EDITOR'S NOTE: Visit "WorldView Conversation," the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com/. Listen to an audio version here.
RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--A friend from high school days contacted me last week with some exciting news -- and a question.
"My 14-year-old daughter believes God is calling her to be a missionary," he said. "Where does she need to go to learn about what she needs to do to prepare for this calling?"
This young woman doesn't just have some vague sense of leading toward mission work. She feels specifically called to go to a large country in Asia where millions of people have yet to hear the Gospel of Christ.
With all the ways churches, volunteers and Christian groups can now do international missions in a globalized world, you might think the old-fashioned, individual "call" to missionary service has gone out of style. Some folks have even said as much.
Maybe God didn't get that e-mail. He still seems to call certain people to follow Him into the world -- not for a week, a month or a year, but for life.
"A 13-year-old called me earlier this week" with that kind of aspiration, says Joye Russell, who counsels potential future missionaries contacting the International Mission Board for the first time. She hears from three or four teens a month, sometimes more. You can call her or her colleague, Pat Thorpe, toll free at (888) 422-6461.
"We talk to people from ages 8 to 80," adds Russell, herself a former missionary to Africa. But guiding young people, she says, "is especially close to my heart because I felt the call to missions at age 12 and my pastor didn't help me at all." She loves helping kids, teens and young adults seek their place in God's purpose. The IMB Student Mobilization Team helps many more (visit thetask.org).
Missionary calling is a mysterious thing. Some people can tell you about a single, life-changing moment when God spoke to them clearly. Others talk about a growing sense of leading and purpose over many years. Despite the subjective nature of "the call," few evangelical mission agencies will send someone as a long-term missionary who lacks a clear sense that God is telling them to go. And when the going gets tough overseas, few missionaries will make it without such a sense of call.
An IMB guide for prospective missionaries describes it this way:
"Those who are called to a special task [have] a specific sense of God's leadership in their lives. That may come in a dramatic spiritual experience or in reflecting on how God has led you through a series of circumstances. Many experience this personal leadership to overseas missions service when they are involved in a short-term missions project. God may affirm that they are doing exactly what He has called them to do. Everyone experiences this call in a different way. How has God spoken to your heart?"
Regarding preparation for a young person sensing "the call" to eventual missionary service, here are some suggestions I gave to my friend's daughter:
-- Pray. Love the Lord. Worship Him. Spend time alone with Him just as Jesus did. Seek Him, not for any of His gifts, but for Himself alone. Learn His Word. Worship is the purpose of missions because God wants all peoples to worship Him.
-- Pray for the area of the world toward which you feel called. Learn about the peoples, history and current events there, as well as other places in the world where God is working.
-- Read the biographies of great missionaries through the ages. And learn about some of today's mission heroes.
-- Become a pen pal or Facebook friend with a young missionary on the field. Learn about how his or her life is being used for God, about the victories, defeats and realities of living in another culture.
-- Get to know the world at your doorstep. Make friends with and minister to immigrants, international students and refugees. Learn a second language and use it in ministry.
-- Go on a mission trip overseas. This is the great opportunity today's Christians have that previous generations didn't. Most current long-term missionaries started as volunteers or short-term workers.
-- Pray about a gap year between high school and college when you could serve in missions in the United States or abroad. Serving after college is great, too. But in the meantime, don't become so committed to a relationship, a career, a mortgage or other obligations that they make you less available to God.
Russell also shares these essentials with young people she counsels:
-- Develop your God-given gifts and skills through vital involvement in your church and your community.
-- Become an active Gospel sharer (if you aren't one already). Get evangelism training if you need it.
-- Stay healthy. Take care of yourself.
-- Stay as debt-free as possible. Debt keeps people off the mission field.
I'm praying for my friend's daughter -- and for all the other young people still being called by God to missionary service.
(c) Baptist Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board (imb.org).