Cross-cultural Service or
"The Myth of the Call"
It has taken us four chapters to redraw our maps of the world, to bring them into line with the way God sees the world. In the process, I hope we've caught a vision of God's unchanging purpose for the world; God has blessed the Church of Jesus Christ, so that through the Church, men and women from every nation may be added to His Body.
I hope we have caught sight of the nations of the world. They are largely "the lost" and "the poor." Over 17,000 people groups are separated from the gospel of Jesus Christ by a large gap of opportunity-the theological, cultural, geographical and resources gap. As for the poor, we have learned that God identifies with them, has acted on their behalf and has commanded His people to do likewise.
I hope we have caught the crucial vision of our personal global responsibility: to resist "Big Chill Country," to abandon private "pea-sized" versions of Christianity and adopt a robust, vital Christianity in which God's global purpose is the single over-arching, integrating factor.
I hope we have also caught a vision of God's promise to Jesus. He said, "I have glorified my name and I will glorify my name." This is the basis for our confidently, although somewhat fearfully, entering the gap, willing to learn what it is to die so that we can bear fruit for Jesus Christ in the gap.
We now move to the second phase of our studies on Global Vision: obeying the vision. We've redrawn our maps. Now it's time to get into our boats and start sailing according to the new maps.
It's at this point we begin to get jittery. As one young man, a leader in my church, said, "Sunder, I can't deny the truth of everything we've been learning in the last several weeks, but I am so overwhelmed by this global responsibility that I want to back off and drop everything." All of us feel that way at some time if we take this business of Global Vision seriously.
The answer lies in a comment another young man made to me after challenged by our personal global responsibility. He said, "The key word you used this morning for me was process. I can start right where I am and trust God to lead me to the exact spot in the gap where He wants me to fit in."
He's absolutely right. It reminded me of Paul's words in Philippians 3: "I forget what is behind and I press towards the mark." As I thought of this verse in the context of obeying Global Vision, a new picture began to form in my mind. Imagine fixing your eyes on a particular distant object towards which you want to move, but are prevented by some obstacle. As long as you maintain pressure on that obstacle and keep your eyes on the mark, when the obstacle is removed, two things will happen-you will move forward and in the direction of the mark. But if, because of the presence of the obstacle, you either take your eyes off the mark or begin to ease the pressure, then, even when the obstacle goes, you either will not move or, if you do, it will be in the wrong direction.
In the next several chapters, I will give several "marks" on which to set our eyes. If we keep looking at them and pressing forward, then even if initial progress is slow or almost non-existent, we can be assured that one day the obstacles will crumble and we will move forward. The one thing we must not do, because of the presence of the obstacles and the difficulty of the task, is to take our eyes off the mark and to stop pressing forward.
The traditional approach to obeying Global Vision is well captured in this comment by Herbert Kane, a former missionary.
One was either a full-fledged, full-time career missionary or one was a comfortable, respectable self-satisfied church member with no direct personal responsibility for the evangelization of the world. If the call came you went. If it didn't you were free to stay at home to do your own thing. The people with the call were regarded as particularly spiritual people and were expected to live a life of faith which meant living from hand to mouth, enduring loneliness, privation, misunderstanding and rejection. The people without the call were free to go their own way, get good jobs, raise fine families, live in the security of suburbia. Those with the call were expected to make all the sacrifices while the others were free to enjoy the good things in life bestowed on them by a kind, generous heavenly Father.1
Such a view is totally wrong. Every one of us, if we are Christians, had been called to move into the gap with the Lord Jesus Christ. In this gap, we have two options. We either serve cross-culturally or live counterculturally.2 Those who serve cross-culturally are the ones who actually leave their homeland, live in another culture and bridge the gap. Those who don't go automatically fall into the second category of living counterculturally right where they are in order to be co-operators, participators and encouragers with those who serve cross-culturally. One man expressed it this way: "I want to live in North America in such a way that the devil would rather have me overseas as a missionary." That's a good goal for those of us who want to stay here.
Traditionally, the matter of deciding whether or not to serve cross-culturally has been related to the mystical "call." What exactly is "the call"? Where did the concept originate?
First, there are biblical instances, primarily in the Book of Acts, all of which involve the Apostle Paul. Acts 9 refers to Paul's specific commission, calling him to preach the gospel. Several times he refers to himself as "Paul, the called of God." In Acts 13 there is the well-known incident where the church at Antioch was told to set apart Saul and Barnabas for the first missionary journey. In Acts 16 is Paul's vision of the Macedonian saying, "Come over and help us." As a result of this call, the gospel went into Europe, changing the direction of Paul's second and third missionary journeys.
Then there are testimonies of dozens of missionaries who have received "the call." By that they usually mean a strong, inward impression that they ought to be serving cross-culturally.
Intuitively, the need for a "call" makes sense. Serving cross-culturally is a demanding task, in many ways more difficult than living at home. It seems reasonable that God would give such people a special call to do the task. Yet, precisely because it seems reasonable, people have never sought to ask whether this concept of "the call" is based on proper exegesis of the Scriptures. A man who attempted to answer this question is Garry Friesen, author of Decision Making and the Will of God.3 I found his approach very illuminating.
He begins by looking at all the Bible verses which involve the concept of "calling," apart from the everyday use of the term. The verses fall into three groups. The first refers to the invitation to believe the message of the gospel: "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden"; "Many are called but few are chosen"; "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved," and so forth. A second sense of "call" describes the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of an unbeliever to open his or her mind to understand the gospel and make a commitment to Jesus Christ. That is the "effectual calling." Several times in the epistles Paul refers to Christians as the "called people" of God. These two senses of the word have nothing to do with choosing cross-cultural service. The third group involves the three incidents I referred to earlier in Acts. In each case, there are some unique elements.
In Acts 9 God struck Paul blind and sent Ananias to pray over him and commission him. I've never heard of a present-day missionary who received a call in such a manner. In Acts 13 Saul and Barnabas are set apart. Interestingly, Saul and Barnabas didn't get "the call;" the church got "the call." I've never heard a missionary say, "I didn't get any call but my church told me to go." Finally, in the case of the Macedonian vision there was a dream. We've heard of some missionaries who have been given dreams, for example, Robert Jaffrey's in his move to Indonesia and the Suden Interior Mission's founder. But conspicuous by its absence in these three accounts in Acts is the inward impression of "God called me" or "God didn't call me."
This is further supported by Paul's manner of choosing missionaries in the early Church. Paul and Barnabas argued about John Mark at the beginning of the second missionary journey. Paul wanted to leave John Mark behind; Barnabas wanted to take him along. Paul said, "I don't want a quitter. He left us in the middle of the first missionary journey when the going got tough." But Barnabas said, "I don't want to quit on a quitter." Neither said John Mark does or doesn't have "the call;" that wasn't a factor in the discussion. The issue was his proven ability or lack thereof.
After Barnabas left with John Mark, Paul joined with Timothy. The Bible doesn't say whether he asked Timothy if he had "the call." What he did have was a good reputation at the local church. Paul likely must have said to him, "You're a gifted individual. Others think so too. There's a great task to be done. Will you come with me?" In all the references in Paul's epistles to all the workers he sent out from jail to carry on the missionary task, never once is there a reference to them being "called." What is implied or stated frequently is their faithfulness and ability which had already been proven in their local churches.
It would seem, then, Friesen suggests, that there is little support for the traditional approach to restrict "the call" to only some kind of an inward impulse.
Peter Wagner offers another non-traditional approach to "the call."4 He also begins with the Scriptures but moves in a slightly different direction. More than any other person, Wagner is responsible for awakening the church to the role of spiritual gifts in church growth and evangelism. He believes, as a result of his studies, that the missionary calling is actually a special gift from God. He bases this on Galatians 2, where Paul, after his conversion and commissioning by Ananias, makes his first visit to the Jerusalem church to meet James, Peter and John. In Galatians 2:9, he says, "James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go the Gentiles [cross-culturally] and they to the Jews [not a cross-cultural mission]." "Grace" here is the same word translated "charismata" or "spiritual gifts" elsewhere.
Wagner believes that if you have "the gift," that is "the call." That is God's way of calling you. Like Friesen, he says this missionary call is not some kind of nebulous, inward feeling but a gift that can be discerned. According to his research, Wagner states that about one percent of Christians have the gift. Now, one percent seems like an incredibly small amount. How can the job ever get done? But consider: the number of evangelical Christians in the world today has been estimated at around 100 million. Let's assume 100 million for our calculations. One percent of 100 million is one million. One million cross-cultural servants divided into the three billion lost peoples of the world is one for every 3,000. Missionary studies indicate that one person, in 10 to 15 years can master a language and a culture, and can plant a viable, reproducing church in a community of 5,000. If all of God's people who have "the gift" indeed go, the job is within our capacity. The remaining 99 percent can easily supply the resources needed by the one percent to get the job done. (Statistics from Wagner.5)
Interestingly, both Wagner and Friesen come to the same practical conclusion. In effect, they both cut the ground out from under those who sit around, twiddling their thumbs waiting for "the call" to come.
One might ask, "How then do we go about determining whether we are to serve cross-culturally or live counterculturally?" Whether we follow Friesen's suggestion and apply the path of biblical wisdom or Wagner's suggestion and discover our spiritual gift, we end up with similar criteria.
For those who still believe there's something to this traditional "call," consider this comment by T. Yamomori, the president of "Food for the Hungry," in his dynamic new book, God's New
From the stories of others who have become involved in missions work we learned that the initial inner urging often seems subtle and hard to discern. In fact, for most that message really doesn't become clear until we act. It is the process of taking action in response to the Holy Spirit's urgings that often provides the ultimate clarity.6
If we don't respond to opportunities that come our way, we'll never know what a call could head to. You may label the call the path of wisdom, the gift, or the traditional urging, but the process is still the same; you've got to start doing something: make the move and God will begin to show you.
Missiologists believe five steps are involved in this process. The most obvious application will be to those who are young, whose career options are still flexible, who are single and without some of the commitments of marriage and children. But even if you're not in this group, many of the principles will be needed if we as parents, elders and church leaders are to guide our children in making the choice between cross-cultural service and countercultural living.
As a next step, take a short-term trip and put yourself in another culture for a while. For high school students there are options such as Project Serve and Youth with a Mission. University students have Operation Mobilization. There are opportunities for students training in universities to spend a summer overseas as part of their regular educational program. Wagner's book9 includes a more than adequate list of many such opportunities, and who to write to. Most of these are team ministries. This is important because most forms of cross-cultural service will involve working together as a team.
As you do these things, test yourself. See how you feel. Make yourself accountable to someone. Bounce your ideas off others so you can have an objective evaluation. Talk about your feelings. Ask people to pray for you. Get them to evaluate you, as well. Try your hand at different ministries to discover where your gifts really lie and how they can function in a cross-cultural setting. Such an approach is far less mystical and more concrete than sitting around waiting to be zapped by a "call."
After going through this process, if you find you're not really meant for cross-cultural service, then at least you have a solid, objective basis for your decision rather than just the presence or absence of warm, fuzzy feelings. That becomes even more important when living counterculturally here. You can do so confidently and not run away from mission's conferences for fear that someone is going to make you feel guilty by asking, "Why aren't you a missionary?" You should be able to give a good answer to that question. (There are good answers, but you won't find them if you're not willing to go through this process of evaluation.)
Another traditional mistake is to think the "call" applies only to Bible College students. By the year 2,000, 83 percent of the lost peoples of this world will be in countries closed to traditional missionaries. Visas will not be available. However, these same countries are likely to be open to professionals with education and training in agriculture, human resource development, urban planning, economics, and so forth. So, in the next 10-15 years we're going to see an increasing need for a new type of missionary-not Bible college students but men and women with professional degrees. These will go through wide-open doors carefully and quietly, to minister one-on-one, building into the lives of Christians in these countries.
Another group that traditionally has not considered cross-cultural service (but can and should) are those at the end of, or nearing the end of, their careers. Herbert Kane observes:
An increasing number of Christians are going after they retire. Indeed, some of them retire earlier in order to have 10 to 15 good years on the mission field. They are usually financially independent because of their pensions. They are older, more mature, more dependable than youth, and as such, can function effectively in a number of capacities on the mission field without becoming a full-fledged missionary of the conventional type. Teachers who have taught for 35 years at home can certainly teach overseas. They are especially welcome in schools for missionary children. Others can serve as hosts and hostesses in mission homes. Still others have been known to catalogue books, manage book stores, repair broken furniture and equipment, do office work and a hundred and one other chores that need to be done in order to release other people to do their work. It's an exciting and profitable way to end the Christian life, 'in harness', on the mission field.10
If, after all this, you conclude you're not called to serve cross-culturally, then you are automatically part of that larger group called to serve by living counterculturally, a matter we'll consider in depth in the next several chapters.
1. J. Herbert Kane, Wanted; World Christians (Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 1986,) p. 205.
2. Sam Wilson and Gordon Aeschliman, The Hidden Half (California: MARC, World Vision, International, n.d), p. 107 ff.
3. Garry Friesen and Robin Maxson, Decision Making and the Will of God (Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1980), p. 323ff.
4. C. Peter Wagner, On the Crest of a Wave (California: Regal Books, 1983), p. 67.
5. Ibid, p. 68.
6. Tetsuano Yamomori, God's New Envoys (Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1987), pp. 147, 148.
7. Garry Friesen and Robin Maxon, Decision Making and the Will of God (Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1980), p. 351.
8. C. Peter Wagner, On the Crest of a Wave (California: Regal Books, 1983), p. 1183.
10. J. Herbert Kane, Wanted; World Christians (Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 1988,) p. 199.