that they will in a foreign culture and language.

I love the example of Amy Carmichael for many reasons, not the least of which is her dogged determination to do faithful evangelism. She once wrote, “I would rather have two who came in earnest than a hundred who came to play. We have no time to play with souls like this.” [4] Competency to do the work of a missionary will be refined on the field, but it should be grown first at home.

4. Who can help me on the path to becoming a missionary

So much of Jamieson’s book is seeking to get the aspiring pastor out of his own head and into the life of the church. When I think back to that conversation with my Russian-bound friends, one of the gaping holes in their “calling” was the input of others. They never mentioned talking with their church or seeking counsel from older missionaries. Rather, this “calling” was a strong, inner desire that, at least in our conversation, functioned as an unquestionable, objective fact.

This isn’t what we see in the New Testament. In Acts 16, we don’t learn a ton about Timothy, but we do know that, “He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium” (Acts 16:2). He and his gifts had been observed and affirmed by his brothers and sisters in the faith. And they could, I assume, joyfully send him along with Paul to Philippi and beyond.

If you aspire to be a missionary, God intends your church to be a part of walking you down the path of becoming one. Even though your church may never understand the cultural context that you desire to go to, they’re still in the best position possible to watch your life and ministry before you go. Seek their counsel, heed their advice, and pursue their partnership as you prepare.

Bobby Jamieson’s Path to Being a Pastor won’t clarify every confusion for the aspiring missionary, nor will it point to a path that’s smooth and straight to the field. Rather, this book attempts to demystify what’s so often misunderstood. In doing so, it points both the aspiring pastor and the aspiring missionary to the church, to the Bible, and to Christ. Jamieson is absolutely right: “As good as pastoral (and missionary) ministry is, Jesus is infinitely better. [5]


[1] Bobby Jamieson, The Path to Being a Pastor: A Guide for the Aspiring (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021) 20.

[2] John Paton, Ed. by Rev. James Paton, John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2009), 42.

[3] Marshall Broomhall, Robert Morrison: A Master-Builder (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1924), 156.

[4] Iain H. Murray, Amy Carmichael: Beauty for Ashes (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2015), 11-12.

[5] Bobby Jamieson, The Path to Being a Pastor: A Guide for the Aspiring (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 175.


Chris Phillips

Chris and his wife Lisa have served as missionaries in East Asia for ten years. During their time on the field, they were primarily involved in campus ministry, church planting and church cooperation. Chris loves to see churches planted and established throughout the world that increasingly reflect the character of God. To that end, he desires to see missionaries prepared, sent, and supported well. Chris is a graduate of the University of Louisville and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Chris and Lisa have four kids.

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