I heard that a professor once said to his students after an aggressive theological debate, “I put little trust in your zealous opinions; you are too young to have learned any balance.” Similarly, though it’s admirable for Christians to desire being sent out on mission from their churches, sometimes it’s grossly out of balance. For as many who should press on despite tearful appeals to stay, there are perhaps just as many who should heed the calls to stick around. Here are some of the reasons why.
Some who want to be missionaries are not even Christians.
Whoa, did he just say that? Yes, I did. And perhaps I’ve been reading too much Jonathan Edwards lately. But I’m convinced that some who want to serve as missionaries are after it for all the wrong reasons. As a missions pastor I’ve had many conversations with people who are expressing their desire to be sent. When I ask why, an alarming number of the responses begin with calling—to missions—not to Christ. I’m sure their salvation is assumed as they share with me, primarily because they’re already at the point of wanting to proclaim the gospel overseas. Only mature Christians want to do that, right? Yet there lies the dilemma. An earnest desire to be a “missionary” may once have been automatic saint-status, but as commendable as it may seem, it initially proves nothing about the state of a person’s heart. In fact, it actually should bring up quite a few questions. Jesus’ dicey words to missionaries of his day show why:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are, Matthew 23:15
So when people express desire and calling to mission, it’s a gracious thing to tenderly (not skeptically) find out what’s behind such zeal. Unfortunately, we rarely do that. If someone is disappointed to hear that their sense of calling does not itself prove their salvation, then they may be trusting in calling in a soul-threatening way. And as bad as it might hurt to face your questions, they’ll be given a merciful reminder to fall again on the grace of Christ alone.
Many churches will send anyone who says they’re called to be sent.
For most churches, it’s rare to have someone come forward and say, “I want to be a missionary.” Thus when someone does, he or she will probably be celebrated and sent. That can often look like little more than the church signing missions agency paperwork. In these contexts, scarcity leads to quick affirmation.
Paul, however, warned Timothy not to appoint an elder who was “a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6). He went on to demand that deacons “first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve” (v. 10). Though sent ones don’t necessarily have to be appointed as elders or deacons, Paul’s qualifications are characteristics to which all Christians can aspire.
It’s a tremendous grace, then, to prove people who want to serve as leaders. And it’s one that mission agencies, even with all their experience, cannot do alone through an application and a few meetings. Churches know their people when they’re not dressed and ready for an interview (or at least they should). They must see missionary candidates tested and proven before they see them celebrated and sent. Are they using their gifts to build up the body of Christ? Are they living with vulnerability alongside their brothers and sisters in Christ? Are they near the front of the charge as the church engages their neighborhood with the gospel? Otherwise, maybe they aren’t quite ready to go.
Zeal for serving as a sent one often masks our motives.
Those who serve globally in non-profits, NGOs, and human rights organizations are some of the most passionate people you’ll ever meet. Why else would they live where they live and do the things they do? Their sense of sacrificial mission is contagious. It’s also sometimes quite godless. I would argue that such passion is easy to be subconsciously rooted in a deep need to fulfill oneself, to be right before God. After all, we were created for good works, and there is a measure of satisfaction that comes with performing them, whether through Christ or not.
Yet Paul reminds us of the futility of our good works: “Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith’” (Galatians 3:11). He goes on to describe not only their futility, but their merciless cycle: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” (Galatians 3:10). Those who are uselessly trying to keep the law are only churned into harder work because “the law does not restrain sin but stimulates and provokes it” (Schreiner, 73).
The only rest from this corpse chute is Christ, who kept the law perfectly and thus “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Then Christ’s zeal can become their zeal. Nevertheless, Christians will still battle the flesh’s desire to keep the law, to measure up. This includes missionary candidates. Therefore, it’s good and right for them to be asked, “Why so fast?” Are they seeking more to please or appease God? There’s an eternity of difference.
“Don’t go” is a tool of sanctification.
The Bible is bursting at the seams with instances of God saying no. For a general, wide swath, consider every Old Testament believer who longed to see what we see and did not see it (Matthew 13:17). For specific instances, think about Moses dying on the precipice of the promised land (Deuteronomy 34:4), David begging to build the Temple to no avail (1 Chronicles 28:3), Paul pleading for relief from the thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:8-9), and, most importantly, Jesus crying out for a way out (Matthew 26:39). God is in the business of saying no.
And aren’t you glad?! Zeal to be a missionary can easily have much to do with identity, adventure, freedom from the 9-5, dissatisfaction with church/family/culture, co-dependency, ideals, travel, and a fresh start. And it’s not that all these urges should be purged before candidates go—then they’ll never go. It’s just that a healthy dose of no’s—or at least not-yet’s—gives time and space for God’s work of sanctification. Is the couple from rural Alabama ready for Tokyo? Is the couple from inner-city Chicago ready for South Sudan? Is the spouse who’s feeling dragged into missions ready to move indefinitely? Is the young man who looks at porn ready for spiritual warfare? Is the woman who refuses counsel ready to serve the nations?
“Slow down” can be a grace for all of us and our kinks. God is, in fact, a God of yes’s, who delights to cultivate and fulfill the desires of his children when his timing is right. All “the promises of God find their Yes”—not in global missions—but “in [Christ]” (2 Corinthians 1:20). He is faithful to help us want him more than we want his green light.