Some missionaries feel called to missions from a young age. Some feel the calling at college, through Perspectives, or at a missions conference like Urbana. My story is a little different. While I am sure I was exposed to missions as a child or teenager, my most catalyzing experiences didn’t happen until after college when I engaged in conversations with missionaries at a church where I was being discipled and where I served. But even now that I’ve been involved with missions for several years, I don’t know that I can say I’ve ever had an experience of feeling called.
The First Trip
After graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1999, I began a discipleship/mentoring relationship with my local pastor. He recommended I take advantage of a particular missions opportunity saying if God provided the opportunity and the means, that I should go. I had never been on a missions trip before and was curious. But was I called?
Getting geared up for the trip involved a number of areas which I was uncertain about including fundraising and public speaking. But as I asked people to partner with me on this journey, they did it graciously and I believe cheerfully. Enough money was raised for the trip, and my boss granted an exception to the rule and let me use my vacation for both the current year and the next year. With all the elements coming together, I felt God was providing favor in so many ways and that I needed to go.
Upon my return, though, I did not have the calling to missions. I did not love my experience. The trip was hard. I was not operating in the areas where I was comfortable or gifted. I was asked to be transparent and honest with people I did not have a relationship with. I could not speak the language, I could not travel alone. It was humbling. It was hot. The local people didn’t find my jokes funny. And I was hungry a lot. I did not build meaningful relationships. And I did not see a fit for myself there.
At least not then.
It was nice to return home. Life returned to normal. I returned to my job—which I loved—and back to my life. I continued to engage in the same stuff I did before going. When I wasn’t working, my life consisted of good times with the friends I had prior to my overseas visit. We played basketball, shot billiards, went to sporting events and concerts. Fall nights were spent camping and in cookouts. I stepped back into service at church, too. I didn’t join the missions committee, though. I didn’t even think about that as something I should do. While my life was far from perfect, it was comfortable. Easy. Fun.
What I did not expect was for God to change my heart. I saw God in a new way and I saw people in a new way after seeing the “fields white unto harvest.” Living in the United States we have the opportunity to believe, worship and share as we desire. But on my short trip, I had visited a city home to more than 10 million people where it was illegal evangelize. And these kind of restrictions are true in many parts of the unreached world. After experiencing this truth—this reality—it changed my vision. I began to pray specifically for the full-time Christian workers in the city. I began to pray specifically for the brothers and sisters whom I interacted with overseas.
Things changed for me on the job as well. I took more opportunities to share about my faith with co-workers. The values in my life began to change as the gospel began to be more centered in my life.
Two years after returning from my first short-term trip, God was telling me to explore missions full time and I was wrestling with the decision. I had a good job and a solid career path. I had continued to meet with my pastor/mentor and I knew he would encourage me to go if I brought it up. Every time we would meet he would ask me three questions: What are you learning in the Bible? How can I pray for you? When are you going back overseas? I could not escape his questions, nor did I want to. I appreciated his honesty in my life. So while I didn’t avoid him, I was not ready to have the conversation.
One day, my pastor approached me as I was sitting outside the church. I prayed he wouldn’t talk to me. I tried to act as if something more important was happening, but I knew he had me in focus. As he sat next to me he asked me those three questions: learn, pray and go. And sure enough, we began talking through going into full-time missions work. A year later, I was back where I went for that first trip, doing full-time, long-term missions work and loving it.
But am I called to be a missionary?
How does God call us? Is it through feelings or through opportunities?
About 18 months ago, I decided to step away from working in full-time ministry. I took a job in global marketing and it was great, the people were amazing and God blessed my efforts. Once again, I was on a career track. I had a professional development plan. I had mentors at work and I had a future at the company.
But then my phone rang: would I consider returning to work at the missions agency? Something in my heart stirred. Something resounded within me about being part of God’s Kingdom coming and God’s will being done. As I put my notice into the COO of the firm I was working at, he asked if I would stay for more money. I shared with him that there are more than 2.9 billion reasons why I must resign: the 2.9 billion people who have yet to hear the name of Jesus.
I have been back working in missions now for less than 6 months, and there is nothing more I would rather do. Maybe my excitement is a reflection of God’s call on my life. Maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m expecting a burning bush or the pillar of smoke. Or, at the very least, a voice resounding in the thunder. Maybe I’m waiting for something that will never come.
Of course, it’s possible that I don’t hear a clear voice from God about my calling because I don’t allow God to speak into my life as I should. Maybe he doesn’t speak to me on the large issues because I don’t ask him to speak into my life daily—on what I consider to be the small items, the things I can manage. Maybe I am too busy—too goal-oriented—to allow the God who spoke the world into existence to speak to me.
But what is God saying through the opportunities presented to me? How do I analyze opportunities and determine if God is asking me to join in? In 8 Ways to Know God’s Will, Paul Borthwick writes, “There is no set formula for discovering God’s will.” He goes on to say how discovering God’s will is like looking for a constellation—you find a star and then go from there. In my own life, I have a few steps which I consider to be my stars.
Step One: Is the opportunity clear?
Do I understand the opportunity presented or is it a little vague? If the opportunity isn’t clear, how do I find more clarity? Is there someone I can talk with to learn more? Is there some research I could do? What questions do I need answered to obtain clarity? Once the opportunity is clear, it is on to the next step.
Step Two: Does it interest me?
Do I get excited when I talk about the opportunity? When I dream about doing this, am I excited about it? Or am I just pursuing it because there’s a great need. Does this align with my interests? Frederick Buechner said “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”1
Step Three: Am I studying the Bible and growing spiritually?
If I am asking God to speak into my life, am I studying his word and pursuing spiritual growth so I can actually hear him? Can I share with people what God is teaching me in the Bible? Am I progressing in my knowledge and relationship with him? If not, then that should be my next step—pursue growth and listen. If I am studying the Bible and growing in my walk with Jesus, then I proceed to the next question.
Step Four: What do my mentors think?
There are a lot of things I know that I don’t know. Often I am so close to the opportunity or the excitement that my thinking can be clouded. God often speaks through those who are close to us, especially if they are spiritually mature. My goal—independent of any opportunity—is to have a group of people who know me well and who speak into my life at regular intervals. These people can challenge or affirm my thoughts, my directions and my decisions. I ask for their thoughts, questions, recommendations or concerns about the opportunity. While I am not asking them to make the decision—the decision needs to be mine—I am asking them to reflect upon me, my life and the opportunity.
Step Five: Is God telling me not to do it?
God is a missional God. And while he doesn’t need us, he has invited us to be part of what he is doing. The reality is, I am not able to pursue or advance every opportunity I am given. But, am I planning to go until God tells me to stay? Or am I stuck waiting for some great sign before I decide to go?
Sometimes God is telling us to be content where we are, to be more engaged in our communities and to be a light right where we are. But if we don’t engage with others and with God, we may be missing out on some great things he has planned for our lives.
It is easy to get bogged down looking for the right answer when we are provided with opportunities, but these questions have provided me with accountability and guidance. If I am engaged with God, accountable to others, and willing—then I explore the opportunities God brings my way.
I still struggle with the term calling. I’m not sure what a calling looks like or feels like or if I have one or need one. God seems to have given some people a sense of calling. I don’t know if he gives this to everyone. But I do know he gives everyone—for our own good and his own glory—opportunities to serve him.
What opportunities is he giving you? How will you respond?
Ted Draper is the Vice President of Public Ministries for Avant Ministries. He has helped tell the stories of start-ups, established companies and non-profits in the United States, the Middle East and Asia, and has helped guide business planning, strategy, marketing, design, communication and public relations efforts. Ted is married with three children.
1From Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechner