Growing up I knew I could serve God in whatever profession I chose. Providing, of course, I chose to be either a missionary or a pastor.
In the particular subculture in which I was raised, those were pretty much the two vocations available to serious Christians. And even within the dyad, there was hierarchy. Missionary was preferred to pastor. If you had a physical condition that made overseas living prohibitive, or had too many children when you applied to be a missionary with our denomination (as was the case with my parents), becoming a pastor was a respectable Plan B.
I remember one traveling missionary thundering, "Every Christian is called to go to the mission field!" This was no metaphor. He wasn't talking about being a "missionary" in your workplace or neighborhood. No, this was drop-a-finger on a map of Africa—and go!
I still appreciate that kind of passion for global missions. But that mentality often had negative, if unintended, consequences. For instance, it devalued "secular" callings. The exclusive focus on "full-time ministry" vocations created a two-tier spirituality. Those in "full-time ministry" were the spiritual one-percenters; bi-vocational ministers and secular workers the second-class Christians.
Sure, a wealthy executive or doctor who lived faithfully for Christ might achieve a modicum of respect in church circles. But spiritually speaking, they were "walking wallets," useful for funding ministry—the real work of the Lord.
Thankfully, we've seen a shift away from that sort of thinking. The sacred-secular line has blurred while the desire to affirm all callings has sharpened. Many now rightfully see all vocations as equally valid ways to glorify God.
"Church leaders are increasingly talking about the mission of God in the world and our role in it," Amy Sherman, author of Kingdom Calling, recently told Christianity Today. "Many leaders realize that if we want people to bring about restoration in the fields of business, law, the arts, and media, we need to think about what it means to be a Christian businessperson, a Christian lawyer, or a Christian journalist."
I applaud this move toward a more holistic understanding of vocation. I've seen numerous books on the topic published in the past few years. Conferences are springing up. What's most heartening is to see some churches, like Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, launching programs to help parishioners think theologically about their vocations. We still have a long way to go, but things are changing. And I'm thankful. Yet amid the excitement to affirm all vocations, I want to offer this caveat. Let's not forget to also honor the call to full-time ministry.
Since graduating from seminary six years ago, I can't think of one former classmate who is now a pastor. For many young Christians today, going into missions or the pastorate is now the second-class option. Doing social work, starting a charity, or working for an NGO—those are the cool vocations. Next to such endeavors the ancient, plodding work of shepherding a congregation seems passé to many. That worries me. If the Christians of yesteryear exalted ministry vocations to unhealthy heights, I fear the pendulum may now be swinging too far in the opposite direction.
All vocations are sacred. Christ calls his people to take the gospel into all worlds. We need lawyers and business people, landscapers and plumbers. But we also need pastors, men and women who devote themselves to serve the church full-time. In our zeal to affirm all callings, let's not forget this. Ministry is still a special, not superior, calling. Nothing has changed since Paul told Timothy that "elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching." When we talk of vocation as holy, let's remember that applies to all callings, even pastoral ones.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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