Problems with ‘the call’

It was a happy day for Art and Zelda when they attended the special missionary meeting held at their church. It was there that they first felt specially called by God to go into missionary service. From that time on, they began to speak to others, especially those with a burden for missions, about missionary work and where they might be able to serve. Gradually their sense of call became focused on a particular country, and they found their way to a missionary society which could help them obey that call.

In speaking to the board of this missionary society, they were asked about many things—their background, their training, their vision. However, one topic of particular interest was their sense of God’s call. On the board were a number of retired missionaries who knew how important a sense of God’s call can be. It had sustained them all through some real missionary trials. After all, the task of the missionary is one of the toughest around. Without a clear sense that God has called them to their particular task, missionaries will likely buckle under such pressure. Either their work will become ineffective or they will simply return home in defeat.

Eventually Art and Zelda were accepted, given some orientation training, put together their support and soon found themselves expectantly waiting to depart. Their story is a fairly typical one. In particular, the view that a sense of God’s call is essential to a missionary’s survival on the field is quite widespread. As my wife Lyn and I have talked to others about the topic of guidance, it has often come up as an objection to views of the kind presented in The Last Word on Guidance (P. Jensen & T. Payne, St Matthias Press, 1991). Such views are all very well, it’s thought, but what is there left to stop a missionary giving up at the first sign of difficulty? How can they face the great trials of missionary work if they don’t know God has deliberately chosen them for a life of service in a particular job or country?

This is a fair question, and we’ve given a lot of thought to the problem. The answers we’ve come up with are not only a little surprising, but also have some far-reaching implications, especially for anyone who agrees with the approach of The Last Word on Guidance.

Creating your own problems

A good line for weddings runs, “Now that you’re married, you’ll have someone with whom to share all those problems you would never have had if you hadn’t got married in the first place!”. Something similar can be said about the famous ‘missionary call’. It’s the answer to a problem—yes. It has helped many missionaries cope with difficulty on the field—no doubt about it. However, this problem would hardly exist if we didn’t believe in a special missionary call in the first place. Of course, many stresses will exist for missionaries, regardless of their view of guidance. Nonetheless, the traditional view has both added to these stresses and hampered the missionary’s ability to cope with them.

To explain how this can be so, let’s consider the thoughts of a contemporary church planter on the ‘call’. In a recent issue of an evangelical magazine, he gave ‘ten commandments’ for church planters. Significantly, the first of these was ‘Make sure of your calling’. Under this heading, he related how his own clear sense of calling sustained him through tough times. However, a careful reading of what he said shows that his theology of guidance and ‘the call’ largely contributed to his difficulties in the first place!

One of the difficulties he encountered was his wife being diagnosed as having cancer the same week that services for a new church began. In these circumstances, he felt, he might not have continued without his clear sense of calling. However, I believe that without his theology of the ‘call’, he would have had little reason to think of giving up in the first place. This isn’t to say that his wife’s diagnosis would have been easy to cope with. The question is whether it would have led him to give up his ministry.

Consider for a moment the case of a Christian plumber faced with the same terrible news. We would think it odd if he said that the news of his wife’s cancer came as such a blow that he thought he’d give up his present job and look for a new one! The two things just don’t connect up like that. Why, then, should someone in ministry react this way? One crucial reason is the belief in a special calling.

The sense of call puts one’s life and work in a new light. Circumstances gain a whole new significance. The author explains that his sense of call came from the Bible and circumstances. Furthermore, he also says that circumstances such as his wife’s diagnosis led him to ‘question the call’. This is significant. Dealing with the cancer itself wasn’t the ultimate problem. Rather, it was the timing of the crisis at a key moment in his ministry. It led him to question whether he was doing the right thing after all, and this was difficult to cope with. He thus turned to his sense of call for strength and accordingly commends to his readers the importance of a sense of call. He doesn’t seem to realize that such events wouldn’t lead him to question his call if he didn’t believe in such a thing in the first place. The news of his wife’s diagnosis was traumatic, but it was only his theology that made it a threat to his ministry.

The author doesn’t give details about the cancer episode, but he does mention times of discouragement when his work seemed fruitless. He speaks of handing out tracts and yet, for all his effort, seeing no response. Naturally enough, he turned to his sense of call to sustain him through such times. Can his theology of guidance be blamed for such times of discouragement? I believe it can be.

The theology of the ‘call’ tends to downplay the use of human wisdom in its focus on special leading from God. The use of strategy, planning and so forth take second place to listening for God’s guidance. Indeed, it may seem very unspiritual to plot and plan, whereas faithfully giving out tracts in the face of adversity because you feel called to that work seems very spiritual indeed. Thus, his theology locked him into a scheme inevitably leading to discouragement. Of course, he turned to his sense of call to sustain him at such a time; but without this theology, he may well have avoided the problem in the first place.

The effect upon support networks

Now let’s look at the issue on a larger scale, and consider the views of the churches and mission bodies which choose, prepare, place and support missionaries. The impact they have on the life of a missionary is enormous. Here again we will see the damaging effects of the traditional view of guidance. It is true that many missionaries find in their sense of call the strength to endure hardship. The fact is, though, that much of this hardship wouldn’t exist except for the widespread belief in the same view of the call by those at home.

We’ve left Art and Zelda cooling their heels for a while, so it’s time we returned to their missionary career. Art and Zelda finally reached the mission field and entered language school. They had ‘made it’ in the eyes of their friends at home. However, their chances of really making it as missionaries were not good.

The staggering fact is that somewhere between a third and a half of new missionaries don’t continue beyond their first term on the mission field. They either leave or don’t return after their first trip home. There are any number of reasons for this. However, the fundamental cause seems to be the traditional view of guidance and the ‘call’. Let’s look at how this happens.

It produces unsuitable candidates

One aspect of the problem is simply that many missionaries are unsuitable for the job. Their personality or way of relating to others mean that they will inevitably have problems. The sort of person who responds to a moving appeal, as Art and Zelda did, may be just the wrong person to become a missionary. However, because of their strong sense of call due to this experience, many mission societies will still be willing to send them out. In some instances they may feel unsure of the person’s ability to cope but be unwilling to stand in the way of God’s leading. In other cases, the mission society will not even be aware of the potential problems. Because their theology places so much emphasis on God’s guidance, they give little thought to objectively evaluating their candidates mental or emotional fitness. A keenness for the Lord and a clear call are judged to be sufficient.

It downplays the importance of preparation

Another aspect of the problem is that of preparation. Most new missionaries probably have the personal qualifications to cope on the field. Problems occur either because they haven’t received enough preparation or because they and their society haven’t given enough attention to finding the right situation for them to work in.

Again, the lack of preparation is a reflection of the traditional view of guidance. The candidate and their societies believe that just as God issued the call, so he will provide the necessary resources and lead the missionary to the job to which he or she has been called. There is thus little care given to orientation training or to finding the most appropriate job for the individual missionary.

It reduces the commitment of supporters

A further aspect of the problem is that of ongoing support from home—rather, the lack of it. Even if a missionary is suitable, has adequate training and is in an appropriate working situation, there will still be trials to face. These can generally be faced, however, if there is adequate support from home. The problem with the traditional view of guidance and the ‘call’ is that it continually undermines this support in many ways.

The missionary call itself is something between God and the individual Christian. It is essentially a personal affair. Furthermore, in the same way, interest in missions and supporting missionaries is seen as something only for those given a special ‘burden’. In other words, the whole area of missions is, right at its outset, marginalised in the life of the church. This estrangement from the wider life of the Christian community has inevitable consequences for the level of support a missionary receives.

Take, for example, Art and Zelda. They became interested in missions not at a regular congregational meeting where their pastor was speaking, but at a special meeting with a special speaker, attended only by those interested in the subject. From this point on, the process of becoming missionaries increasingly took place outside the life of their own church. In an attempt to track down those in the Christian community who could answer their questions, they spoke more and more to those outside their own congregation. No doubt they spoke to their pastor, but it is rather likely that he pleaded ignorance and passed them on to someone else who could be of more help.

When they were finally accepted by their mission society, they had to start looking for support. This was most likely difficult even in their own congregation. The direction of their lives had seen them drift apart from most of the congregation who had no particular interest in missions and felt no call to become involved. All of this would only make their time on the field more difficult. And of course, as the years passed by, they would find their support from home becoming ever more tenuous. They would have a few firmly committed individuals behind them, but they would have no sense of partnership with the church at home; no encouragement in knowing they were loved and cared for by the wider church.

Thus, in many ways, the traditional view of guidance and the missionary call undercuts the ability of a missionary to cope with the task. All of my life I’ve heard horror stories about missionaries, stories of foolishness, inadequacy, mismanagement and failure. As I’ve thought about the issue of the ‘call’, I’ve seen that most of those dramas could have been avoided. In fact, they are largely the direct outworking of the traditional approach to guidance and the ‘call’. It is very short-sighted, therefore, to say that we need some sort of ‘call’ in order to keep missionaries on the field. If it wasn’t for this view we wouldn’t have many of the problems in the first place!

What’s the alternative?

So where does that leave us? If we discard the traditional view as both unbiblical and impractical, how are we going to guarantee that missionaries stay on the field? How can we ensure that they don’t come home as soon as the going gets tough?

Quite simply, we can’t. There are no guarantees. Certainly the views of books like The Last Word on Guidance can’t provide them. But, interestingly enough, neither can the traditional view. Consider the one third and more of new missionaries who don’t stay the course. Was their problem that they didn’t feel called? I think it unlikely. In reality, a large proportion would have felt themselves called to the mission field. Yet that didn’t prevent them giving up. We hear the success stories of how a sense of call led to triumph. But we don’t often hear about the many real failures.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the ‘new’ view of guidance has nothing to offer. Its emphasis on wisdom, for one thing, is a helpful one. Even a little more wisdom being applied to difficult situations by both mission societies and missionaries themselves would go a long way! Also, the ‘new’ view must lead to a different way in which people become missionaries and are then supported from home. And this means some practical changes in the way things are done in our churches. Most of our current practices are basically a reflection of the ‘special call’ theology. If we want to re-think our theology in this area then we will also have to re-think the way we do things.

For one thing, pastors and mature Christians in a congregation can be more involved in encouraging young people to consider missionary work, especially those who aren’t likely to respond to an emotional appeal. In fact, the whole congregation’s attitude to missions, and many other forms of ministry for that matter, will need to change. This is no doubt the pastor’s job, but it will also occur as people are encouraged from within the congregation to go into mission work. They will no longer be outsiders coming to ask for money, but representatives of the congregation sent out into a special ministry. If this is so, then the Arts and Zeldas of this world can look forward to many years of firm and loving support through prayer, money, correspondence and simply knowing that they aren’t struggling on alone. Trials will come, some of them very severe, but in that partnership in the gospel, they will find strength to push on. Such, at least, has already been our experience.

Philip Miles grew up in a missionary family. With his wife Lyn and son Toby, he is now working with CMS in Japan.

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