I travel and speak in a lot of churches, conferences, and countries, preaching and teaching about missions or taking teams on mission trips. I lead orientation for mission agencies and serve on their boards. In the process of all of this I talk to a lot of people who are passionate about missions. Some of them are relatively young and in college, seminary, or ministry, others are middle-aged or nearing retirement. I hear a lot of “reasons” that disappointed people believe exclude them from serving in missions. Here’s a collection of the top-ten most-cited reasons why some say they cannot answer a missionary call, and my usual counsel.
1. I don’t have the training I need to be a missionary.
Don’t be so sure; it all depends on what you are going to do. If you are going to do evangelism, discipleship, church planting, or theological education, of course you need to get training. You wouldn’t go to be a medical doctor without going to medical school. For certain kinds of ministry, I would agree that it would be wise to pause and obtain the necessary training. But don’t consider your time at seminary to be wasted months or simply treading water. At seminary you are digging a well that you and your hearers will drink from for the rest of your life. However, if your missionary service will be through medical ministry, community development, or using skills and education you already have, a solid church background may serve you well enough, at least to begin. Further training is increasingly available via online programs through some of the best seminaries in the world or at home during your furloughs. Many missionaries are self-taught, constantly reading recommended texts to enhance their preparation for missions service. I am a strong proponent of getting all the education you possibly can, but if the door to the field is open and God is calling, then obey Him and trust Him to provide what you need.
2. I couldn’t raise the kind of support I would need.
This is sometimes a self-fulfilling prophecy for those wavering and wondering why anyone would want to support their family. The understanding that you are not asking others to pay your bills for you, but rather are giving them the opportunity to join your mission team and participate in the advance of the Gospel provides boldness to share your passion, vision, and call. When others see your zeal and excitement about God’s call on your life it is contagious and they become your greatest prayer supporters, cheerleaders, and are eager participants on your mission team. Remember Hudson Taylor’s axiom, “God’s work done God’s way will never lack for God’s provision.” If missionary service is God’s will for your life, He will provide all you need. Don’t despair when financial support is slow is coming. One mission agency president reminded me, “God is never late. He is seldom early, but He’s never late!”
3. I’ve been divorced.
Again, it depends on what you are going to do and where you are going to do it. Some cultures have strong opinions against divorced people being involved in ministry. Evangelicals in the Deep South are such a culture. Yet, a number of ministers have found places of service in biblical churches there after they have been divorced and restored, even in ministry. Some missionaries testify that they have had a similar experience. But remember, not everyone is going to plant or pastor churches. Some serving in support ministries or community development find that a divorce before they were believers or after abandonment does not preclude a fruitful ministry as a missionary. Talk to several mission agencies that are working where and how you want to serve before you excuse yourself from service. There is nothing in your past that will keep God from using you as He ordains. David Brainerd was dismissed from Yale and thus unable to get the training and ordination he needed to pastor, yet God used him powerfully among the New England indigenous people, and continues to use his “Life and Diary” to this very day. Some disqualify themselves with guilt over the past, saying, “You don’t know what I’ve done.” I don’t have to; I know what He’s done.
4. I have some medical issues.
What one person calls a medical issue may be a challenge but not necessarily insurmountable. Perhaps your blood pressure is a bit too high, but is manageable with medicine and regular check-ups, or your cholesterol, or a host of other ailments. Some medical conditions may keep you from serving in a high altitude city such as La Paz or Cusco, but be perfectly fine at sea level in Lima or Buenos Aires, where medical care is as modern as in the USA.
5. I have student loans.
This is arguably one of the most powerful missionary service dream killers—for us, but not for God. One of my students shared in class a few years ago that he and his wife were called to missions. Unfortunately, they had over $50,000 in student loans that they knew would take them decades to pay off. We prayed that God would make a way, but only half-heartedly as it seemed unrealistic to expect. I never saw him again. The next week when he did not come to class, the other students told me that he had shared his missions vision at a local church. A Christian businessman heard his plight and offered to pay off his loans so he and his wife could go to the field. God has His people in many places and He is able.
6. I’m not a preacher/theologian/church planter.
Moses gave several excuses in Exodus 3 when God called him; among them was the fact that he was not a good speaker. I have talked to some candidates who confess they are not theologians—and I heartily agree with them! But God calls people to a host of ministries and avenues of service. Some of the more introverted types may translate Bibles, repair missionary airplanes, or serve behind the scenes in some other capacity, but the work of missions would not advance as it does without their crucial work.
7. I can’t learn languages.
I used to say that (and people who hear me speak may still say that about me). One person who would agree quickly with such an assessment would be my high school German teacher. I was terrible and German grammar just would not sink in, but that was all before I was saved and called to missions. When God called me, He gave me the ability to do what He wanted me to do. I love languages now and try my best to communicate clearly and effectively. I have seen people learn a second or third language in their forties, fifties, and sixties. God enables us to do what He wants us to do. He is more concerned with our availability than our ability.
8. Our children are too old/young.
As President of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries, I am very concerned about the health and well-being of our missionary kids. I know that their parents are as well. MKs are sometimes overlooked in their parents’ excitement when answering God’s call. A baby in good health is no reason to delay following God’s call to the field; in fact, young children are often effective door openers. Your new neighbors see your family as an equalizer that removes a sense of suspicion or even threat that may otherwise exist. Additionally, almost everyone loves babies. They won’t hesitate to give cultural parenting advice that develops relationships faster than anything else. Older children may be legitimate cause for pause and waiting a few years until they are in college, but a teenaged child does not have to be a deal breaker for missions service. Some teenagers have their own sense of calling and are as eager as the parents. Yet, teenage years are often difficult ones. Teens are going through enough changes without having to deal with moving to another culture, learning a new language, leaving friends, girlfriends or boyfriends, and being the new kid on an uneven playing field. Sometimes the ages of our children are legitimate considerations, but give your older kids some credit. Talk with them about your desire to serve as missionaries before deciding you are disqualified because of them. If they sense that they are the reason that you cannot follow God’s call, this could create false and long-lasting guilt for them.
9. I’m too old.
We knew a missionary in her 70s who had served in Uganda. She came to visit us in Ecuador to discern God’s will about her next country of service since she was sure He was moving her. She decided on Guyana where she could speak English, but earned my admiration and respect for her selfless zeal at an age when many begin to coast. Former IMB President, Jerry Rankin told the story of a man who answered the call to go to an East Asian country at that government’s request to teach English. His kind Christian demeanor and faithful service opened the door for others to follow in his steps. The interesting part of the story is that he was in his 70s when he first went to serve. Moses was in his 80s when God called him to his life’s greatest work. Ralph Winter said that a man’s most effective years of work are after he has reached his 50s. Indeed, by that age you have learned relational skills they never taught you in college. You can read people and situations and suggest wise solutions or strategies to address problems that only the wisdom of experience would know. Do not stop serving God, or stop following His leading, simply because you have a few decades behind you.
10. I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to adjust to the food, dirt, heat, traffic, crime . . .
The first couple of words in this phrase are really what this reason is all about. In fact, it is more of a fearful excuse than a reason. Very few believers would give the excuse of not wanting to obey God because it is inconvenient, but we will allow fear to paralyze us without feeling any conviction. God has said repeatedly in His Word, “Do not fear . . . be not afraid . . . peace be with you.” I ask people regularly, “When God calls, how will you respond?” You can say No, and you can say Lord, but you cannot say No, Lord! Because when you do, He’s not, you are. Jesus asked, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46) In the flesh, certainly there are many things to fear, and there are many inconveniences outside of your comfort zone, but don’t let fear or the bother make the decision for you. Do not waste your life on you; it’s not yours. You were bought at a price.
It is possible that you have a really good reason that is sufficient for not obeying a missionary call; but I doubt it. If you do have a reason for not going, still the zeal of the most passionate “goer” should be seen in you as a “sender.”
If you hear Him calling, just surrender and say, “Here am I, Lord. Send me.” Let Him be the One to say No if a no needs to be said. He may not, and that’s a thought that could move you right around the world.