I am regularly on seminary campuses and in churches when back in the US. While I’d like to see more of it, I am encouraged to see an emphasis on missions to the unreached in many of these places. Being a missionary to Muslims in North Africa myself, many young people desiring to be in missions ask me questions. By far the most common question I hear is, “How did you know that you were called to North Africa?”
Sometimes the reason for the question is that the inquirer is stressed about where he should go in order to answer his call to missions. Other times the inquirer is considering a specific place and wants to make sure they are deciding where to go based on the correct criteria. They want to know if I got a vision in the night like Paul did concerning Macedonia. Maybe they expect that I had a burning in my bones for some specific place and “I could not stay” like Jeremiah.
My answer: I do not know that I am called to North Africa (I’ll explain at the end) and I think you ought to ask two more questions before you ask that one again. The questions you should be asking ought to be about the “What” and the “How”. Basically those two questions go: “What is missions?” and “How do I succeed at it?”
Many young men don’t like that answer because: 1. They think they’ve mastered the “what” and the “how” since those are such easy answers, right? And after all, I am a seminary graduate, right? 2. They misunderstand missions to be primarily to a place.
So here are some reasons I think the the “what” and the “how” should come before and over the “where”.
It is a matter of Emphasis
Consider the Great Commission. To even the casual reader this command was a command to do something specific more than to go somewhere specific. True, the first word is the word “go” but then the following list is a list of things to do and the place you are to go is never specified except to say: All the world. So, it follows, that a disciple of Christ could completely obey the command by doing what he is supposed how he is supposed to do it anywhere and everywhere where it is not being done or is not finished being done.
What does a young man in this predicament look like? We had a 21 year old intern this summer who was one of the greatest guys I’d ever met. In fact, his dad was in the ministry and he just loved God. His passion for Jesus oozed from him. He is a natural leader. So he spoke constantly about a little country of 5 million people that he believes God is calling him to. He had the flag on his book bag. He was a fanatic for their football team. Great. I hope God uses him there. As he is making post-Bible school plans, he is dedicated to going to that country. But what would he do when he got there? Well, he wasn’t sure. In fact, he had never done anything. He had never built a Sunday School class (or small group) or baptized a person or led the Lord’s supper. There was a problem of emphasis in his life. All he was focused on was WHERE he was going when the real questions that would take a few years of training and practice were in the areas of WHAT and HOW. Once he got those two things down, it wouldn’t matter where he went, he’d be able to do the work.
It is a matter of necessary order
In the Great Commission where does the “where” happen? At the end of the sentence if at all. Consider that Jesus never specifies for any of the disciples there that day just where he wanted them to go. He could have sat down with a map and divided it up into equal sections. “Mark, you’ve got Egypt. Thomas, I’m sending you to India. Peter, stay close to home but make trips often in the region. Bartholomew, I’d like you to take Armenia.” and so on and so forth. But He didn’t do that. He spent years training them on the “what” and “how” of making disciples and then simply said, “Go do it everywhere where its not being done.”
What does this look like? I was speaking with a Bible college graduate and seminary student at his home church in GA a few years ago on furlough and he told me he wants to be a missionary to Tibet. Great! But how much experience do you think he had doing the work of the great commission? By the work I mean how many people had he brought to Christ by his teaching, baptized, and taught to obey all things that Christ taught us. His answer? None. He had never done that. Why would changing zip codes automatically make him able to do it? Quite the contrary his zip code might really complicate things to accomplish this where the laws and religion are in no way friendly to that Great Task he sets out to fulfill. His need was to do the work first.
It is a matter of Importance
One of the men who approached me with the “where” question posed it something like this, “I have two opportunities here and I’d like to know which one you would lean toward if you were me? First, I’ve never heard of a missionary in Sweden so I’m thinking they need one. Second, there is this missionary who has asked me to help him do inner city outreach with deaf Jewish people in Buenos Aires, Argentina. What criteria would you use to decide?”
Sigh. What is the problem? This young man of God doesn’t understand what missions is about. He has no grid with which to develop a strategy for fulfilling the Great Commission. It is obvious that he has never planted a church. I recently heard of a young man trying to get support from my home church to go be his dad’s assistant pastor on the field in Europe. Missions is full of missionaries who don’t know that missions is about evangelism AND church planting AND leaving that church with national leadership. If you give the where all the importance then the chances are you’ll get there and not do WHAT you are supposed to do HOW God wants you to do it.
I know missionaries here by the dozens in North Africa who were motived by a call to go to the Muslims but don’t know what to do or how to do it. They are setting up medical clinics and starting businesses and learning languages but they are making no impact. They may as well have not come. Recently I met a man considering going to a certain field because there is a church there without a pastor. That would make sense if he were thinking of going to Indiana but he is thinking of raising 8k per month to fill in as a pastor. Now if you don’t know the “what” of missions you won’t even realize why that is not what missions is about. The end goal of missions is not pastoring a church but leaving multiple churches with national pastors you have trained who are training more national pastors.
Just today I was sitting with a friend who has gotten to know maybe 10 other missionary families in the south of the country (in North Africa) some having been here 10 or 15 years and I asked him, “Have any of them had any success? Have any of them seen any salvations? Baptisms? Churches started? Men trained?” He hesitated as he thought and responded: “One guy.” So at best one out of 10. Now we could say that Muslims are hard and make our excuses but somewhere along the way these families gave a high level of importance to where they should go and they went BUT they didn’t give enough importance to “what” they should be doing and “how” they should do it.
It is a matter of Impermanence
The zip code of a missionary in the biblical sense was never meant to be permanent. Governments change. Children being born with serious birth defects precludes the best missionary families from going overseas. All of these things and more have totally rearranged the location of where a missionary is serving. Paul himself kept moving on because he did his job so well that they didn’t need him anymore (see Romans 15). So if you feel called to a people group of 5,000 people what happens when you’ve reached the people and planted a solid church that is continuing on with the job? You may realize then that you are not a permanent fixture in that place. The missionary life is by definition and necessity a transient life. Don’t leave too easy because the going gets hard but don’t get too comfortable.
So I said before that I don’t know that I’m called to North Africa. That means that I am not called to a place but to a person and to a work. I am called to Christ and I am called to do His work with all diligence. God led me to North Africa by the Great Commission. There were too many millions of people here without churches for me to ignore while I was sitting in another part of the world. BUT today I may leave North Africa and I will not miss my calling.
“Ok. Ok. I get it. But WHERE should I go?” is usually the response to this from the guy who doesn’t get it! So here is my answer for you: You should go to wherever you can be mentored and trained for the “what” and “how” of missions. I spent two years in Peru under a missionary and one more year in the US helping him plant a church. I won people to Jesus. I baptized them. He taught me how to lead the Lord’s supper and then actually let me do it. I taught in a Bible College. I helped with all the nuts and bolts of starting a church. I discipled people. I developed small group ministries. I led outreach initiatives. I did all of that while I was being taught what and how to do it and NONE of that was done in the Muslim context of North Africa. But it didn’t matter. After knowing what to do and how to do it…I could do it anyWHERE.