On Calling and the Missionary Life

April 4, 2022

The Fulcrum of the Missionary Life

Calling is the fulcrum of the missionary life. Balancing on one side the Lordship and utter worthiness of Jesus Christ, and on the other the work of mission itself. To go without his leading (as best we can discern or understand it) is ultimately an enterprise in vanity. And this is somewhat self-evident in the early years of the missionary journey. When we are young, we want to go; but we know we need an address, a location for our zeal. So we fervently search and ask and ultimately follow the leading of God to a place or people. The challenge comes with the passage of time. The focus on that particular place or people inevitably changes. 

Sometimes we just lose our nerve; there are plenty of distractions to pull our attention from the hard and sometimes thankless work of mission. But sometimes, other less nefarious things pull us away. We get married, have kids, buy a house, start a demanding job, or face a serious crisis. The next thing we know we are not on our first mission field, and if our hearts still burn for God, we wonder if we have failed him in some way. Even though I admit that is sometimes true, if you are reading this it is probably because you still care deeply about both Jesus and his mission and yet you still find yourself wondering, “Have I drifted from my calling?” But this is where our view of calling itself is exposed. 

Our View of Calling

I have four sons and I am always into some kind of construction project. They all have (fond?) memories of helping me build, remodel, and otherwise improve the homes we have lived in. When they were younger, what they could do was pretty limited. They could get tools, run messages to mom or just clean up. As they got older, they started to be able to use some of the tools. Today my adult sons can do almost everything I can do. Still, when I am the one conceiving and leading the project, they are limited by my instructions. They often don’t have the whole picture of what I am building, only the task they have been asked to take on. Wouldn’t this be a better analogy than some deistic idea that God tells you to move to the inner city and then disappears for the next 40 years? We are his hands and his feet. We rely on his constant and intimate leadership to guide us. Calling is not static, it changes with the changes of our lives. We grow. We improve. We learn things. We become more virtuous, more patient, more gentle; in short, more usable. So, not only is the grand design of the project of our lives somehow veiled by the vision of God, so too is his allocation of responsibility (even within the scope of our single life). 

You cannot see the whole way forward, so you rely on God’s calling as a dance of intimacy and responsibility. He will give us assignments that last some time (even years), but when those assignments are done, we have to return to our Father and ask again, “What’s next?” That dance of intimacy, coming in and going out, is more like what calling really looks like. The missionary is not sent once; they are sent again and again. Because the missionary doesn’t really know what they are doing. We rely on the very real leadership of a very real friend and architect. Jesus may only give us partial revelation about our lives and our next assignments precisely because he wants to remain central to our life’s work. I don’t know about you, but I find that wonderful. 

So it is that calling is a dynamic reality leading us always back to the one who loves us and the world. Calling stands there in the middle of our tangible submission to Jesus as Lord and our work of mission to see others make the same commitment. He does not change, but his call does. 

The Calling Cycle

In my book, The 6 Seasons of Calling, I make a case for six major calling events in our lives. Every missionary should be open and honest about these transitions. Mostly because they do not reflect something wrong, but rather, a constancy of relationship and revelation in the life of the missionary. Here is an excerpt from that book on what I have labeled the Calling Cycle: 

The search for calling usually begins with a crisis. That crisis could be big or small. It could be something external or something internal, and it could be something good or something bad. It could be something that we do to ourselves, such as failing or succeeding; or it could be something that happens to us, like a loss or an opportunity. But behind the cause lies the true crisis, which is one of identity. 

The college freshman who has to pick a major; the college graduate who no longer has school to define their existence; the young careerist who has just lost their first job or been promoted to a better one; the parents who are sending their last child off to college; or the husband who is burying his wife. All of these people are sharing, not one experience, but an inception of the same crisis of identity. Who am I now? It is in this crisis of identity that we are tempted by fear and despair, but also driven into the presence of God. 

I cannot say how many times something like this will happen in your life, but it will happen. And it will happen more than once. Again, I am making the case that for most of us, it will happen about six times. And that is normal, healthy, and to be expected. As a follower of Jesus, these moments of identity crisis can and should become the catalyst for a renewal, not so much of our current calling, but of our relationship with the Father.

Perhaps what we need most is to know that there is someone who can (and has always been able to) answer it. So, the identity crisis is meant to drive us into intimacy with Jesus, to seek His face, and to find there, not just the answer to our questions, but the One who defines all that we are.

Almost certainly this is where we will experience real change in the contours of our calling. Perhaps the change is subtle, but it could very likely be something big. And so we venture out again, in faith, into that work He has called us to do. From my perspective, that too, will last about twelve years.

And then we will find ourselves again, bored, ineffective, limited, or facing some truly new situation that will begin the cycle again.

You can see why experiencing this every month or even every year would not only be destabilizing, but it would not allow us to accomplish much with our lives. You can also see how going through this cycle only once or even twice in our lives would not really reflect the bigger changes and challenges we each must face. So it is that we will all search and find our calling several times in our lives.

Be ready for this dance of listening and doing. Be ready for the phases of the missionary life to be, above all, a deepening relationship with the one who called you, and who yearns to call the rest of the world too. 

Brian is a social entrepreneur that has helped to start hundreds of missional enterprises, including churches, nonprofits, and businesses all over the world. Most notably, Brian is the founder and former Executive Director of the Underground Network, an international fellowship of microchurch incubators creating city-based ecosystems of faith, creativity, and empowered social enterprise. Based in Tampa, the Underground now has movement hubs in 17 cities and 7 countries. Most recently Brian has been working as a specialist in collective impact alliances for the National Christian Foundation.

Brian is the author of seven books including Life After Church: God’s Call to Disillusioned Christians (IVP, 2007), Underground Church (Zondervan, 2018), Microchurches: A Smaller Way (UGM, 2019) and The 6 Seasons of Calling (Moody, 2022).

Brian Sanders

Brian Sanders

Brian is the founder and Executive Director of the Underground Network, a new form of church designed and empowered for mission. A serial entrepreneur, Brian has helped to start hundreds of missional enterprises, including churches, non-profits, and businesses all over the world. Based in Tampa, the Underground now has movement hubs in 10 cities and 5 countries. Brian holds a degree in communication from the University of Florida, a Masters Degree from the University of South Florida in Religious Studies and a Masters in Applied Theology from Spurgeon's College, University of Wales. He lives in Tampa, Florida with his wife Monica and their six children.
View Author

Related Articles