by Skye Jethani
For years I served as a teaching pastor at my church, but then left the pastoral team to pursue a calling outside the institutional church. For the first time since graduating from seminary, I found myself in the pews more often than in the pulpit. It changed my perspective. Working as a writer and editor, traveling more often, and juggling a young family left very little discretionary time in my schedule. There was simply no way I could participate in everything the church was asking me to do while also fulfilling the calling God had given me to pursue outside the church.
Within a few months, I understood how most of my congregation felt. And I realized how insensitive and guilt-inducing many of my past sermons had been. In sermon after sermon I had called them to give more time, more money, more energy to the work of the church. Little did I understand or affirm their callings in the world.
I had inadvertently created a secular/sacred divide in which the “sacred” calling of the church was pitted against their “secular” callings in the world. I never said this explicitly, of course, but it was implied.
Later I was invited to preach again. This time my message included an apology for my failure to understand the value of their work outside the church. The sermon was met with shouts of “Amen!”—not a common occurrence in our predominantly Anglo suburban congregation. Why did it take me so long to see my error, and why did I have to leave pastoral ministry to recognize it? Part of the problem is history.
Centuries ago the word vocation, meaning literally “a calling,” applied only to bishops, priests, and monks—those occupying offices within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It was believed that the clergy had been called by God. They alone had a vocation while everyone else merely worked.
The idea dates back to Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century. He wrote that Christ had established two ways of life, the “perfect life” and the “permitted life.” The perfect life was the one God called the clergy to—a life of prayer, worship, and service to Christ through the church. Other occupations, while necessary, carried less dignity. The labor of farmers, artists, merchants, and homemakers was not evil, but neither was it blessed, nor were these roles callings from God. After all, they were concerned with the things of earth, while the clergy were occupied with the things of heaven.
This hierarchy of labor went largely unchallenged until the Protestant Reformation. Leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin called Christians back to the authority of Scripture, and there they found no justification for the exaltation of the clergy or the abasement of other labor. They read in the New Testament that everyone should work and do “something with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need” (Eph. 4:28). This was more than a rebuke of laziness; it was an affirmation of work, including physical labor, as a way of blessing others and manifesting Christian love. The Reformers also recognized that worship of God was not limited to one’s time in a cathedral. God received glory in the ordinary activities of life, including work.
“The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone.”
With this recalibration of the doctrine of vocation, many came to view their labor differently, not as menial labor to be endured but as a God-ordained calling to be pursued with religious zeal. It resulted in a new devotion to work that historians refer to as “the Protestant work ethic,” and it was coupled with a vision that Christ was actively engaged in every part of the world—not just the church.
This new understanding meant things suddenly mattered that the church had long ago abandoned. Commerce, agriculture, government, and the home became honored and even holy arenas in which to serve God. And a person determined where to serve the same way clergy did—by listening for Christ’s call upon his life.
Later the Puritans gave added nuance and dimension to this theology of vocation.
There are three levels of calling:
First, a Christian’s highest calling is to abide in communion with Christ.
Second, all Christians also share a set of common callings. These are the many commands of Scripture that apply to all of God’s children in every time and place. These include instructions to love one another, pray for those who persecute you, forgive those who wrong you, give to those in need, honor your father and mother, do not steal, do not covet, do not commit adultery, be prepared to share about your hope in Christ, and hundreds of other commands.
Third, each Christian will also have a specific calling that God directs him or her to accomplish.
The second level, our common callings, are what most churches focus upon today. The reason is simple—common callings are easy to discover. One simply opens the Bible and reads them. Having read Ephesians, Pastor Brian can stand before his congregation on Sunday with divine authority and say, “Husbands, love your wives.” This is the common calling of all married Christians, but Pastor Brian cannot cite chapter and verse to proclaim a specific calling, like, “Sally, go to law school.”
A specific calling, which is what we often mean when we use the word vocation, requires Sally to live in communion with God and discern her call directly. While her specific calling may be blessed and confirmed by members of her community, as Paul and Barnabas experienced in Acts 13, it cannot be discovered without the illuminating role of God’s Spirit in her life.
Herein lies the problem. In many of our Christian communities, we may affirm the Spirit as a doctrinal truth, but the reality of his presence is often ignored.
As a result Christians are not equipped to engage either their highest calling (communion with God), or discern their specific calling (vocation). What remains is the one thing the church can access without the Spirit’s presence—Scripture.
While God-given and certainly good, our common callings as captured in the Bible constitute only one facet of our Christian life, and without the presence of the Spirit, we remain powerless to follow these commands as well.
For this reason if Christians do not grasp their highest calling to live in vibrant, continual communion with God through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, then neither our common nor specific callings can be properly engaged. If we get our highest calling right, however, and welcome the reality of the Spirit into our lives, then in most cases the other dimensions of our calling take care of themselves.
By neglecting the doctrines of our highest and specific callings, the contemporary church has also found itself employing a leadership model that looks more like a corporation in which a centralized organization determines everyone’s role. Drawn by the efficiency and success of corporations, many pastors have been told to think of themselves as CEOs. They articulate a mission, set goals, rally people and resources, and align them all to accomplish a single task.
In this model the senior leader is the individual hearing from God, and the work of the institutional church is what ultimately gets all the attention. Whether a person is a nurse, farmer, architect, or shopkeeper is irrelevant, as long as she or he is supporting the church’s vision with finances and volunteer time. A person’s value, in this model, is determined by how closely she or he aligns with the institutional church’s vision.
Often the mission articulated in this model is rooted in Scripture and part of our common calling, such as the call to “make disciples” or to “serve the least of these.” Who would disagree with the importance of these works?
Still, when these callings are untethered from our highest call (commune with God) or the specific call Christ has given to each of his followers, it can do great damage. When this happens the institutional church’s work soon becomes all-consuming and many Christians develop a suspicion that the church’s leaders really care only about advancing their institution’s agenda. They begin to feel like the church is using them rather than loving them.
Resistance to the sacred/secular divide and to the expectation that one’s first commitment should be to the institutional church is especially evident among the younger adults I have engaged. While earlier generations may have valued the idea of surrendering their lives and fortunes to an institution, the young today do not. In fact, they are increasingly suspicious of large organizations. According to Gallup, forty years ago 68 percent of Americans reported having a strong or high confidence in the church. Today it is down to 44 percent, and among the young it is even lower.
This generation’s lack of response to the institutional church’s call has left many pastors flummoxed. They mistakenly believe it is a matter of style. “If we just change our music, add some candles, and turn up the ‘cool’ factor, more young people will engage,” they assume. Others blame it on immaturity. One pastor asked me, “How do I get a generation that doesn’t believe in commitment to commit to the church?” Maybe the problem is the object of the commitment.
I do not believe the problem is style or immaturity; it is a church that has lost a theology of vocation. We fail to see beyond our common callings to either the believer’s highest call (God) or specific call (vocation).
Younger people today, perhaps more than previous generations, have a strong sense of their specific calling. They believe God has called them into business, the arts, government, the household, education, the media, the social sector, or health care, and they are often very committed to these venues of cultural engagement. But when their specific callings are never acknowledged by the church, and instead only our common callings or the goal of the institutional church is extolled, the young feel like something important is missing.
Rather than embracing the fullness of the Christian life comprising multiple facets—highest, common, and specific callings—the church unknowingly communicates that following Christ is a tension between sacred callings and secular work. Often the message is: “You must sacrifice your specific, secular calling to do more of the sacred work that’s important to the institutional church,” this guilt-laden message is one a young, jaded generation is much less likely to tolerate. It is seen as a self-serving power play by church leaders even if, like me, they never intended it to be. The ancient error of Eusebius is alive and well in the evangelical church today.
Does this mean the institutional church should stop emphasizing our common callings or its evangelistic work? Absolutely not! Rather, it is vital that the church rediscover the God-given dignity of all callings and how they fit together.
It is not the pastor’s task to wrestle more people away from “secular” engagements in order to help him accomplish his “sacred” work, but to erase these categories in the lives of those he leads in order that Christ might come to reign over all parts of their lives and world.
Echoing the Protestant reformers and the Puritans, Dallas Willard recognizes the danger of dividing our work into departments and the destructive illusion it fosters. He says,
“There truly is no division between sacred and secular except what we have created. And that is why the division of the legitimate roles and functions of human life into the sacred and secular does incalculable damage to our individual lives and the cause of Christ. Holy people must stop going into ‘church work’ as their natural course of action and take up holy orders in farming, industry, law, education, banking, and journalism with the same zeal previously given to evangelism or to pastoral and missionary work.”
If we are to embrace this united view then we must advance a new vision for Christian engagement in the world, employ a new model of leadership, and create a new spirit of affirmation that values each person’s specific, Christ-given call within our churches.
The constant noise of the digital age requires us to work that much harder to remain focused on our individual passions and the good work to which God has called us. God wants us to feel passionate about our work because what we do reflects the person we are called to serve—Jesus. Our series, Vocation Focus, will inspire you with stories, Bible reflections, and practical tips. Click now to read more about Vocation Focus.