Should I be a Missionary? 11 Steps to Help
Read this after the next missions conference but before you have a panic attack about your call
So the Lord has revealed his heart for the nations to you in a fresh way. Perhaps you just heard a message from someone like John Piper, David Platt, or Michael Oh. Or perhaps your church just finished a great missions conference. Maybe you had a chance to complete the Perspectives course or went on a week-long missions trip with your church. Whatever it is, the Lord has done something very special in your heart. He is definitely calling you to make a greater commitment to the Great Commission…but does he want you to consider going yourself? How can you possibly know?
Since serving in leadership with CBI, I have had the honor to meet and counsel dozens of folks who sense a call to missions but have no idea what that should look like. I’ve had to learn how to be a life coach to serve them well and this is a summary of some of the advice I would give to someone considering serving as a missionary cross-culturally.
Take a deep breath
It is common for folks considering missions to feel compelled to do something immediately. The urgency you feel about lost people dying without hearing the Gospel is good and you should feel the need to try and do something through the Spirit to help. However, it’s common for folks to get amped up and need to do something big right now or else they just move guiltily back into their normal lives.
Take a step back and breathe. Now is not the time to take up divination, randomly opening the Bible for a magic word, or stressing yourself out seeking complete certainty about your call. The best thing you can do now is to take small steps of obedience to discern the Lord’s calling. If you are a “millennial” this will be extraordinarily difficult because you feel crippled by indecision and feel like you need explosions in the sky to motivate you to do anything. Breathe. Pray. Abide with Christ. And take a few steps to explore God’s calling.
Pray for the nations
Now that you have taken time to breathe, it’s time to start exploring your call. There is nothing better you can do towards this end than to pray. It is good to cry out to the Lord in desperation for guidance, but what I mean is to pray faithfully for the nations. The first vocation of a missionary is to pray for a people with a front row seat. . There are several tools you can use to help with this including missionary prayer letters and Operation World.
If you feel a pull toward a certain place in the world or a certain demographic, look for missionaries who are serving in those places and sign up for their prayer letters and join them in praying for the people they serve. You can see if your church is supporting anyone in that region/demographic or you can search a database like the one at MTW’s website.
For my wife and I, Operation World was an invaluable tool for discerning our call. While I was in seminary my Missions professor assigned us to choose 30 countries to pray for over 30 days using Operation World. I had had a heart for unreached people groups in Asia since high school, so I chose 30 countries in Asia. My wife and I studied about each country and prayed together daily for the prayer requests listed. The Lord worked in our hearts during this season. Early on, my wife would say after we prayed, “Someone has to do something about this.” And by the end of the thirty days we were more seriously considering, “God, would you want us to do something about this?” I cannot imagine being prepared to take the next steps in faith without that season of prayer.
Go on a vision trip
The opportunity to visit an unreached people group to see the need and what God is doing up close is an opportunity of ineffable value. It is amazing that the Lord has provided the technology and transportation for this to be possible, which would have been absolutely unthinkable at the beginning of the modern missionary movement. Be faithful with this opportunity and enjoy this blessing. Every Christian should try and join for a week-long vision trip, but it is of the upmost importance for someone considering a longer-term call of service.
A vision trip gets you out of your normal setting giving you the opportunity to learn about a people, a place, and a ministry that you would have trouble imagining well otherwise. Your best starting place is to see if your local church may already be supporting missionaries and sending teams to visit/serve. An exception to this would be if there is a place or ministry that your church is not yet supporting to which you feel a particular burden or calling.
Your goals for this trip should be at least threefold: 1) Learn as much as you can in humility; 2) Serve the team (care/encouragement) and the ministry (helping/working) as much as you can; 3) Pray without ceasing for the team, the people, opportunities, wisdom, sanctification, patience, humility, etc.
At CBI we limit visiting teams to churches who are supporting our ministry which strengthens our partnerships with them. For individuals, we should have connected with them previously and know they are coming. Anyone can stop by to visit CBI, but for those who are potential missionaries we try to set up meetings and opportunities so they can get to know our team personally, get a good glimpse of the culture/city, and see firsthand the types of things our ministry does. We encourage those considering serving with CBI to ask our teammates two questions: 1) What has been the hardest experience or season serving in Japan?; 2) What has been the hardest thing about serving specifically with CBI? If you can imagine months of your life being like that and still feel called to serve, we would love to talk details.
After a short term trip your mind might be racing and you may feel pressured to decide about serving right away. We always encourage folks to get home and sober up. In other words, take time to prayerfully process all that you have seen and experienced. Take a few weeks to get back into normal life. Don’t forget what you saw. Pray faithfully and consider supporting a missionary or project financially. But don’t rush to make a decision positive or negative about serving as a missionary after a vision trip.
Involve your church
Ideally, your local church is already walking through this experience beside you. But if not, and you are still sensing a call to go, then you need to involve your local church in the conversation. This is of practical importance since most missions agencies will require you to have a positive reference from your church and you will need help with support raising. But above all of these things is the reality that serving as a full-time missionary is a call to full-time ministry, and that requires not just an internal call, but an external call that is affirmed by the church. Listen to their feedback.
If your church does not have much of a missions focus, don’t give up on your call or quickly decide to leave for a more “missions-minded church”. Your call to missions may be part of God’s call for your church to become involved in missions in a deeper way. You may be shocked how God can use your faithfulness to go as a way to mobilize a congregation to send. If you have other difficulties, apply biblical wisdom, but don’t use a call to missions as a way to be unfaithful to your local church.
Communicate with the field
Don’t forget to involve the team you would like to serve with in the conversation early. This is the other side of the above advice. We have occasionally met folks who are convinced they are supposed to serve with CBI, without really talking to us about whether or not there is a good opportunity. If you are continuing to sense a call to missions, you should contact the local field where you feel called to serve. Learn what their process is like and any recommendations they have for you. Listen to them and consider that part of the Lord’s leading.
Connect with an agency
Next you need to connect with a sending agency. If you are feeling called to a pioneer field, then connecting with an agency will need to come first since there is no local team. Also, if you don’t know where you should serve, a missions agency can be a great resource to give you ideas. But even for those who know which team they would like to be a part of, it is important to find a good missions agency.
The job of an agency should be to help you finally discern your calling, assess you to be sure you are fit to serve, train and prepare you in various ways for service on your field, and act as a human resources department while you are on the field. They typically take care of things like payroll, tax statements, crises management, and other kinds of support while you serve. Some agencies provide direct oversight for local missions teams and also cast vision, provide job descriptions, and offer accountability to field leadership. There are many missions agencies and they all have pros and cons. My family has appreciated serving with MTW and it was a natural fit for many reasons. However, CBI partners with some other agencies and there are many options. The key is getting to know the people working in the agency, especially the local team and home office, and what that means for your daily life. The best situations will empower you for service on the field.
It is tempting to skip connecting to an agency due to administrative fees, training that feels like hoops to jump through, etc. Serving as an ex-pat overseas is a great option and does not require a connection to an agency (though it could still be helpful), but you will not be in full-time ministry so this is part of discerning a call. Some folks try to just go with their local church, but this usually doesn’t work for long since there are so many things an agency provides that are difficult for a local church. The issue of getting visas to serve overseas is another reason many folks need to work with an agency. There are many advantages to working with a good sending agency and even if you decide to try something different, the best way to prepare for that may be to to serve for a season with an agency to learn what it takes to make it on your own where you hope to serve.
Support a missionary
Put your money where your mouth is — and where your heart is moving. This can be a scary step if you have never done it before, especially if you are preparing to raise support yourself. However, like praying for the field, this will connect you more deeply and intimately to the work the Lord is doing around the world. If you do go as a missionary, you will be asking hundreds of people to consider giving financially to help you serve; it is much easier to call them to do that if you are already giving yourself. Start simple with something like $25/month, but see how the Lord leads your heart from there.
Do an internship
An internship can be a wise step between a vision trip and career missions. Look for an opportunity to serve in the place you feel called for a couple of months or a couple of years. This is something we are really pushing people towards with CBI. Serving in a place like Japan can be incredibly hard in so many ways that are impossible to predict, and a week-long vision trip can only show you so much. By committing to serve short-term, you can get a much better feel for the culture, language, and ministry and you can actually contribute to ministry in real ways. You also can become better aware of the challenges and obstacles to serving.
To become a career missionary with CBI, we require you to have reached a degree of proficiency in Japanese relative to the work you will be doing before you are officially part of the team. For most folks this will mean two-years of full-time language study, and another couple of years continuing to work on the language while beginning ministry. That is a massive investment that most millennials are not able/ready to make (for reasons good or bad).
A short-term internship gives you a chance to serve from day one while beginning to learn the language and culture. If you find yourself ready to be a career missionary, it can be very simple to make the transition, and you will be better prepared to start language study full-time. And if you don’t feel called to serve long term, you can make that decision with less difficulty.
MTW has great missions opportunities in the one or two-year range (the two year option includes almost all the same trainings as a career missionary, making the transition very smooth). Serge also has a great apprenticeship program which we have gleamed from and would be worth checking out. CBI offers a two-month summer internship program and a 1–2 year internship which is described in more detail here.
Don’t Skip Steps
As your call to cross cultural missions intensifies and clarifies it can be really tempting to try and skip steps. It is great to ask questions about the process to understand the details. But it is common for folks to want to skip training events, cut their support goals short, leave before being fully-funded, etc. If you have committed to a team and agency, you should follow their recommendations and trust that the Lord is at work in the details.
Most teams and agencies try to help you build a foundation that will help you serve well during the hardest times. If you press hard enough you may find ways to get out of things, but it could be to your own peril. There are sometimes good reasons to expedite the process, but it’s important to trust the counsel of your team and agency as you step forward in faith.
Count the cost
If you are reading this, my earnest desire is that you will indeed serve among an unreached people group in the near future either short term or long term. Don’t loose steam because someone suggested that you take small steps in that direction before a giant leap. However, part of following Christ means counting the cost (Luke 14:28). There is no greater joy than giving our lives as missionaries and seeing the Kingdom of God grow throughout the world. But there is great cost to follow Christ. There is often greater suffering, greater calamity, greater hardship, more intense spiritual warfare, more difficulty for families, and greater loss for those who choose to go. Greater glory, but also greater pain. These steps are meant to discourage impulsive plunges into service and encourage faithful plodding forward in faith. Now get started!
If you are interested in learning more about opportunities with CBI in particular, please drop us a line.