What about those who never hear the gospel? The question does not concern those who hear it and are indifferent or those who hear it and reject it, but those who never, ever hear the bad news of their rebellion against their Creator and the good news of the reconciliation found in Jesus. My wife and I began wrestling with the implications of that question and its clear biblical answer while in college. Though we had been raised in Bible-believing, missions-supporting churches all of our lives, we had yet to embrace our God-given role in getting the gospel to those who have no hope apart from a personal encounter with Christ.
The weight of Romans 10, the stirring words of men like Platt and Piper, the inspiring testimonies of Jim Elliot and his comrades, and the undeniable urging of the Spirit sent us, two naïve, but zealous newlyweds, on a journey to the nations that included taking part in an international sponsor-a-child program, increasing our missions giving, enrolling in seminary, and participating in short-term trips to South America and the Caribbean. It was during one of those trips, amidst foreign sounds, smells, and people, that the Lord confirmed our call to long-term missionary service. Our call to the nations was sure, but one important detail was noticeably absent. Our answer of “Yes, Lord” was followed by “But where, Lord?”
I have found that the call-to-field process is different for every cross-cultural missionary and church planter. Some describe a definitive call early in life while others sense God’s redirection well into their professional careers. Some receive specific instructions concerning a people group or a geographic context while others cite a general obedience to the Great Commission and possess some degree of flexibility concerning field assignment. Our family would identify with the latter group. There was little doubt that we were supposed to go to the nations; we just were not sure which one.
Admittedly, the lack of clarity concerning a specific people or place proved to be a challenge for us in the beginning. We had friends and classmates who had a heart for Turks, Jews, or Spaniards or who had traveled to Africa or Asia multiple times and possessed a certainty of both their calling and their context. Had we misinterpreted our call? Had we missed a clue from the Lord along the way? Or were we embarking on a leg of our journey that would shape us for the task ahead? In our case, it seems a year of praying, fasting, seeking counsel, and waiting on the Lord was in order.
If you are called to the nations and you possess a God-given clarity directing you to a specific region or group, then pursue this with passion and purpose. But if you (or someone you pastor, mentor, or encourage) are wrestling with this crucial aspect of the call, then consider the following recommendations:
Take part in short-term trips or internships in various international contexts.
Nothing compares to actually spending time in a foreign context. You personally interact with a target people, experience the climate, hear the language, and may even wrestle with some of the unique challenges associated with that location or culture. Many of these trips also pair you with experienced field missionaries. Thankfully, international travel is extremely accessible and opportunities abound in almost every locale around the world. Our short-term trips were an indispensable part of our decision-making process.
Speak with current or former international missionaries who serve/served in different regions.
One of the greatest resources available to future missionaries is the testimony of those who have personally lived and ministered cross-culturally. These like-minded missionaries can specifically speak to the joys and trials associated with each region and people. They can speak with a degree of realism that many travel books neglect or ignore. We are indebted to IMB missionaries from Central and Eastern Europe who helped us refine our call and connect us with our first field supervisors.
Learn from those who were faithful in the past.
Plunging into the biographies and autobiographies of missionaries from church history should be a part of your preparation for the field, regardless of whether you are struggling with your future location. These accounts often explore the depths of missionary service and shed light on the complexities of cross-cultural work in distant lands. These true stories often reflect on God’s faithfulness and the missionary’s perseverance in the midst of spiritual darkness, loss, heartache, and struggles, whether physical, emotional, or relational.
Examine yourself and think practically.
One of the best pieces of advice we received during this period of waiting came from a professor who had previously served overseas. “Do not be afraid to think practically and be honest,” he advised. Thinking practically initially sounded terribly unspiritual, self-serving, too pragmatic, and generally unmissionary-like. Despite my initial reservations, his counsel was quite possibly the single-greatest factor the Lord used to guide us to the Balkans. As a couple, my wife and I prayerfully answered a number of questions and reflected upon how God had shaped our personalities, our interests, and our experiences. We then shared our results with trusted friends, pastors, and missionaries and asked God to use them as a compass. While God is certainly not beholden to our preferences and often delights in stretching us beyond our perceived limits, I believe that he also strategically prepares us for our service long before we reach the field.
Consider the following questions:
In what climate or terrain would I best serve?
What level of physical danger can I emotionally and mentally tolerate?
Do I envision myself pioneer church planting or coming alongside existing believers in their efforts?
How important is the ability to host short-term teams?
Do I feel comfortable utilizing a platform to enter a country?
Do I only want to target unreached peoples?
How important are services and utilities such as Internet, running water, electricity, etc.?
Do I prefer to live and work in large cities or small villages?
Do I have medical concerns that will limit my options?
How do my current/future children impact my decision?
What education options for my children are important?
Do I wish to live in close proximity to teammates?
Do I prefer to work among the affluent or the impoverished?
Do I have unique skills, interests, education, or work experience better suited for certain regions?
Does working amongst a certain culture or worldview (e.g. Islamic, Post-Christian, Animistic, etc.) appeal to me?
Commune with God
Assumed, but often neglected, parts of the preparation and decision-making process are fasting and prayer. God very well may use these times of concentrated focus and communion to reveal his will for your future or he may be honing you spiritually for the spiritual battles that lie ahead. Our family made it a habit to pray for a different nation and people each day utilizing resources like www.operationworld.org and www.prayercast.com. We asked that God would clearly direct our minds and affections to the region where he would have us serve.
Develop relationships with internationals where you currently live
Thanks to an ever-connected world, one need not take a flight to minister and befriend internationals. It is very likely that your community or city is home to international refugees, job seekers, and students. Be intentional about finding ways to volunteer, serve, and connect with those who need exposure to the gospel. They have the privilege of hearing eternal truth; you get an introduction to their culture and homeland. During the year leading up to our assignment selection, we took part in a local German social club and developed friendships with Eastern Europeans.
Expose yourself to foreign peoples and places through available media.
In addition to missionary testimonies, you should immerse yourself in a variety of written and electronic media that will equip you and potentially steer you to a certain people or place. These may be cross-cultural tools that specifically compare and contrast the different peoples and regions of the world such as Sarah A. Lanier’s Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold- Climate Cultures or the anthropology-focused works of Paul Heibert. One should also consider secular travel guides and books, which seek to aid tourists or highlight conditions and events in unfamiliar locales. The Culture Shock! series and National Geographic are great examples.
Trust the sovereignty of our good God, who desires the nations even more than you!
Without a doubt, the most important truth of all to remember is that God is sovereign, good, and unlimited in power. From the human perspective, the decision of where to serve overseas can be overwhelming. The choices are many and the need great. But even greater still is the trustworthy providence of our God who is working for his glory and your good. Do not give into the temptation, the quiet whisper that suggests that the entirety of God’s plan for the nations hangs on your selection of the perfect city out of the thousands on the planet. Our God is far too powerful and his plan is far too secure for such a notion.
As you continue to explore your future, I pray that you will remain reliant upon our gracious God for wisdom, guidance, and power. Remember, we do not serve a God who is desperately trying to get the answer to you but is hindered by some external force or opponent. If God is delaying your answer, he has his reasons. Do not feel the pressure to make a random cloud out to be the outline of Nigeria or cast lots between the continents. God may suddenly overwhelm you one day with a divine clarity that leaves little in doubt. He may also elect to strategically withhold his plan so that you will walk forward in dependent trust upon his goodness and guidance. This process may be as frightening as it is sanctifying. Regardless, it is my prayer that you hold tight to his hand every leg of the coming journey, whether the way is marked with deserts or jungles, mountains or plains, snow or heat, cities or hamlets. Know that wherever you choose to serve, there will be a people waiting that desperately needs the gospel and there is a King reigning who unconditionally deserves their worship!