There have been many young people over the years who have asked for my advice about whether or not they should become a missionary. The answer obviously depends on the individual and God’s calling, but there are 3 questions I always ask to help them discern the Lord’s will. These are mainly for those considering full-time ministry, but they can also be helpful for people thinking about short-term missions.
1. Why do you want to become a missionary?
“God has called me” is the typical answer. Every missionary should be able to say this, but, in a sense, God has called every believer to be a missionary. So, this answer alone isn’t enough. Why do you desire to work in that specific ministry or country?
In my experience, people often get the “missionary call” whenever they hear about some great need in the world. For example, you hear that a people group doesn’t have any churches, so you want to become a missionary and go plant a church there. We must be very careful, though, not to confuse the need with the call.
Going as a missionary is only one of several ways to meet the need. “Goers” can’t exist without “senders”. Those who stay and give faithfully to the goers are doing their part, and it’s essential! The missionaries that are already there can’t continue their work without funds. Maybe the Spirit is breaking your heart for that need so that you stay, work hard to make a ton of money, and then give it all away to support their work.
This is just one of the many ways that you can meet the need. Examine yourself and see if the Lord has prepared you for a different role in that ministry.
2. What does your church say about your calling?
Your church will play a huge role in your ministry as a missionary. So, what do your pastors and fellow members have to say about your desire to go? Do they agree that this ministry is a good fit for your gifts? We are often blinded to things that our friends and family can easily see, and we should be humble and willing to consider the opinions of those who love us. As you live life with your church, your gifts and calling will become obvious to those around you.
It’s not necessarily bad, for example, if you are actively serving in your church but you’ve never helped with the youth nor gone out of your way to interact with that age group. That’s not everyone’s gift. But if you suddenly tell your church that you’re called to become a missionary and counsel youth at an orphanage in Africa, they would be right to question you.
They wouldn’t question your character or desire to serve the Lord but your interpretation of the call. Ideally, they would say something like this:
“Brother, you’re faithfully seeking to serve Jesus, as usual. You’re gifted in evangelism and experienced at making disciples. You have all the qualities of a church planter. If the Lord wants you to counsel youth, then He will equip you for that task. However, if you want us to send you as a missionary, we ask that you pray about being a church planter instead. At the very least, don’t make a decision right away.”
The church doesn’t dictate your call, but it should confirm it and help you make your decision.
3. How are you currently serving the Lord?
I started attending my current sending church as an immature college freshman and it has helped me grow in every aspect of my faith. One day, after being a member for 2 years, a random guy from church invited me to coffee. I had no idea how deeply that conversation was going to change me. Since it was a small church I knew who he was, but I had never bothered to get to know him. Nevertheless, a broke college student never turns down free anything, especially coffee.
He knew I was a theology major training to become a missionary and he wanted to hear my plan. After giving what I thought was an impressive ministry vision for tribal groups in the Amazon Jungle, he asked if he could be blunt with me. A little nervous, confused, and uncomfortable, I gave my permission. With a sincere, non-judgmental, pastoral heart, this is what he said:
“You attend all…well…most of the services. You take sermon notes. You even invite new people from time to time. But are you serving the body? Are you searching for ways to help your brothers and sisters grow in holiness and love for the gospel? Are you sacrificing your time and comfort to help others with their needs, even if no one will ever know it was you? Or do you just come to be served and leave once you’re full? These things don’t just magically start happening when you’re on the mission field in a leadership role. These are habits that you need to develop now.”
I was speechless. I had spent 2 years without ever pouring into the local body of Christ that I voluntarily joined. Does that describe you? Can you answer “yes” to all of those questions he asked me? Nothing he said was unreasonable or only for those going into full-time ministry. Those are things that every single believer should be doing, yet many choose not to do so.
The good news is that there’s hope. We can repent of being selfish church members and develop the habits of loving, serving, and looking out for one another’s holiness. If you aren’t doing those things now then you will not do them on the mission field, either.
Ask yourself these 3 questions before you decide to become a missionary. Talk to your friends, family, and pastors. Pray that the Holy Spirit would make your role in the ministry clear, and be willing to change your mind if it seems like going as a missionary isn’t actually what the Lord wants you to do. If you truly desire to serve Him then He will show you how, where, and when He wants to use you.