We were reading the following:
A city in the northern part of our country needs a church planter. It’s just east of Saudi Arabia and just south of Iran. A Muslim sheikh on the Arabian Peninsula is giving land for an evangelical Christian church for the first time this century. . . .
I studied my husband’s face, trying to read his reaction. “Are you interested?”
He had just graduated from seminary, and we were praying about finding a church for him to pastor. It had never crossed my mind to consider anywhere east of Saudi Arabia and south of Iran.
It wasn’t just that I’d never considered living in the Middle East; I’d never seriously considered going overseas for ministry at all. In my mind, the people who went overseas had a special calling and unique desire. They knew who they were. And I knew I wasn’t one of them. I’d never even been on a short-term missions trip. I didn’t participate in my church’s international ministry. I didn’t even have any close friends from other countries. I certainly wasn’t being called to ministry in the Middle East.
Or was I?
I knew the Great Commission in one sense calls all of us to tell the Good News to those who haven’t heard. For the next few months, I asked dozens of Christians whom I respected how to discern a “calling” to overseas ministry. I got as many different answers as people I asked, ranging from the more subjective “You’ll know when God calls you” to Augustine’s “Love God and do what you want.” There were months of angst trying not only to determine our specific calling, but also to decide how to determine a calling. We came up with the following list of biblical principles—a list that helped guide us in making the decision to move overseas and plant a church in a part of the world largely void of the gospel.
Perhaps the most important step in a decision-making process like this one is to cover it in prayer. Pray specifically and pray broadly. Pray over each of these steps and ask others to pray alongside you. Pray, asking the Holy Spirit to lead you in straight paths.
1. Opportunity (Acts 16:6-10; 20:22)
When considering whether there’s an opportunity for ministry in another country, look for open and closed doors. If there’s no opportunity to go, trust the Lord has closed the doors for now. When Paul, Timothy, and Silas headed for Asia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit from entering. I don’t know exactly how he conveyed his alternative plans to this first-century missions team, but they knew not to proceed. So even though Jesus had left them with the directive to go into the world and preach the gospel, the Spirit closed the door for these specific people to go to this specific place at this specific time.
Sometimes, however, an opportunity presents itself—even if you aren’t looking for it, as in our case. Be careful not to turn your back too quickly on a seemingly open door because it wasn’t exactly what you’d envisioned. God has a heart for the nations, and Christ has issued a call to his disciples to spread this glorious news.
2. Need (Matt. 9:37)
Is there a need for workers in the place you’re considering? Pondering this need can help clarify your calling, especially when choosing between multiple potential ministry locations. If we want to examine our short lives in light of eternity, we must learn to place emphases on gospel priorities and places—even above our own preferences.
3. Desire (Ps. 40:8)
This may be the trickiest part of this decision-making process. Desire is ultimately an emotion, and as such can be a useful barometer of the heart. Our desires can give us insight into what we value and what we fear. This information is helpful to us as we seek wisdom and discern calling. On the other hand, however, our emotions can be fickle, and they shouldn’t be used as the sole or even the final arbiter of a decision. Desire has to be a factor, but it should never be the only factor. It’s especially important to pray for desire if it’s lacking. Through prayer God gave me a desire to move to a place I could never have previously envisioned living.
4. Godly Counsel (Prov. 15:22)
The Book of Proverbs is full of imperatives to seek counsel among the godly. When considering whether to undergo the stress of leaving your home country to take up residence as an alien in another, this decision should be made alongside others. Your church’s leaders and other godly believers who know you well should be brought into a decision like this at an early stage. Their counsel should be humbly and earnestly sought. They may have insight into your strengths and weaknesses that could be invaluable to your decision.
5. Willingness (Acts 20:24, Ps. 37:4)
When anyone decides to follow Christ, she must first count the costs. We must not only be willing to follow Christ into Jerusalem, but also to Calvary. Moving abroad often means forsaking familiar culture, language, food, dress, medical practices, and customs. It means intentionally distancing yourself from family and friends. It may mean experiencing loneliness and rejection at a new level. We must be willing to walk away from the comforts of this world because of deliberate hope in the next.
When all of these factors are laid on the table and carefully considered, a “calling” emerges. It’s not always a pain-free process, to be sure, but God is faithful to lead us even through confusion.
A year ago I never envisioned myself living outside the States. Now I couldn’t imagine wanting to live anywhere but the Middle East. I’m grateful for my “calling” to overseas work, and I pray the Lord who reigns over all would use me—the most unlikely of candidates—to make him known and enjoyed.