Feature

It’s A Gift

Our calling, our vocation and God’s mission

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During my years teaching at Alliance Theological Seminary (Nyack, N.Y.), many students have asked me for guidance in understanding their calling in ministry. They want to be clear and confident that they have heard God correctly. Having a clear sense of calling is crucial to knowing we are acting in the will of God and with His authority. A calling gives us confidence and sustains us over the long haul as we serve God’s Church and mission in the world.

Vocational Skills

The apostle Paul had a deep sense of the importance of calling in the Christian life. In fact, he refers to “calling” more than 30 times in his letters, 12 times in 1 Corinthians alone! In the introduction to that letter, he refers both to his calling and to the calling of those in the church:

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: . . . (1 Cor. 1:1–2; NRSV, emphasis added).

Paul thought calling applied not only to full-time ministers but also to all Christians, no matter their vocation. We are all called by God in Christ to do good works that serve the Church and witness to the power of the gospel that saves and sanctifies us. Some Christians seem to believe that God calls only pastors and missionaries. But we are all called to serve in His Kingdom, whether at home or abroad.

If we really want to understand “calling,” we need some help from another great Christian, Martin Luther (1483–1546). For Luther, the call of God on a Christian life was intimately connected to vocation. New Zealander Alistair MacKenzie writes about Martin Luther’s idea:

Luther’s conception of calling is one of duty rather than position. He understands calling as a call to service that comes to a Christian within the midst of their sphere of work. Hence vocation is primarily a summons to work for a neighbour’s sake within one’s estate. In this sense a vocation is distinguished from a person’s work; ‘the eyes of God regard not works but our obedience in them.’ As a result, vocation requires a right use of one’s office . . . For Luther [and the apostle Paul] all work is understood to be divinely appointed, not just some particular offices. Everyone is called. No calling is more spiritual than any other. Work is part of God’s creation. Work was instituted not just because of sin, but even before the fall. (Alistair MacKenzie. Faith and Work: Martin Luther Accessed July 2, 2008.)

Does it take a special call of God to serve as a pastor or missionary? I think the best answer to that question is that it takes a special calling of God to serve in any vocation as a Christian. No one should offer to serve as a pastor or missionary without a clear sense of God’s call to work in these capacities. On the other hand, no Christian should enter any job without the calling of God. Whatever our vocation, Christians are to testify to the work of Jesus on the cross and initiate the coming Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.

In my role with the International Fellowship of Alliance Professionals (IFAP), I get to see firsthand how Alliance laypeople answer God’s call to serve around the world. IFAP is a resource to about 150 believers who consider their vocations as gifts to be offered back to God. Brothers and sisters in various vocations—teachers, business people and medical personnel, to name a few—are being led to use their professions in His service in other nations.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

One of my former students, an engineer, left a well-paying job in the United States to serve as a plant manager in an overseas industrial city. The work was heavy, and employer–employee relations were different from U.S. standards. Corruption was fairly common; maintaining quality products took a lot of his energy.

At first, this family found it very challenging. The city is crowded, living space is limited and the noise and air pollution are significant. Their children had to adjust both to home schooling and to being in the local school part-time. My student’s wife, a successful businesswoman, has had to accept new roles. But step-by-step, the family is making progress. In the process, their vocation has been the means of fulfilling the larger calling of God on their lives.

Along with his coworkers, my student has been able to start fellowship times with some of his staff via video conferencing and with laborers in the factory through a library, a small café and a recreation center. Free medical clinics and community celebrations have brought the family into deeper relationships with the factory workers.

The result is that nearly 400 people now follow Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Calling and vocation aside, this is an act of God. Only He could turn so many hearts toward Himself, especially among those who previously had little knowledge of Him. But this is just how God loves to work.

A New World

In the midst of our daily lives—tending sheep in Abraham’s case and catching fish in Peter’s—God calls us into service using the very vocation He gifted us with. Then, to our great surprise, He does more than anyone could ask or imagine.

Many stories could be told about how God is using Alliance professionals to build His Church. But our world is not safe, and security concerns keep us from sharing too much. Nevertheless, you and I can pray for the men and women who are teaching, healing, creating jobs and training people as they share the good news through their vocations.

As the cost of sending traditional missionaries increases rapidly, the Church must find new avenues for taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. The Alliance and the worldwide Church need Christians who see their vocation as a gift from God and a means to fulfilling their calling in Christ. Paul wrote to the elders of the church in Ephesus:

I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:33–35).

Work It Out

What vocation has God given you? Have you turned it over to Him for His use in the Kingdom? Have you heard clearly from God to discern your calling? Maybe its time to give some thought to these questions. If you do, don’t be surprised if God asks you to take your work into unexpected places! Before you go too fast, however, let me suggest a few things.

  • If you don’t have experience leading people to Jesus and discipling them in faith, get some.
  • Anyone going into another culture to live and work needs cross-cultural training. Even so, the challenges are almost always greater than expected. Experience and training are often the difference between short-circuited, frustrated ministry and fruitful longevity in missions.
  • Talk to others who have done it.
  • Visit tentmakers in the field and ask God to confirm your calling with a passion for the ministry and a peace about facing the many challenges that will come your way.

Contact me through IFAP@cmalliance.org for information about how to pursue your vocational calling through IFAP. You might also consider taking an online course called Tentmaking as Mission Strategy and/or People as Social and Cultural Beings through Alliance Theological Seminary. The first course will introduce you to many issues related to being a tentmaker in missions. The second course will teach you some of the dynamics of cross-cultural ministry.

—Stephen Bailey

Past Alliance Life Issues

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