The “missionary call” used to be one of the most preached-over topics back in the day of missionary conferences. Often there was a “call to commitment” at the end, and young people would stream forward. Some ended up going into missions. Others didn’t. Some felt guilty that they had somehow “missed” God’s calling.

Is God still calling, and does the voice sound the same? I asked several women across generations to share about how God called them to cross-cultural service. Their unique stories, each specific to their individual hopes and experiences, demonstrates that the God who calls is a God who knows us well.

The out-of-context call

Two 30-something women, in two different states, told me how God spoke to them during sermons, confirming that they should indeed go on the short-term trips their churches were planning. Neither sermon had anything to do with missions, but both young women were open and listening to God’s leading in their lives.

The long call

Genna, who is in her mid-30s, said that her call to missions “was long … if that makes sense.” She didn’t know any missionaries growing up, but from a young age felt drawn to different cultures, countries, and languages.

Genna wanted to find out more about the other side of the world, so at 16 she did an exchange year. “I found that I was well able to immerse and adapt in a different culture,” she said.

In her later teens she and a friend (now her husband) both read biographies of Christian leaders that inspired and challenged them. They wanted to give their lives to Christ wherever that would take them.

The call that came with conditions

Cheryl, age 50, went to Alaska as a camp counselor when she was 22. “God gave me the privilege of assisting several girls to come to Jesus as Savior,” she said. “I thought, ‘If this is what missions is about, I’m in.’” She committed herself to be available, but the road was not easy. Her parents opposed her desire, even though they’d raised her listening to missionary speakers from the time she was a small child. Their conditions were “married and debt free.”

“One I could take care of, but the other was in God’s hands,” Cheryl said. She paid off her school debts, and eventually went to Eurasia with her parents’ tacit approval. Now she is in her fifth term serving as a single woman. “I’m more excited than ever to be doing what he wants me to do.”

The rebel’s call

Karen, 63, didn’t come to faith until she was 25, after returning the States following a positive Peace Corps experience. Asked if she was typical of her generation, she said, “I think my generation was rebellious, trying to break traditions and do new things. I fit that pattern, especially during college and the Peace Corps. Then I came to Christ at age 25. That happened to many in my generation — coming back to parental values in our 20s and 30s and finding a personal relationship with the Lord. Maybe I wasn’t as wild and rebellious as some, but I was a nonconformist.”

“Maybe I wasn’t as wild and rebellious as some, but I was a nonconformist.”

Karen’s mother saved pennies for the Women’s Missionary League of the Lutheran church and sometimes showed her missionary letters, so even when Karen was not a believer, she was not completely ignorant of overseas ministry. Thanks to her positive Peace Corps experience, once she knew Christ, she was drawn to serving him cross-culturally.

The dreamer’s call

Erin, 30, realized during college that she loved learning about new cultures and people. Two friends who had grown up as missionary kids often challenged her to think about overseas ministry, and a trip to Europe with her choir opened more doors.

I remember Erin writing me with a grand proposal that she would go to Europe and open a pub where conversations could be held about Jesus. “I ran this idea by another mission rep and he told me missionaries never run pubs. What do you think?” Not wanting to stifle her youthful enthusiasm, I said, “Follow your heart and God will decide the where and what.”

“Follow your heart and God will decide the where and what.”

Erin returned to Europe several times on short-term trips. Many godly mentors touched her life, gently pushing and molding her dreams. Today, she and her husband have just finished launching a coffee house ministry, which they have turned over to local believers in Asia.

Now Erin and her husband are moving to the Middle East to create a similar job-providing, conversation-about-Jesus-inspiring ministry in a Muslim country. It’s not quite a pub, but the original dream is still there.

When asked how she sees God leading women of her age today, Erin said, “I see how he’s leading women to be involved where they are first — a lot of women are working with refugee families and with human trafficking. Since so much of that is happening in their home area, ​that’s where they’re getting plugged in first, with desire to move overseas as he leads.”

The can’t wait call

After college, Alli, 28, joined the World Race, a journey to 11 countries in 11 months to serve “the least of these.” 

“A teammate asked me, ‘If there was one thing you could do and know you wouldn’t fail, what would it be?’” Alli told her she would start a coffee shop that would give jobs to women coming out of sex trafficking. “That was the first time that idea ever came to mind, much less out of my mouth!”

Today, Alli works with an organization that rescues women and “ladyboys” from the sex trade, puts them in housing, and helps them get education and different employment.

“We can’t force Jesus on them, but when we walk into bars, they can tell there is something different about us,” Alli said. “Women who do leave are discipled, set free from the strongholds of Satan, and willingly go back to set other captives free.”

I say, ‘Why not LIVE FOR NOW? MAKE AN IMPACT NOW! CHANGE LIVES NOW!’

Asked if she was typical of her generation, Alli said, “Mmmm … both yes and no. Yes, because a lot of my fellow workers seem to be on fire and want to live outside of the 9-5 job to follow their passions. But no, because there are those in my generation who have had huge passions in their life that they let fall by the wayside if they hear the word ‘fundraise,’ or they get in a serious relationship and just settle. Or they have the American mindset to ‘work, work, work; save, save, save; then have fun when you retire.’ I say, ‘Why not LIVE FOR NOW? MAKE AN IMPACT NOW! CHANGE LIVES NOW!’”

• • •

Remember the two ladies who heard God prompting them to go on short-term trips? Could those overseas experiences develop into a long-term call? I don’t know, but every other woman I interviewed had experienced a taste of cross-cultural life or ministry before making a long-term commitment. Other common themes: All of them are in some sense “wired” for moving outside the box of the ordinary. All were willing to take a road less traveled and to risk disapproval from peers (and sometimes parents or mentors). All believers are called to live out their lives as devout followers of Jesus – whether it’s in their own country or another place – but some are definitely more suited to globe-trotting than others. 

God’s call is very personal. He knows how best to use our dreams, passions and experiences.

The greatest theme that I saw, though, is that God’s call is very personal. He knows how best to use our dreams, passions and experiences. He can take the dream of a pub and turn it into a coffee shop. He can take concern for sex-trafficked women and turn it into bravely rescuing women in bars. He can take a Peace Corps worker and turn her into a missionary. He can take a summer of camp counseling and turn it into a lifetime of ministry to women.

Times change. The missionary conference altar call may have served a past generation, but God can use the World Race as an altar call. Missionary biographies remain excellent reading, but the heart of today’s teen might be touched by a video. Friends and family in global ministry still encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

And God still calls us to action in the middle of sermons that have nothing to do with global ministry. We just have to be listening.

(Names have been changed to protect these women’s ministries.)

More on becoming a missionary

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