In the first history class of each new year at Bethel Seminary, I have my students talk about their sense of calling. Many of them tell a similar story: "I quit my job to go into the ministry." What drove them to this decision was a sense of frustration and meaninglessness in their daily work. They didn't see their workas pleasing to God or useful in the kingdom. The frequent assumption is that ordained ministry is where people are really working for God.
If that's true, where does that leave the vast majority of Christians, who by the end of their lives will each have spent an average of 100,000 hours in non-church work? Can they see secular jobs as a holy vocation? Can non-church work be a means to serve others, giving cups of water to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked (Mt. 25)—which (for example) parents do every month, whether through a paycheck or in the work they do in the home? Those in secular work often feel like only those doing things of significance in ministry positions will get to hear the Lord say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
This sense that ordinary work is spiritually second-class isn't so much taught as caught.
For years after graduating from university, I worked in corporate communications. But in my church, I never heard anything suggesting that God approved of any sort of secular work. The only faint praise we heard about secular work was that it was good to have a job and earn money, because then you could give that money to the church—for the real work of God.
Our church would have commissioning services for teenagers going on short-term mission trips, but I never saw a commissioning service for businesspeople, or lawyers, or (heavens!) professors.
Fortunately, when I told my youth pastor about my desire to go into academics, he told me it seemed I was gifted by God to do this work. Simple words, but they struck a deep chord that echoed through my church's resounding silence about work outside its own ministries.
The problem, as I now understand it, starts in our universities, where the classical understanding of vocation (God's calling in whatever sphere you're in) has been exchanged for what essentially amounts to skills training for specific jobs, without any sense of their larger significance. Princeton ethicist Max Stackhouse suggests that the way most of us are trained for work leaves a gaping spiritual void. We are living in what author Gordon Preece calls a "post-vocational world."
"Part of burnout is losing track of your purpose. Now you're working harder and harder, faster and faster for that which is seemingly more and more meaningless," said Jeff Van Duzer, dean of Seattle Pacific University's business school and author of Why Business Matters to God: And What Still Needs to Be Fixed. If only we could truly believe that what we do is "part of the architecture of God's kingdom," this would be a tonic more invigorating than any shot of Five-Hour Energy!
Of course, this is a pragmatic argument: "vocation from necessity." We must also ask: Is there a theological tradition, rooted in Scripture, that affirms "secular," even menial jobs as part of a larger picture of God-given vocation?
In a word, yes.
Vocation in the Bible
The Bible term we translate as "vocation" or "calling," in Hebrew qr', in Greek kaleo, in Latin vocatio, started off meaning the announcement of a message, whether to one or many. The Hebrew qara' could mean crying out suddenly, but also calling or commanding someone to a duty-we hear its echo in the Islamic Qur'an.