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October 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 4 · pp. 14–21 

The Call of God for Service in the Church

Loyal J. Martin

At least thirty five missionaries and fifty five pastors or pastor’s wives have been sent out or called to service from the Mountain Lake and Carson (Delft), Minnesota Mennonite Brethren Churches over their 100 year history. Why so many workers from these two churches? The response to this query comes from an analysis of the self-perceptions and reflections of current church members and of some of the workers who were drawn into service through these two churches.


Many Mennonite settlers came to southwestern Minnesota in the 1870’s. By 1880 three hundred and fifty families had arrived in the Mountain Lake community. Six Mennonite Brethren families organized a church on 11 June 1877, the day of their first baptism. Heinrich Voth, a young school teacher from Russia, was one of those baptized. A year later he was called to lead the group and in 1885 was ordained by Elder Abraham Schellenberg.

The first meeting house was built north of Bingham Lake in 1886. Four years later a second building was constructed five miles south of Mountain Lake to accommodate those who had settled in that area. For many years the groups considered themselves one congregation with two meeting houses. The southern group eventually moved to the town of Mountain Lake, a small railway town, and the groups eventually established separate organizational structures. Not until the 1940’s did the Bingham Lake group move into the village of Delft but it retained the name of the township, Carson.

As early as 1887 the group observed the national holiday, “Fourth of July”, as a missions festival in order to offer its young people and the community something better than the usual celebrations. Quarterly missions festivals plus the July 4 mission sale and a fall harvest-missions festival were six of the numerous joint meetings held by these congregations every year, even after they became separate church entities. With {15} missions such a strong link in the ties of these two sister congregations, statistics about workers from the churches must be considered jointly.

These congregations provided some of the first Mennonite Brethren missionaries for India (N.N. Hieberts, J.N.C. Hieberts, John A. Wiebes and John H. Voths) and for Africa (Heinrich Enns, Frank A. Janzens, Aaron Janzens and Martha Hiebert). An unofficial count lists missionaries and pastors from these churches by recent decades: 1970’s—4; 1960’s—11; 1950’s—7. One person from the Carson Church lists 29 persons, ages 23-65, from that church who have given short terms of service to Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Brethren Christian Service and other agencies. Such short term ministries have been in vogue only in the last several decades. As this is written one retired couple from the church has just returned from five months in Italy where they engaged in construction work. 1


External investigation would produce valuable information on the social dimensions of productive communities and churches. One such study will be suggested later in this paper. This current study, however, deals in the self-perceptions of current members and workers from the churches.

The writer pastored the Carson Church from 1961-68 and has interviewed selected older members or former members of these churches. A survey of adult members of both churches was administered by the pastors in the Spring of 1981. At the same time five missionaries and seven pastors from these churches responded to a questionnaire.

Among other things, church members were asked “How do you account for the large number of workers . . . from your church?” “What is your church doing this year to encourage persons to enter Christian service?” “What have you done personally to encourage someone to enter Christian service in the last year?” Workers from these churches were asked “How did you come to a decision to enter vocational Christian service?”

Both current members and workers from the churches cited a general emphasis on mission spearheaded by pastoral leadership as the key element in recruiting workers from these churches. The joint quarterly meetings at which missionaries, mission board members or the local pastors spoke about missions are frequently mentioned. Testimonies of new recruits, reports from short term workers and, whenever possible, one of their own number home on furlough are featured at these meetings. Missionary support and special projects are actively promoted in the {16} churches. Ladies’ missionary societies’ projects and vacation Bible school and youth group offerings are often designated for specific missions projects. “Those who went into full time Christian service were considered as having a very special position and were treated as such.” One person said, “Whenever our own workers come home the church really comes alive.”

“There always seemed to be an expectation that there would be the ‘called ones’ ”, one missionary writes. “It was never a question of ‘if God would call someone’ but ‘whom God would call’ ”, a pastor says. “I can remember my primary Sunday School teacher saying” ‘now when some of you are missionaries you will need to know this verse’.”

Some, however, expressed concern. One person says that these churches sometimes stressed foreign missions to the exclusion of home missions or local evangelism. Another feels that a reaction has arisen resulting in a call to build the local program to the neglect of cross-cultural missions.

A second influence in recruiting workers is affirmation by individuals and the influence of the family. Some survey responses seem to merge the influence of significant adults, whether family or non-family. “Shoulder-tapping” and periodic encouragement by one or two persons to consider the ministry formed a recurring theme in the creation of a sense of call, as described by most of the workers from these churches. One pastor writes, “. . . one man played an important role in my life. On several occasions this man stopped to visit me . . . he would affirm that it was his conviction that God had called me into His service.” It is not surprising that this farmer-salesman’s son became a pastor and another son, who has been in short term service, continues today as an active local church worker. A missionary wife writes, “In our family I feel there were expectations, even occasionally expressed, that they wouldn’t be surprised if I became a missionary or pastor’s wife. I knew that if we made such a decision we would have their full support.” “Older brethren would talk to you in private about this—on the farm, at the grain elevator . . .” says one pastor.

One member points to Elder Heinrich Voth, an early leader of both churches, and Rev. A.J. Wiebe, a long-standing pastor of the Carson church, as models in giving assignments to young people who showed promise of leadership or service. The writer’s experience with several of the Wiebe family indicates they carried on their father’s search for new talent and willing workers. They also gave great personal energies to coach singers, Sunday School teachers and aspiring public speakers. Small wonder, then, that A.J. Wiebe’s children include a pastor and a missionary and that seven of his grandchildren are ministers or missionaries. {17}

The Christian Endeavor program has long been used in these churches to involve young people in service and thereby test their gifts. Fourth to sixth grade boys might be asked to read an opening Scripture at a meeting. The father would stand beside him to reassure and assist if needed and then lead in the opening prayer. Adults were lavish with their compliments for boys who had read well, projected a good voice or showed a bit of flair for facing the awesome audience from the intimidating heights of the platform.

The Mountain Lake Church has been funding a summer internship program for the last four years. Some earnings from a church endowment fund are designated to support the program which has included local workers and a seminarian from another church in the district.

One missionary writes that her parents invited the pastor and deacons to their house once a year, implying that full time Christian service was an item discussed in those visits.

“Our home always had a large number of missionaries and special speakers . . . this consistent exposure impressed on me the value of working full time for the Lord. My home, especially my mother, held Christian service as one of the best things we could do—if the Lord called”, says one pastor. Another pastor explains, “the ministry was never something you did if you failed in other careers, it was a first choice.”

Prayer for workers was cited third in frequency by the survey respondents. One mother organized a weekly prayer meeting early in the life of these churches and saw several of her own children as well as numerous others enter missionary work. Others speak of naming persons in prayer meetings, persons whom they were asking God to call. One pastor says, “My home church took seriously that command of our Lord to ‘pray out laborers.’ This concern permeated the church and provided a healthy setting in which God could work.” Coupling this prayer with specific support such as providing a tuition and book scholarship, encouraged several pastors while in preparation. One pastor mentions that when a Central District minister’s scholarship “dried up” the Carson Church paid his tuition at Tabor College for two years.

The general ethos characterizing the churches is cited by several persons. “I have always felt that for all the energies we young possessed back in the Carson days—some of which was directed positively, some negatively, we were made to feel a part of the worshipping community. Contrary to stories others tell of their early church experience, I felt {18} affirmed, supported and loved. I believe that was significant in the decision I made.”

Another pastor writes, “. . . they weren’t dogmatic about doctrine but living theology was important.” “I was always proud when our pastor was involved in community events. I felt we had the best one in town. That, coupled with a good music program in the church, made me glad genuinely to be a part of the church. This all helped to build an image of church work.”

Schools get the credit for producing workers in the minds of four church members. Two cite a post high school Bible school conducted in the early 1900’s and again in the 30’s and 40’s. Another credits the Christian Day School in Mountain Lake. One person has compiled the names of 29 persons who had entered Christian service work of some kind and indicates that 21 had attended Tabor College, 6 volunteered services as older adults but encouraged their children or others to attend Tabor. “Only two were non-Tabor [people]. . . . To me the above says that there is a greater chance that people will enter Christian service of some sort if they are prepared adequately for Christian living while receiving academic training. Tabor offers such training.”

Two questions asked workers from these churches to specify the sources of their personal call and the encouragements to such a call from the local church. The averages of all responses are given.


Question #4—The sources of vocational decisions are sometimes divided into three categories. Please rate these according to percentage of importance to you when you entered Christian service.

  1. 54% Divine leading (an inner sense of God’s call, however communicated to you)
  2. 15% Natural leading (a sense that you had personal skills, gifts and abilities that could be used well in Christian service)
  3. 29% Social leading (encouragement by family, friends, important leaders around you)
  4. 2% Other. {19}


Question 5—Please indicate the importance of things done by or through your local church to encourage/discourage your decision to enter vocational Christian service. Please indicate by percentages so that the total equals 100.

  1. 37% Appeals by pastors, missionaries or other speakers at public meetings
  2. 19% Personal encouragement of your pastor
  3. 19% Personal encouragement of other church workers such as your Sunday school teacher, youth sponsor, deacon
  4. 17% Personal encouragement of family members
  5. 6% Encouragement of the church as a body. For example, action of call by the church as a body or a church council, small group.
  6. 2% Other.


One general conclusion one can make from these survey responses is that a church reaps what it sows: stress Christian service and missionaries and ministers are produced. These churches stressed missions and the importance of vocational service for the Lord. They programmed for it, prayed for workers, involved themselves in the process of training them and valued the results. So people responded. The experience of other churches would bear this out. The Zoar M. B. Church of Inman, Kansas set a goal to pray out at least one worker in a twelve month period in the early 70’s. The church offered to pay seminary tuition for anyone who came forward. The Lord took such commitment seriously and so did two couples. Both are now in the pastorate in the same district.

Another study seems to bear out this general conclusion. Harold Loewen surveyed 116 persons in three Southern District churches to determine if they had sensed a call to service and, if so, how they had responded, based on several variables of encouragement (Table III). 2 {20}

(Table A4—Harold Loewen Study) 3

Called by God and the Church 15 0
Not called by God nor the church 0 43
Called by God, not the Church 6 7
Called by Church, not by God 0 1
Uncertain of God’s call, church called 1 2
Uncertain of God’s call, no call by church 0 9

The results of this study show that when a person senses a call of God upon his life and the church affirms that call the probability of a positive response is very high (100% in his study). But when a person perceives an inner call of God but it is not affirmed by the church the likelihood of a positive response is cut in half.

Now that may be as it should be. A person may think he has a call of God but misreads the signs. When his/her inner perceptions are not born out by gifts and abilities to fulfill such ambitions nor affirmed by others who observe him/her there may be reason to reevaluate the clarity of the perceived call.


Mennonite Brethren Churches were not alone in sending out workers from the Mountain Lake community. J.A. Schmidt, the first pastor of the Alliance Church in Mountain Lake writes,

Mountain Lake has always been a fruitful place as far as Christian workers are concerned. From 1870, when the town was settled by the Mennonites, till 1920, 100 men and women entered the ministry, an average of two a year. But in the next 40 years, from 1920-1960, there were 250 who entered the ministry, an average of 6 1/2 a year. This is not an estimate, as I have the names of all who entered the ministry from the community. The first 25 years of the Alliance Church in Mountain Lake, 40 young people entered the ministry. 4

More research is needed into the social phenomena of people leaving “worker producing” communities. Cynics might say that one {21} could predict certain behavior based on social patterns whether it were Coaldale or Corn, Mountain Lake or Morden. People will do what is socially acceptable in the peer group. Can it be that some communities produced more young adults than could be absorbed on the farms and in the local businesses? One socially approved way to leave the community was to prepare for mission work or the ministry. But nursing and teaching as occupational choices need to be compared with mission work and the ministry. Perhaps “full time” Christian service is only one of numerous acceptable occupations and sending out is merely a sociological phenomenon of certain communities. 5

The writer would conclude with many others that the call to vocational Christian service has a deeply spiritual dimension. It is rooted in the life and character of a church and the spiritual commitment of its people. Other factors need to be investigated and considered but they will be at best, peripheral to the spiritual center from which the call to service originates.


  1. J. A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church (Fresno: Board of Christian Literature, 1975) and 80th Anniversary: 1877-1957: The Mennonite Brethren Churches of Delft and Mountain Lake, Minnesota, 1957.
  2. Harold Loewen, “The Recruitment of Workers for Evangelism and Church Expansion in the Mennonite Brethren Church” (unpublished M.A. Thesis, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1974).
  3. Loewen, p. 73.
  4. J. A. Schmidt, The Great Revival of 1920 in Mountain Lake, Minnesota (Deland, Florida: J.A. Schmidt, 1968).
  5. J. W. Vogt reported on doctors, teachers, other professionals as well as ministers and missionaries that had come from the Com, Oklahoma community at the 75th anniversary celebrations in that community.
Loyal Martin is a Director of Field Education and Asst. Prof. of Christian Education at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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