The Rule of Seven (Times Seven?) in Missions

Missions, Podcast

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Experts have studied how many times humans must be exposed to something in order for it to stick. One author says, “The rule of seven is an old marketing adage. It says that a prospect needs to see or hear your marketing message at least seven times before they take action and buy from you.” One source calls this concept effective frequency and also acknowledges that the perfect frequency might indeed vary depending on the source consulted. It is interesting to think that seven happens to be the number of perfectness and completion in a spiritual sense! Those of us who believe in the Creator of humans might not find it a surprise if He planned it exactly that way—that it would take 7 times to hear something to ultimately respond in action.

Other areas of research support this same idea that repetition is key. Whether it comes to memorizing phone numbers (though who does that anymore!) or getting a child to eat new vegetables during the “flavor window” between 4 and 18 months of age, it is pretty much accepted that we humans must be exposed to things multiple times before something will take root in our habits and practices. Yet, all of the super spiritual folks seem to postulate that when it comes to a call to missions, it might be more of a lightning bolt experience. A true missionary calling might just appear as quickly as a rainbow appears after the rain, but does it? Many churches and pastors live as if that is indeed the case. No interest in missions here, so no need to mention missions. After all, if it is promoted, someone will just be asking for money or prayer or some other means of support. Many Christian leaders have succumbed to the idea that if someone hears a call to be a missionary, that person will come running down the aisle demanding that he/she must be sent tomorrow.

Unfortunately, succumbing to this mindset might be the very thing that keeps potential missionaries working their same old blue collar job or pursuing other avenues in life. If the rule of seven applies for getting someone to purchase a new candy bar, maybe the rule for a calling to missions might be more like seven times seven. No matter how many times the “advertisement” must be shared, the truth is that it must be shared at least the first time to ever even have a chance to take hold of someone’s life.
In spite of the fact that many mission agencies expect for potential candidates to justify how they knew they were called to missions, the Bible does not give any clear-cut definition of a missionary calling. There is no such explicit naming of a missionary calling, but there are certainly people who were led to do various things for the Lord. With this being the case, using this term “calling” may do nothing but succeed in confusing many potential servants of the Lord. One missiologist says, “the term ‘missionary call’ should never have been coined. It is not scriptural and therefore can be harmful.” Certainly, Christians differ on their opinions of how specific this elusive calling must be, who can be called, what is required once one is called, etc. This one fact remains: the person who has never been exposed to the idea can’t be called. Nobody ever felt “called” to be a fireman without ever hearing what a fireman was. Nobody ever felt “called” to teach without seeing a good teacher model the vocation. No pew sitter will ever feel called to be a missionary without being exposed to a few good missionaries, a few good missionary stories, a few Scripture verses that remind of the need, engaging with someone from another culture, and/or taking a short-term mission trip. No doubt about it—no exposure for even the first time will always succeed in nothing taking root!

Pastors and church leaders would all affirm the value in a calling to missions. They would all affirm their own callings in life to their various vocations and ministries. Pastors and church leaders would also acknowledge that for the vast majority of them, it was simply a growing desire or a role model through life that stirred something in the heart to make them consider ministry for the first time. It was simply someone else exposing them to the possibility that nudged them to consider what would become a life-long ministry calling. Yet, too many forget that this is the same way missionaries will be called to the field. It won’t be from a lightning bolt, a phone call, a Bible verse shining in bright lights, or a fear of death on the spot for disobedience that ultimately drives the pew sitter to realize that he/she is called to missions.

Maybe it really does take seven times of being exposed, or maybe it takes seven times seven for someone to respond to the moving target named a “calling”. Whatever the effective frequency may be, it all starts with the first time. It all starts with that first lesson on the Great Commission, that first missionary story, or that first exposure to the unreached people group in India. It all starts with a pastor or teacher’s first time to awaken what lies dormant but is ready to stir if just tickled a little. Maybe, just maybe, it won’t really take seven times seven, and maybe the next one will be called. Maybe the flavor window is alive and well. Anybody ready to find out?

Kirsten McClain serves in church missions mobilization for OMF. She has been serving churches and mission agencies for the last 20 years. She has a heart to see the church realize her potential in missions and is driven to be a mobilizer to this end. She lives in Georgia with her husband and three children, and she is ready to direct pastors to the various resources that OMF uses to come alongside churches and individuals so that they can do missions well.

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