A sense of being called by God into a special kind of work for his kingdom and glory provides a strong faith foundation for the missionary, enabling perseverance during the many difficulties that inevitably arise when ministering the gospel in a foreign culture. But calling means different things to different people at different times. Bruce Waltke states, “A call is an inner desire given by the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God and confirmed by the community of Christ.” Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” This understanding of call does not negate the possibility of a special vision or prophetic word (Acts 9:3-6, 17), but at the same time does not make these prerequisite. These helpful perspectives provide a framework for exploring the Chinese missionary perspective on call.
I recently interviewed eleven Chinese long-term missionaries investigating challenges experienced in the context of service. In these missionary conversations, I first used a semi-structured interview method relying on parts two and three of an instrument developed by the World Evangelical Fellowship, and then followed-up with unstructured interviews. In this article, from the perspective of these interviewed Chinese missionaries, I will explore a Chinese understanding of a call to missionary service. From this understanding, a clearer picture of the foundations of the Chinese missionary undertaking emerges.
For the Chinese missionaries interviewed, the stories of their individual conversions were closely intertwined with their calling to serve (MI#1, 3, 4, 12). Following their decisions to follow Christ, calling to cross-cultural mission service became clear as their respective walks with the Lord deepened over time (MI#1, 2, 3, 4, 6). As these missionaries stepped out in obedience, they experienced times of loss—of a dream, a career, or a family relationship (MI#1, 4, 5, 11). But just as a seed cannot bear fruit unless it first dies (John 12:24), afterwards the seed yielded much fruit (MI#1, 3, 5, 11). Chinese missionaries described their sufferings, their experience of God’s presence and power, and a deep sense of knowing him better.
Calling Rooted in Relationship with God
One interviewee described studying his school texts under a street light without even enough money to buy steamed bread. “I remember that as a child, I would gaze alone at the night sky, looking at the stars. I actually could feel that there was another Someone there who cared about me very much, and I could have a conversation with him . . . talk with him” (MI#1). Later, as he studied in school, he gradually forgot those early experiences. After graduating from university and successfully gaining entrance into graduate school, he found that all his educational pursuits could not satisfy him. It was during his college years that he first began to hear the gospel from both foreigners and local Chinese. Believing the gospel message did not come easily at first. Later, during a time of difficulty in his studies, he thought of life and its meaning, and began a search for answers and for God. He asked God to give him something to believe in, and God answered his prayer in some amazing ways, resulting finally in his becoming a Christian. As he read God’s word and served him, he experienced God in ever increasing reality, and he found that his calling to mission took root.
Calling Became Clear with Time
For some, the call to missions was gradual. Climbing into the mountains in his spare time, one missionary interviewee and his wife brought the gospel to a minority Chinese people with no previous exposure to Christianity. Initially they were hoping to find someone else to shepherd these new believers. Seemingly no one was available. It finally became apparent that he could not go on shepherding new believers in this minority people group while functioning as an Ear Nose and Throat surgeon. Further, he felt disillusioned with corruption he saw in his hospital. To the shock and amazement of his colleagues, because of the call from God, one day he and his wife decided to leave his prestigious surgical position to serve that minority people (MI#1, 11).
Another interviewee heard about the Back to Jerusalem movement as a college sophomore (MI#3). Intrigued, he volunteered to go to a predominantly Muslim province within China. While there, God filled him with a passionate concern for Muslims. A third interviewee, not long after finding the Lord, sensed God’s call to missions while singing the chorus, “I will go to the remote village. I will go to the thirsty people.” At that time, she said, “Lord, I want to go to that kind of place” (MI#4). Soon after coming to know the Lord, another interviewee relates that he heard about the existence of “unreached people.” He had no idea about “missions or Muslims” at that point, but he still felt that his heart was being moved to go. Short-term mission opportunities presented themselves, and gradually, through circumstances and God’s guidance in Scripture, he came to sense his calling to long-term mission work in a North African country (MI#2).
For some of the missionaries interviewed, particular Scriptures played a central role in their personal understanding of calling. Isaiah 19 speaks of God’s inclusion of the Assyrian and the Egyptian alongside his people Israel. Outreach to those parts of the world was seen by one interviewee as participation in God’s eschatological plan (MI# Undesignated). For another, Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 concerning the hungry, the naked, and the one in prison became the impetus for a call to the Malaysian walking the streets “poor and wandering,” or for a strong call to serve the poor in Indonesia (MI#5). A third resonated with the Apostle Paul’s sentiment expressed in 1 Corinthians 9:16-18, “Necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach” (MI#1).
Finally, one interviewee described his call in connection with the murder of a close friend who happened to be a Muslim (MI#6). Interracial violence was frequent in his part of the country. He was distraught with grief over his friend’s death and felt God spoke to him to “share the gospel with them. If they did not come to know Jesus, that people group would be like this—without hope.” Gradually, a compassion for the Muslims around him turned into a deeper love for God which in turn heightened his love for those held in the grip of Islam.
Loss of a Dream—United with Him in His Death
The missionary to Gentiles said, “being united with him in his death, and so somehow to attain to the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11). How true those words were for the interviewed Chinese missionaries. Repeated miscarriages, financial difficulties, and loss of career and peer approval at times led these missionaries to the “deepest valley” (MI#1, 4, 5, 11, 12), to the point where more than one recalled thoughts about giving up on the Christian faith.
In the early years of one missionary’s service, after the children were put to bed, husband and wife would take walks in the cool mountain evening praying, “Use us to do great things.” But now “we are old.” Their prayer has become, “Let us walk faithfully to the end” (MI#11). They state,
Being faithful is enough, just being faithful, and to keep on going. No need to do great things (laughing). Do you understand what I mean? Because we are old now, and feel we just need faithfulness . . . Then we remind each other of what we will have in heaven. When we meet the Lord, what we will have then. (MI#11)
Long-term Chinese missionary interviewees were willing to lay down earthly rewards for eternal purposes. For the Chinese missionaries interviewed, serving the Lord was not about personal fulfillment. It was about being united with Christ in his crucifixion.
Much Fruit—Resurrected Life
Chinese missionaries describe a sense of great joy in serving him (MI#2, 5). One missionary, though naturally introverted, stated that every time he sees a Muslim, his heart begins to beat a little faster. Muslims are like a magnet to him and he has an interest and passion to get to know them, to be friends with them, to share Jesus with them, and to “just unreasonably love them” (MI#3). Because of another missionary interviewee, there are now churches in remote mountain villages where the gospel had been unknown (MI#1). One missionary described the hope she felt in seeing many youths in their early twenties and younger from a minority people group climbing mountains that the missionary herself could not climb in taking the gospel to unreached places (MI#4). She related that she was glad to be a co-worker with these youth, feeling considerable encouragement and comfort.
God revealed himself faithfully during times of need when these interviewed missionaries were living beyond their personal strength or abilities. Missionaries found that they were always learning and sensing God expanding them, always in complete dependence on the Lord (MI#5), and proceeding in their work with a knowledge that no matter how much they were called to serve or sacrifice, success was always brought about by the Lord himself (MI#1,2,12). Though souls were saved, churches planted, and the sick were healed, these missionaries viewed their work not as being result-oriented, or as being judged by the visible outcome, but rather done simply to glorify God.
If we are faithfully working for him, if we experience the power of the gospel, if every day this answer is yes, we don’t need anything else. The timing for results is God’s. It could be overnight. It could be ten years. Our eyes are set on him and him alone. (MI#2)
Walking with him in newness of life, afterwards it (the seed) bears much fruit (Romans 6:4, John 12:24, Philippians 3:10-11).
Understanding the impetus for mission activity among Chinese believers is impossible without a firm grasp of their sense of calling. Salvation, a calling to missions, being united with him in his death, and then walking with him in resurrected life…this is what is meant by calling. Knowing Christ, abiding in him, obeying him, and then leaving all the results in his hands…this is the foundation for Chinese missionary activity.
Buechner, Frederick, Wishful Thinking a Theological ABC. 1973, New York: Harper and Row.
Elkins., P., Lewis, J., and Van Meter, J., Three Part Missionary Tracking Guide. 2003, WEA: Missions Commission.
McConnell, Walter, III., "The Missionary Call: A Biblical and Practical Appraisal." Evangelical Missions Quarterly no. 43 (2): 210-217.