Isaiah 6:8 has often been formative in our call to missions. In a holy moment, Isaiah hears from the Lord and responds to the calling:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (NIV)
Both the Old and New Testaments show God’s people positively responding to his call. Many of these instances are with individuals.
But in Acts 13 we see a descriptive passage of a church’s important involvement in a call to missions. The leaders of the church at Antioch were worshipping and fasting when they heard from the Spirit of God. The Spirit told them to set apart Saul and Barnabas for the work to which he had called them (verse 2). The church fasted, prayed, and laid hands on the two men. Then they sent them out to do the Lord’s work.
The Church’s Involvement
Acts 13 is a significant passage. It shows how the church collectively can—and should—be involved in God’s call to take the gospel to the nations.
“Acts 13 shows how the church collectively can—and should—be involved in God’s call to take the gospel to the nations.”
We do not know more about this experience than what we read in Acts 13. We may ask questions about it. For instance, were Saul and Barnabas already talking about going on a trip? Did they already have their journey mapped out or was this part of their praying and fasting?
We don’t know the answers to these questions. What we do know, however, was that the church was involved in the sending process from the beginning. They sought God’s wisdom as they prepared to send out Saul and Barnabas.
Determining Sending Strategies
Today, more local churches have a definitive sending strategy in their mission efforts. I think this is a good thing. Many churches are focusing on just a few places in the world instead of trying to hit a broad range of areas. They may be focusing on unreached people groups or places where the gospel has not been preached.
This often drives their sending strategy. These places and peoples are where they are wanting to focus their resources, their energy, their short-term teams, and their long-term sending.
But what happens when a church member has responded to a calling like the one in Isaiah 6:8? Is there a preferred process for sending? What happens when you sense God directing you to one place, but your church is focused on another place? How does the church respond to this? As a pastor, what is your response?
I love when a person senses the Lord leading them abroad and they are open to going anywhere. When this happens, I think that person should approach their pastor or small group leader to start the conversation about being sent.
This initial conversation is actually part of the assessment and confirmation process. They begin to pray together. They may go on a vision/mission trip together to the place where the church is already working. The pastor may introduce the candidate to a missions organization that has a team in that location. Or, the church may put together their own missionary team to go to that place or people group.
The situation described above is ideal. Unfortunately, I rarely see this near-perfect scenario come to fruition. This is one reason I believe the sending experience in Acts 13 is descriptive, not prescriptive. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy.
What often happens is that a person keeps praying, dreaming, exploring, and even talking with missions organizations. They hear of a place or a people that strikes their heart. It is hard for them to change courses. Their church may already focus on several unreached areas, but they sense the Lord leading them elsewhere.
On the one hand, as covenant members of a local church, they desire to listen and submit to their pastor(s). But on the other hand, the pastors know this member is faithful, follows God with all their heart, and desires to obey the Lord, even if he is leading them to place that is not in their official strategy.
These situations call for a balance between the church member’s submission to his or her pastors and the pastors listening to and, if possible, affirming the church member’s calling—even if it doesn’t fit perfectly in their strategy.
Individual Calling vs. Church Strategy
I do believe it is beneficial for the church to focus on a specific place or people. The church cannot do it all, so it is good to focus on some areas and invest well in those places. Most likely the church has frequently prayed about serving in these particular places. They are invested there.
Because of this, I think a church member should be open to their pastors’ guidance. Listen to their thoughts and rationale. Pray about it. If led, go on a vision trip to the place your church is already serving.
“The first decision you have made is to be willing to go. Let the church speak into your life, ministry, and possibilities.”
But if, after time and reflection, you still sense God leading you to another place, let your pastors know that. Continue the conversation. You do not have to make the decision today or even next month. The first decision you have made is to be willing to go. Let the church speak into your life, ministry, and possibilities.
As a pastor myself, I believe we have a responsibility to listen to what God is doing in our church members’ lives. You should want to hear their story. You want to be open to how God may be working in their life and ministry—how God has gifted them with certain abilities and skills. These gifts may very well play into where they are most suited to go as missionaries.
You also have the responsibility to talk to them about the church’s missions strategy and the places on which God is directing the church to focus. If you listen first but also share your vision, then in many cases both your vision and your church member’s calling comes together in some way. It may be they desire to be a part of your church’s strategy to go to a particular place or people.
Or it may be you sense that God is indeed at work in their life and you can affirm their calling, even if it doesn’t fit perfectly in your church’s current strategy. Perhaps the Lord will use this situation to lead your church to start a work in another area of the world.
Here’s a summary of what I’m recommending:
If, after much prayer and consideration, the church member still feels called to a place or people on which the church is not focused, why not send them off well? Your church may not be able to give them full financial support or send teams to them, but if you are confident that the Lord has called them to that area, you can still commission them, care for them, provide spiritual accountability, pray for them, and consider them sent ones from your church.
Larry McCrary is the co-founder and Executive Director of The Upstream Collective. He and his family have lived in Europe for nearly 20 years, where he has served in a variety of strategy and leadership roles. Prior to moving to Europe he was a church planter and pastor in the US. He is a co-author of Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission, The First 30 Daze: Practical Encouragement for Living Abroad Intentionally, and The MarketSpace: Essential Relationships Between the Sending Church, Marketplace Worker, and Missionary Team.