How do you sense and know whether you are called to global missions?

It should be obvious that not everyone is called to pack up and go. When the Holy Spirit spoke to the church at Syrian Antioch to set apart Barnabas and Paul for the work he had for them to do (Acts 13:1-3), He did not slam the rest of church for being slackers. Some are clearly meant to go, and others are meant to send. Neither is more important than the other. Neither is possible without the other.

Similarly, just as a convention hall filled with pastors would not hold any two with the exact call to ministry, nor do any two couples own the same story of how they fell in love, so missionaries each articulate their understanding of their call in a myriad of ways.

Those seeking to discern a call to missions should be careful not to allow a description of another’s call to become prescriptive of what the missionary call should be. Another missionary’s testimony of a time when Jesus appeared at the foot of their bed in the middle of the night calling them to the Amazon should not be made normative. God calls many to missions, but no two are called in the exact same way or moment.

The Missionary Call
What Is the Missionary Call?

I would like to offer the definition that captures my understanding of the call:

The missionary call includes an awareness of the needs of a lost world, the commands of Christ, a concern for the lost, a radical commitment to God, your church’s affirmation, blessing and commissioning, a passionate desire, the Spirit’s gifting, and an indescribable yearning that motivates beyond all understanding.

If you’re interested in an extensive exploration of the missionary call, including its biblical, historical, and practical aspects, I encourage you to read my book, The Missionary Call: Find Your Place in God’s Plan for the World (Moody, 2008).

But how do you know what your role is?

As you can probably tell by my definition, the Bible does not give definitive teaching on the missionary call. Do not expect a quick, three-step plan to discern a call to missions. The principle of God’s involvement in believers’ lives, moving them to serve Him and guiding their fulfillment of His call on their lives, saturates the Bible from beginning to end. However, there is no passage that explicitly describes or defines the missionary call, thus leaving us to glean from principles seen in biblical accounts of those who were called.

  1. If you really want to know God’s will you must know Him, and only by getting as close to Jesus as you can, and staying there, will you be able to hear the still small voice saying, “This is the way, walk in it.”
  2. To know God you must know His Word, and the Spirit who inspired it will illumine your mind to understand it.
  3. Seek counsel from wise faithful believers who know you best and have made good decisions in their own lives.
  4. Next, consider life experiences that God has given you, and everything that has gone into making you who you are.
  5. Then, look at your circumstances. While circumstances should not be the only or primary test for knowing His will, they can certainly inform which options are possible or advisable.
  6. Next, remember that it is not unspiritual to consider timing issues, especially as they relate to family matters or life stage. God can lead through these aspects as well.
  7. Finally, what do you want to do? Remember the truth of Psalm 37:4. He will give you desires to guide you into His will when you are delighting yourself in Him and only want Him to be glorified in your life.

Before and Behind, Internal and External

Another way to think of the missionary call is that it is both ‘before’ and ‘behind.’ Oswald Chambers said,


“A missionary is one sent by Jesus Christ as He was sent by God. The great dominant note is not the needs of men, but the command of Jesus. The source of our inspiration in work for God is behind, not before.”

It is true that a missionary often senses a pull forward from the lostness of mankind, the masses of peoples starving for food and thirsting for clean water—those starving for the Bread of Life and thirsting for the Water of Life. Yet, while a missionary’s calling often begins with an awareness of the needs in the world for gospel witness, the truly-called missionary is primarily propelled into world missions from behind, compelled by the love of Christ and the Holy Spirit’s leading in response to Christ’s commands.

I believe that the missionary call is both before and behind.

Furthermore, the Puritans and Matthew Henry spoke of the internal call and the external call. The internal call is a profound and inescapable sense of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ on one’s life, accompanied by a strong desire to heed the call. This burden to serve in missions comes from Him, and He gives us the goal of that desire by opening the doors to missionary service.

The external call is the confirmation by believing friends and specifically by the missionary’s local church, who recognizes and affirms one’s gifts and calling for missions. It would likely be foolish to move ahead in missionary service if your God-ordained means of accountability and spiritual encouragement, your local church, does not affirm the direction that you feel the Lord is leading. Both the internal call and the external call are important and necessary.


Much more could be said about the wisdom of investing one’s life in missions, but the reality of a missionary call is undeniable to those who have it. Many know very well that they once loved the Lord and longed to serve Him in other ways, but slowly and surely a growing conviction became an awareness of a new life-calling in missions.

Today, there are still untold millions still untold. God is calling many to reach and teach the nations. Have you heard Him call? Remember, hearing this missionary call has a great deal to do with what you are listening for. It is Jesus’ voice that determines our life’s direction and destination.

To hear his voice, we must get as close to him as we can, and stay there.

Dr. David Sills

Dr. David Sills is the founder and president of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries, a missions professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaker, and author.

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