Some people are called to serve their local church in their native country.
This is why discerning a “call”—however one defines it—to missions can be a confusing journey. But it isn’t impossible. Consider these 10 ways to discern whether the Lord is leading you to the missions field.
1. God has given you a desire for missions.
Some people—especially new Christians—feel guilty for not going to the mission field. The need is so great, and the laborers so few, that the urgency can give believers a sense that they are doing “less” if they are doing God’s work here at home in pastoral or lay contexts.
Here’s the truth: Guilt alone is not a good reason to go to the missions field. In fact, a lack of desire should be enough to give you pause. God is doing work everywhere, and he doesn’t call everyone to missions.
If you have a passion to go to the mission field—and if you do, this is something you can sense—this is a great starting place to ask more questions.
2. God has given you opportunities to train for missions.
Missionary work, like any work, requires a specific skill set. Since many missionaries are involved in local church leadership, that skill set must include teaching and leadership skills so the missionary not only knows the truth of God’s word, but is able to mobilize a community around it.
The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
What does it mean to “rightly handle the word of truth”? Paul explains this concept a bit further in Titus, writing that one who rightly handles the word of truth “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
The best place to do this is a trustworthy Bible college or seminary that will teach you Christian theology, biblical studies, pastoral ministry, and other skills for cross-cultural ministry.
3. You’ve had positive missions experiences.
It’s easy for our perception of missions to become romanticized. But often, people travel to the missions field and feel exhausted, unproductive, and lost. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Missions is hard. It isn’t meant for everyone. But once you’ve actually engaged in meaningful short-term missions work and you’ve had a positive experience with a long-term team on the ground, this can be a meaningful indicator that you might be able to do that same work long-term.
4. Your local church affirms your call.
Because missions is an extension of your local church, your local church must send you. This doesn’t mean that your sending church must fully fund you, but it prevents the possibility that you could become a “rogue” missionary who is unequipped, unaccountable, and overwhelmed by the missions process without the proper support, prayer, and community behind you.
Paul writes to Timothy: “The confidence of my calling enables me to overcome every difficulty without shame, for I have an intimate revelation of this God. And my faith in him convinces me that he is more than able to keep all that I’ve placed in his hands safe and secure until the fullness of his appearing” (2 Timothy 1:12).
When a local church affirms your call, then as you go through seasons of testing your calling, you can look back on that affirmation as a concrete moment when God gave you the green light to start taking your vocational call to missions work seriously.
5. God has provided an opportunity to serve effectively.
Even if God is directing you towards missions in general, that doesn’t mean you know what specific door he is opening. Paul refers to Apollos working through this reality: “Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Apollos, at some point, had to say “no” to the offer to minister in Corinth. The offer to minister in Corinth was a possibility for Apollos, but it wasn’t the right opportunity. We don’t know the details. But we have to recognize that the call to do missions work isn’t the call to take the first opportunity that comes your way.
If there is no opportunity that works, wait for God to make the right opportunity work.
6. Missions doesn’t compromise your calling to family.
It’s important not to let the urgency of your call compete with your primary charge to obey Christ as a husband, wife, parent, provider, or caretaker. Paul instructs Timothy: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
It is true that we must be willing to forsake family for the cause of Christ (Luke 14:26). But if God is calling you to missions, he will provide an opportunity for you to serve in a way that doesn’t require you to rob your family of the basic essentials of life—and more than that, doesn’t rob them of you.
7. You have the moral qualities of a church leader.
Again, a missionary’s fundamental extending the work of the local church to another locality. Because of this, it’s important for missionaries to have the essential character qualities of a church leader that Paul explains to Titus: “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:7-8).
Your moral character is just as important as—if not more important than—hard cross-cultural ministry skills to your role and success as a missionary.
8. You’re entrepreneurial.
Cross-cultural missions requires the basic skills of a self-starter. You can only train and prepare so much until, at some point, you simply must step onto virgin soil and create a path which no one has walked before with people who have never heard the gospel before.
The Apostle Paul himself learned to take the mindset of an entrepreneur in order to maintain his Apostolic integrity: “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:33-25).
9. You are affirmed by a missions agency.
A missions agency brings knowledge, wisdom, support, and credibility to your ministry and the church family behind you. In the 21st century, every full-time cross cultural worker can benefit from the support of an agency. While some organizations merely function as clearinghouses for your paycheck, healthy missions agencies will equip you with training, support, education, real-time help, and a network of career missionaries who have been doing what you are aiming to do for decades.
10. You are already a missionary.
Sometimes, missionaries themselves question their call. After long seasons of spiritual dryness, and perhaps even a lack of fruit on the mission field, they may ask themselves: “Was this all a big mistake?”
Here’s a fact (it’s going to sound redundant): if you’re already a missionary, you are called to missions.
Think of the wife doubting her relationship with her husband. “Am I called to be his wife? Should I have married him?” Here’s the truth: she has been called by virtue of the fact that she is in a position of spouse. The same applies to all the various spheres in which we find ourselves.
Feeling insufficient for your post isn’t proof that you aren’t called. It’s proof that you have room to grow. And, as older career missionaries will tell you, the need for growth never goes away.
God is always working on us and in us to make us more worthy of his calling on our lives: “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
Have faith in your calling, remember the affirmation and support of your local church, remain transparent with your support team there, and continue doing the work of the gospel faithfully.
As you consider whether God has called you to missions work, run through this checklist. Pray over it. Pray through it with your pastor and your family. Ask God to help you grow in areas you need to grow. Ask God to open opportunities that seem elusive. And finally, if you are not called to missions, have the humility to accept God’s call on your life elsewhere.
Note: ABWE has created a resource called Pathways to help you think through what missionary track might be best for you. Read through these tracks and prayerfully consider what God may have for you. He is faithful, and whatever he has called you to do, he will accomplish it through you. Walk forward in faith and obedience, and you will see God do amazing things.
God has work for every Christian to do. If it’s not overseas as a full-time missionary, it may be overseas as a mid-term missionary, a tentmaker, a lay-person, or in your home country as a pastor or faithful church member.
We share your passion to fulfill the Great Commission by multiplying leaders, churches, and missions movements among every people. Let’s start the conversation about your next steps with missions.