Hi there. I’m a former mega church youth pastor turned designer and entrepreneur. For nearly fifteen years now, I’ve pretty much hidden the fact I spent 7 years of my life working in full-time ministry: 5 of them at a 12,000 person mega-church.
Why the silence?
Well, on the one hand, I was fearful. Fearful of using my ministry experience as a cheesy calling card to court business from other Christians – seeking to secure contracts based on my “Christian-ness” rather than my skill. That’s always terrified me and I’ve probably over-corrected at times, in steering away from it. On the other, more influential hand, when I stepped away from full-time ministry to attend college and engage in business, I quickly grew tired of constantly defending my interest in design and business from the derogatory onslaught of well-intentioned full-time ministry friends who accused me of drinking a dangerous cocktail of backsliding and love for the world. This derogatory criticism (or concerned rebuke, depending on your vantage point), rose on a few select occasions, to the point where I was impassionately warned I was making myself unworthy of God’s kingdom – the sad result of supposedly “taking my hand off he plow.” (Luke 9:62)
After a couple years slogging through this, it became evident the easiest path forward was to bury my official ministry experience from my record, and move forward as if it never happened.
Which begs the question, why mention it now, after almost a decade-and-a-half of relative silence?
Especially considering that the last 15 years have been full of tremendous joys, from the birth of 4 children, to working with reputable organizations, to relocating to the sunshine state, to getting my butt kicked during the Great Recession, to launching my own products, to rediscovering my enjoyment of tennis, to finding a consistently stable church home – the list of God’s visible mercies has been extensive.
In light of these mercies, why, now, 15 years later, would I want to dredge up memories – my transition into and exit from official full-time ministry – that were such a source of pain and confusion?
Well, first, throughout those fifteen years, in spite of the many mercies we have experienced, there has been one perpetually notable absence, namely, the presence of deeply meaningful relationships with other Christian business owners. Save a few thoroughly treasured relationships, this has been a well that has run far too frequently dry.
I’d like for that to change.
Second, as a mid-thirties business owner, husband, father and church member, I’d like to help younger people (my children included) think more clearly on the doctrine of vocation than I did, so that, as they approach life decisions, they will do so with as much humility, clarity and peace as possible.
Third, I continue to see family, friends and acquaintances be negatively impacted by the propagation of this secular vs. sacred divide, and have concluded that remaining silent and not sharing some of the things I have gleaned on vocation is negligent on my part. I’m hopeful that sharing my experience and lessons learned will help encourage family and friends who are currently in the midst of challenging circumstances wrought by the American mega-church culture.
For these three things to happen, we must improve our understanding of vocation, a doctrine, which to be quite frank, American evangelicalism has mangled.
In my observation, this is no one’s fault in particular. In fact, I think pastors and congregations work in unison to distort the beauty of vocation. In the more unhealthy scenarios I’ve seen, pastors pressure congregations into serving the church with more time, money, leading or volunteering, and then assign higher levels of spirituality to those who serve more. Congregations then begin to compete with each other to see who is most spiritual, rewarding the “winners” with more responsibilities and often a platform to recruit more competitors.
For these two things to happen, we must improve our understanding of vocation, a doctrine, which to be quite frank, the American Church has mangled.
Now, there is clearly nothing wrong with serving other Christians in the context of a local church. In fact, there is much good in it and much has been written about the biblical commands to serve others in a local church. Amazingly, even, there is both biblical precedence to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10) and a charge to “stir one another up to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). Serving people through your local church is good, and you should get busy doing it if you are currently idle.
In light of the fact church service is good, and so my point is clear – that it is not church service itself I am here critiquing, but rather the understanding of church service as adopted and practiced by American evangelicalism – it would be helpful to rewind 20 years to when I initially began wrestling with the idea of vocation.
REWIND TO 1996
Back in 1996, I didn’t know it had a fancy name – “vocation” – attached to it. All I knew was that I began to vigorously wrestle with the idea of first- and second-rate callings between my junior and senior years of high school. It was during this time that I was introduced to Christ at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in Estes Park, CO. I still vividly remember the Wyoming football lineman who said (paraphrasing) “you all understand that sacrifice is required to be a successful athlete, in the same way, sacrifice is required to be a good Christian. No parties, no secular music, no R-rated movies, arising early to have a quiet time. If you want to be a high-performing Christian, sacrifice and the results will follow.”
Somehow, the Lord grabbed hold of me during that summer, and graciously used that performance driven hook to eventually lead me to the doctrines of grace.
When I left camp that summer I sincerely doubted my new found commitment would make it through the remainder of summer. Doubts driving me, I quickly implemented one of the prescriptions the Wyoming footballer had outlined: get involved with your youth group, which I immediately did with gusto.
Volunteering at the mid-week youth group meeting, quickly transitioned into participating in a weekend internship, which itself transitioned into summer mission trips, then a full-time, year-long internship, and eventually, a multi-year full-time job as the high school youth pastor, then a year-long job as a middle school pastor at another church.
The transition to the full-time internship was where the wrestling match began in earnest, for it meant deciding between choosing one of several scholarships to play college tennis or temporarily postponing those scholarships in order to pursue a (supposedly) more worthy calling – that of full-time ministry.
(Bear in mind, I have no delusions of grandeur and my understanding of God’s sovereignty has begrudgingly grown to include His sovereignty over confused theology, advice and decisions. So the questions I seek to answer now are not “what if” questions, but “why” and “how” questions. Specifically, why did the idea of first- and second-rate callings exist and how can I now work to help others avoid this faulty thinking in the future?)
Going against the advice of my parents (obey the 5th commandment kids!), and even the writings in my journal (sheesh, youth can be so impressionable!) I decided to postpone college tennis for the one-year internship. Little harm, little foul. I use “little” instead of “no”, because even though I was using “postpone” as the modus operandi, the wedge between sacred and secular was driven deeper and deeper as the year passed. To the point which, after the internship ended, what started as a question of “temporary postponement” morphed into a question of “permanent obedience” – was I now going to disobey the Lord and run from my (supposedly) higher calling of church work in order to pursue the (supposedly) inferior calling of college and tennis?
Over the next several years the wedge became a diabolical master. Confusion reigned. Was not God sovereign over my previous 16 years of competitive tennis playing? In my present, Presbyterian, reformed self, I say, “Yes and amen!” But then, college and tennis were not “yes and amen!” but “get behind me satan!” Instead of talents I was responsible to steward well, they were temptations I must resist.
Instead of talents I was responsible to steward well, they were temptations I must resist.
Again, I have no delusions of grandeur. If I had pursued college tennis, I would have been one of thousands of guys to have played Division I level tennis, likely competing in a few satellites (semi-pro tournaments) post-graduation, before running out of money, and coming to the realization that I didn’t have the chops to cut it as an elite professional athlete.
There is no benefit in trying to answer the question “what would have happened if I would have played college tennis?” by speculating at various levels of success I may have attained on the tennis court. That is completely immaterial and not at all the reason I am writing this. There is benefit, however, in asking “what would have happened if I would have been instructed that it was my responsibility as a Christian to learn contentment and faithfulness” regardless of which option I chose? I’m not saying asking the latter would have made my life a bed of roses, but it has become my conviction that this is the message – learn contentment and faithfulness – that pastors and mature Christians need to declare to young people as they approach life decisions, and remind them of as those decisions progress.
The idea promoted should not have been “you need to choose between a first- and second-rate calling”, but “you need to learn to be a faithful steward in whatever sphere of responsibility the Lord places you in.” When it comes to living the Christian life and making choices about your future, the message should always be “learn contentment and faithfulness” regardless of what you do (Psalm 37:3). Absent this message, my soul anxiously spun away the next several years doubtfully looking for the backsliding in every desire and temptation in every decision – incessantly trying in vain to be assured I was in “God’s perfect will”.
When it comes to living the Christian life and making choices about your future, the message should always be “learn contentment and faithfulness” regardless of what you do (Psalm 37:3).
Fueled by the mantra of “high-octane, Red Bull Christianity” that sought the moxie to believe God had some special sauce waiting for me just around the corner – attainable if I just amped the zeal up, o-n-e m-o-r-e n-o-t-c-h, the Lord slowly began to challenge my acquiescence to the idea of first- and second-rate callings, even the mere existence of a sacred vs. secular divide.
He did this by slowly turning me towards an interest in graphic design, the Internet (Flash ActionScript anyone?) and eventually education, college and business school.
THE TURNING POINT
The turning point in the Lord beginning to iron out my faulty notion of first- and second-rate callings came about via events that turned out to be the most painful experience of my time in full-time occupational ministry. One Thursday afternoon, a 14-year-old girl came in for counseling at the request of her stepmother. This young girl was visibly distraught and spent most of the hour crying. I attempted to discover what was troubling her – asking her and her stepmother questions – and trying best I could to discern whatever issues were going on. After not making much progress, I directed her and her step mother to “come all you who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). I opened Pilgrim’s Progress and read how Christian’s pack miraculously loosened when he came to the cross. The young girl expressed interest in both these ideas and we agreed to meet again the following Tuesday.
The appointment time on Tuesday came and passed. I figured a scheduling conflict had arisen or they had forgotten. No big deal, we’d just reschedule. Or not. That afternoon, the stepmother called to inform me of some very sad and shocking news. The 14-year-old girl had committed suicide that morning.
The 14-year-old girl had committed suicide that morning.
I hung up the phone and cried. I began racking my brain over what signs I could have missed in the Thursday appointment that would have indicated she was suicidal and not simply suffering from normal adolescent emotions. I replayed how I presented Matthew 11:28 and the analogy from Pilgrim’s Progress. Did I present those ideas in such a way that conveyed suicide was the path to apprehend the “rest” we discussed? I had dealt with lots of youth group drama and heartache during the previous 4 years, but nothing that came close to something as disheartening as this. It was devastating for everyone involved.
And it got worse. A church which had a few months prior announced that it wouldn’t officially ordain me because I was “too young”, decided that I should oversee the funeral service. So at the behest of the leaders who continued to implore me to embrace my (supposedly) first-rate calling, I forced my unordained, untrained 21-year-old self, to the front of a 2,000 seat auditorium to conduct my first funeral service ever, for a girl I had met only once, who had committed suicide 4 days after counseling her.
It would have been one thing if my first funeral was for a venerable 92-year-old saint. Sure I would have been nervous, but at least I could have constructed an outline to the service which focused on the promises of God to his children, the heavenly bliss he/she was now experiencing and all the wonderful memories surrounding this long-time Christian’s life and service.
Prior to that funeral, I had preached in front of a couple hundred kids every week for 3 years. I had preached in front of a couple thousand at annual, city-wide evangelical events. However, having entered the faith on an impassioned appeal to perform, I had spent those years as youth pastor echoing the same impassioned appeals to be a high-performing Christian. Performance and sacrifice had been my loud rallying cry and it was all I knew.
When confronted with the stark finality of death, and somber reality of comforting the living who were just as confused about this poor girl’s eternal state as I was, all of a sudden I felt immensely small and woefully unprepared. What I knew as Christianity up to that point – namely, hyped up calls to adrenaline fueled performance – was painstakingly out of place in this moment. What was I supposed to do? Get in front of the couple hundred friends and family sitting in the modern, seeker friendly seats and say “well, kids, this unfortunate circumstance is a blunt reminder that you all need to continue to count the cost of your discipleship, and if you, or anyone else present here today, slacks off in their commitment, you may end up committing suicide just like this girl did. So rededicate your life now so that you don’t become another suicide statistic!”
And this is where the emperor was revealed to have no clothes: absent impassioned calls to be a high-performance, adrenaline-junkie Christian, I had absolutely nothing to say.
Presiding over your first funeral service minutes after realizing your entire playbook for Christianity is lacking at best, fraudulent at worst, and either way, completely insufficient for the tragedy at hand is a very unsettling experience. The entire service remains a blur to this day. I continue to wake up in starts a couple times a year from nightmares of presiding over that service: sweating bullets, lurched over the pulpit, clutching it with white knuckles, checking on the senior pastor’s executive assistant who sat perched far off in the balcony taking notes – presumably rating how well I was embracing my (supposedly) higher calling. The only comfort I can draw from this terrible providence is knowing that God’s mercy overrules my frailty and failure and trust that He brought at least a shred of good out of what otherwise was an abject disaster.
I went home that day lower in spirit than I had ever thought possible. I told my wife that night how terribly unequipped for ministry I was and told her I was contemplating seminary.
So four years after graduating high school, I quietly enrolled in 2 night classes at the local community college – college Algebra and Logic 101. A few weeks after the semester started, I excitedly told the other pastors that I had enrolled and that I was contemplating seminary.
“You mean cemetery?! Dude! That’s where you go to have your faith die!”
“You mean cemetery?!” came their reply. “Dude! That’s where you go to have your faith die!” Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised by their response one bit. After all, these were the same gentlemen who had cast doubt and guilt on my talents for college and tennis five years prior. But it still hurt. I’ll lump all the emotional drama that transpired over the next few months to being akin to getting blasted with a firehose of unpredictable, ADHD riddled doublespeak and simply say that given their disdain for education, and after several long discussions with my wife and father-in-law, within a few months, I decided to resign from the mega-church and enroll in college full-time.
BACK TO SCHOOL AND BACKSLIDING
In order to make ends meet, I worked 25 hours a week at Starbucks and 25 hours a week at a local design firm while enrolled full-time at the University of New Mexico. We initially decided to remain at the same church, in order to continue the relationships we had with several of the teenagers who attended the youth group.
Within the first week, it became apparent this would be difficult to maintain. The second Sunday after officially not being on staff anymore I was confronted after service by two pastors who were concerned I was sacrificing my family at the alter of school and two part-time jobs. Somehow sacrificing my family at the alter of 50-60 hour weeks serving the church had God’s stamp of approval, but doing it for education and paying bills was sinful. When they pressed and cornered me for an answer, I grew frustrated and gestured that I had big, bulky cojones, then turned around and walked away. Somehow, we continued to show up for Sunday service for another 6 months. Finally, the constant concern over my supposed backsliding grew too much to bear, and we left to seek out another church in the area.
Leaving the mega-church was a huge relief. Yet our naiveté and the pervasiveness of the sacred vs. secular divide would be proven again. After visiting a couple churches, within a few months I was offered a job as a part-time middle school pastor at a much smaller church. On the night the elders and congregation voted to pick one of the three people who had candidated for the position, I told my wife, “I sure hope they don’t pick me. I don’t think I’m ready for this again.” The next morning I got the call officially offering me the job. My heart sank. Deep down I knew I wasn’t emotionally ready, but for purely pragmatic reasons (more pay than Starbucks for equal the hours – with your first child in the proverbial oven you think about these things) I put on a front and went for it.
Unlike the mega-church, this church embraced education, but the divide between sacred and secular was still surprisingly present. Gone were the glowing introductions of, “This is Brandon, he gave up college tennis to serve the Lord at this mega-church.” But in its place was, “This is Brandon, he’s going to college so he can go to seminary and be a pastor.” Perhaps a less aggressive form but still as prevalent.
For the next year, things went relatively well. The part-time middle school pastor job replaced Starbucks while I continued at the design firm. As I progressed through my first year of full-time college I began to discover an interest in business. I started getting ideas for different businesses. A desire arose to run my own design firm and establish my own client base. As these desires for design and business increased, the high-school pastor at the new church informed me he was leaving the church to pursue a different opportunity and that he had, in fact, recruited me as the middle-school pastor in order to take his place. The emotional injuries I covered when taking the position quickly resurfaced. I felt tricked and manipulated again and very confused. Why were these desires for design and business rising within me simultaneously while another church was preparing to make me full-time high-school pastor again?
Either a secular vs. sacred divide didn’t exist or my desires for college, tennis and business school really were signs that I was backsliding. This was simply too much to handle so close on the heels of the mega-church injuries. I felt so burnt and jaded over the previous first- and second-rate calling experience that I simply refused to accent to it again. Before the high-school pastor could announce his leaving, and my replacement of him, I beat him to the punch and abruptly quit occupational ministry, deciding to focus exclusively on school and business full-time.
Amazingly, even this didn’t stop the calls to apprehend a (supposedly) higher calling. After the middle-school gig, more calls to ministry came in rapid succession: an offer to be the family pastor at a YR&R church, an offer to plant a church in the suburbs of Albuquerque, an offer to be the research assistant to a senior pastor and an offer to participate in a “pastoral training program” at a reformed Baptist church. When I didn’t heed the solemn warnings of my closest friends that business school indicated I was falling in love with the world, those friendships slowly began to grow cold and distant.
Looking back, I say, “Wow, given the plethora of ministry opportunities maybe I really was called to ministry and I’ve been running all these years.” But, at that point in time I simply didn’t trust anyone’s motives in asking me to participate in their ministry. I felt more like a free-agent everyone was trying to claim off mega-church waivers, than a valued brother in Christ. More importantly, through all of the experiences and ministry offers, no one ever said, “Brandon, stop stressing over your calling. It’s not about what you do, but how you do it.” Well, no one alive anyway.
About a year before I left the mega-church, a few of my friends became reformed, 5-point Calvinists overnight. The catalyst? Puritan Paperbacks which the mega-church (surprisingly) sold in their bookstore. Upon discovering these young men had become Calvinists by reading the Puritan Paperbacks, the mega-church’s senior pastor pulled, then banned such books from the bookstore. In their place, books criticizing Calvinism appeared. Timelessly laughable classics like Free to Choose were promoted with gusto. Shockingly, the removal of the Puritan Paperbacks made me really want to read them. What was in these books that would warrant their banishment from the bookstore? I just had to find out! So I got online and ordered the entire set. Over the next few months I ordered 25 volumes of Spurgeon sermons, the complete works of Jonathan Edwards, and books by other reformed thinkers such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli.
When I said, “at least no one alive” above, I meant it. These famous Christian dead guys (nod to ATD) were the only ones who seemed to not only be de-emphasizing performance based Christianity, they were going so far as to equate it with things like false-piety and pharisaicalism. Instead of praising and promoting Worldly Wisdom, they were warning against it. Instead of outward performance metrics they were championing heart examination and humility. Instead of exhorting people to be mini-messiahs and Christian super heroes they were calling people to look preeminently to the Messiah.
These voices were saying the exact opposite of what I had heard throughout my short Christian life. Instead of calling me to perform, they called me to perpetually look in faith to the One who performed perfectly for me.
And today, as then, when I’m tempted to think, in light of all the ministry opportunities that sat before me, that I’ve been running from a calling to ministry, I can’t help but ask myself, “how beneficial would it have been to people for me to continue in ministry and proactively promote a performance driven, first- and second-rate calling paradigm – one that I have increasingly grown to see as damaging to the Christian?” Today, I’d much rather be outside full-time ministry, convinced that “high-octane, performance-based Christianity” is not the gospel, albeit, a conclusion that has come through many bumps and bruises, than I would be sitting here as a full-time occupational minister, continuing to drive this destructive wedge of doubt and confusion into other Christians’ lives.
A false dilemma? Perhaps. Who’s to say the Lord wouldn’t have united sacred and secular in my mind while I was in ministry? No one can be sure, but an interesting anecdotal observation: of the several young men/full-time ministry friends I met during my time in full-time ministry, they have fallen into, almost without exception, one of two camps. Either they have remained in full-time ministry, continuing to sound the high-octane, clarion call of first- and second-rate callings or they have blown out and walked away from the faith altogether. I can think of one who has united the sacred and secular and has become a PCA pastor. I can think of another who has united the sacred and secular and embraced his job in real estate and is serving as a member of an EPC church. Anecdotal for sure, but I think also telling.
BACK TO THE PRESENT
There’s a lot of stuff above to digest. Even though I’ve tried my best (I’ve been editing this post for several weeks – and have sat on it for a couple months) to present my points clearly, it may still read as a sloppy, stream of consciousness confessional at times. If this is the case, please forgive me. I’m trying to cram two decades of providential lessons on calling and vocation experiences into a single blog post, which is much harder than I thought it would be.
I know this post isn’t exhaustive, and again, so my point isn’t lost in broad historical recapping, my intent for writing this post is to challenge American evangelicalism’s view on first- and second-rate calling and encourage Christians to think differently about vocation. Having shown my difficulty with it, I’d like to spend the remainder focusing on the positive aspects of how I’ve come to understand vocation, with four specific goals in mind:
1) I’m hopeful this post will help young people avoid some of the painful, confusing mistakes I made;
2) I’m hopeful this post will help catalyze healing to some who may have had similarly painful experiences as I have had;
3) I’m hopeful this post will encourage current business owners and professionals to embrace their calling, focused on “faithfulness and contentment” rather than doubt and guilt;
4) I’m hopeful (but least so on this point) that pastors will stop promoting a sacred vs. secular divide in their churches and preaching ministries.
You see the real problem with embracing the sacred vs. secular divide is not the choice between full-time church job and college tennis, but the assigning of spiritual value to full-time church job and carnal value to college tennis. The result? Instead of teaching a young Christian their responsibility to be a faithful steward in all God brings into their life, it teaches young Christians to be discontent elitists, charged with making sure other Christians don’t settle for second-rate callings either.
In my experience, the calls to serve more, give more, sacrifice more, outdo your fellow Christian more – typically are calls to serve the pastor’s vision. When this is the case, churches find themselves in resource battles where the pastor is essentially saying, “Instead of using your time and talents to build your career or business (which are supposedly superficial and temporary), you should divert your resources to build my vision (which is supposedly spiritual and eternal).” My observation has been that too many pastors cast doubt on talents that do not expressly serve the pastor’s vision or cannot be exploited to bolster the pastor’s brand. Instead of exhorting Christians to faithfully embrace their God-given responsibilities, they cast doubt and guilt upon those very responsibilities.
The result is an institution (popular evangelicalism) that busies itself with building its own brand(s) (individual churches), rather than faithfully building up ordinary people to faithfully do ordinary things. Instead of encouraging Christians to work themselves to the point of exhaustion everyday, serving and honoring God in their workplaces and various other callings, the culture condemns Christians for hard, “secular” work, insinuating that such work shows misplaced affections and an inordinate love for the world. The solution? Sometimes it includes guilting them into jumping from the secular ship to instead work their knuckles to the bone (often for free!) in service of building the sacred brand (aka my mega-church experience). Other times it includes equating an ordinary life with a wasted life (and who wants to waste their life?!) which fosters a grating discontent for ordinary jobs. This discontent then sets to work condemning the poor believer throughout their workday. Instead of confidently and productively working in their calling, they suffer under the unnecessary condemning burden that they are wasting their life. Both of these “solutions” are a convoluted understanding of vocation at best, a destructively manipulative tool at worst.
Both of these “solutions” are a convoluted understanding of vocation at best, a destructively manipulative tool at worst.
Certainly there is a level of obsession with any work that can be dangerous to the Christian. A dedication to work that causes you to be unfaithful in the several other callings God has given you (including church service), unquestionably needs to be questioned. But in my experience, the work I have seen chastised and questioned by pastors over the years, rarely rises to this level, but instead simply competes for resources that the pastor judges could otherwise be used to bolster a his vision and mission. In my experience, pastors too frequently view the good old-fashioned, God-glorifying hard work of their congregants as a misallocation of time and resources that could otherwise be directed towards building the pastor’s own interests and brand, and therefore condemn such work as demonstrative of an inordinate love of the world.
Pastors who encourage (passively or proactively) their congregants to be negligent in ordinary callings in order to build their own vision, hinder the work of Christ in the world and hamstring the Church in it’s usefulness and effectiveness.
At its center, vocation embraces a strong God who wisely and sovereignly doles out gifts, talents, interests and abilities to individuals, calls those individuals to Himself, then calls them to be faithful stewards over those gifts – demonstrating Christian love, compassion and sanctification as they administer those gifts in the world.
In this light, the “left their nets” language so often used to foster discontent with “ordinary” callings, becomes an abandoning of old, carnal heart and soul affections, rather than a call to throw everything on CraigsList and hop the first plane to India. After all, does not God have Indian Christians serving His purposes in India? And does He not have specific purposes for you, in your current responsibilities, exactly where you are? Acts 17:26 seems to think so.*
It has become my conclusion that full-time occupational ministry should be the exception, not the rule, and it certainly should NOT be the expectation placed on everyone who names the name of Christ. What boggles my mind is that pastors know this and some even preach it, yet, there still remains in far too many corners of American Evangelicalism a divide between sacred and secular, an ideal and less-than-ideal notion to calling that I suspect is weighing heavily on thousands of Christians as they seek to be faithful in their daily lives.
A better, more thorough understanding of vocation will fix this.
If you’ve read this far and you’re beginning to position counter arguments, there’s a good chance you’re 1) a pastor who has employed this line of thinking to rally your troops around your vision or 2) a Christian who has accepted your charismatic pastor’s premise as true.
If this describes you, before you resist too adamantly, consider that when vocation becomes an argument over resource allocation (two for the pastor’s vision, one for the congregant’s career) the battle has already been lost. The church is not to be some Borg-like entity which assimilates everyone’s talents into one indistinct blob. The church is a body made up of individual’s who serve God at all times and in all things, lending their talents to its service, while remaining faithful in all the callings God has placed them in.
To prevent others from suffering through the same painful confusion I did, we must once again unite sacred and secular, declaring sacred all the myriad responsibilities God gives to each individual Christian.
We must…declare sacred all the myriad responsibilities God gives to each individual Christian.
I’ll be candid. Popular evangelical churches are in a tough spot. The likelihood of declaring all that the Christian touches as sacred seems slim. Several decades of misappropriating the doctrine of vocation has created bloated, top heavy, personality or style dependent organizations that thrive on the continuation of selling a mysterious “next big thing”. I think if American evangelicalism began to take the Bible seriously, bright lights and stages, logos and brands, books and conferences would be replaced with lots of hard work, sabbath keeping, private heart sanctification and anonymous/low profile serving of the poor, widowed and orphaned. It’s going to be hard to undo the self-licking monstrosity American evangelicalism has created for itself over the years, but not impossible.
A few suggestions.
1) Please don’t disparage hard work. I learned more about vocation and the value God places on back breaking labor in the 18 months I stocked a warehouse at 1AM (see above referenced mercy of getting my butt kicked during the Great Recession) than I did in 10 years of listening to celebrity pastors try to explain how God’s calling works.
2) Recognize God’s sovereignty. God provided the job for the guy that works long hours. He gifted the woman with the knowledge and skill to be employed as a department manager. (Side note: I’m amazed how many pastors pay lip service to the Proverbs 31 woman, then spring into Fukishima meltdown mode when a woman actually works outside the home.)
3) Please stop praising work only when it is accompanied by fame and fortune that serve to bolster your brand and vision. (*Writes sentence admitting I’m too lazy to link to the hundreds of selfies celebrity pastors have a) taken with famous athletes, musicians, politicians, etc who name themselves as Christians b) staged to reinforce their jet-setting, red-carpet walking, VIP lifestyles. Really guys, it’s gross and you need to stop.
4) Please work hard (and maybe even get a job!). Before you accuse me of tearing Acts 6 out of the Bible, remember Paul constructed tents and Jesus was a carpenter. And before you cite Acts 6 in your defense, too many of you are devoted to your vision and mission statements and not the Bible. Too many of you seek a leisurely, celebutante lifestyle, built on the backs of free interns, volunteer laymen and underpaid support staff. If we’re going to pay you to be in God’s word, then you better get your noses in the Bible and out of your mission statements, conference schedules, social media feeds and book deals.
1) Please don’t disparage hard work. Embrace it. Learn to love it. Get good at it. Work diligently at it. By doing so you honor God and serve your fellow man. Why Work? by Dorothy Sayers is a thought provoking essay which should help you begin to reprioritize your views on work and the glory of God.
2) Begin the process of removing the wedge that’s been driven between sacred and secular. There are tons of things to read on this topic, but A Letter to Christian Nobility by Martin Luther is a great start. The Call and Ordinary are good follow-ups.
3) There is no second-rate calling as a child of God. In God’s economy, when the weight of vocation is understood and applied, there are no “wasted lives” and much more “remaining in the calling wherein you are called” than guilt-riddenly casting off your calling to pursue magical juju beans God has reserved for the select few who really “catch the vision”.
4) Please don’t be complicit in letting celebrity pastors continue to run amok. They are already a severe drain on the body of Christ. Instead of bouncing around from one celebrity pastor to another at the beat of their latest scandals, please prayerfully seek the courage to charge your pastors to put off “selfish ambition and conceit” (Philippians 2:3) and “rightly divide the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
It is my prayer that pastors and congregations will begin to embrace the doctrine of vocation, and by so doing, begin to understand hard work is not necessarily a sign of misplaced affections, but rather of Christian maturity.
I can only wonder at the jump in productivity if the doctrine of vocation was rightly embraced by Christians. Think of it! Millions of Christians would be freed to confidently work, seeking strength from the Lord to excel at their jobs, instead of seeking strength to endure the burden of their supposedly inferior, second-rate job until the Lord revealed the mysteriously unique awesome sauce they’ve somehow been missing all these years.
To be clear, God calls people to work. More specifically, God calls people to work hard. Even more specifically, He calls people to work quietly and hard.
May we become a Church that restores vocation to its right place and in so doing becomes the busiest, hardest-working, most-productive “hands and feet of Christ” the world has yet to see!
RECAP & CONCLUSION
A few brief, yet, knowing those who will potentially be reading this, needed, clarifications:
– If you are a Christian and reading this, it is my sincere hope and prayer, that you will begin to understand that working extremely hard in your job or career doesn’t have to be a sign of inordinate love for the world, but rather a sign of Christian maturity. I implore you to seek to understand vocation and all the spiritual implications it has on your life. I also invite you to step off the Radical Red Bull Christianity Roller Coaster you’ve been on and begin to consider the God-given beauty in the ordinary, day-in, day-out details of contentment and faithfulness.
– If you are a pastor and reading this, before you suspect me of being a rogue, disenfranchised blogger looking to rain on your church’s brand building parade, please know that after traversing the quasi-reformed YR&R landscape for several years, we became, and have gladly remained in good standing as confessional Presbyterians for the last 7 years.
– For those too quick to lump denominational labels into one jumbled group – ahem! certain non-denominational friends 😉 – Presbyterian as in PCA, not PCUSA, which, if you take the time, you will discover are quite different.
– Finally, I extend apologies to any teenager I gave crappy advice to in the late ’90s and early 2000s. If you’ve traversed similarly difficult faith wildernesses based upon calls to perform, please know those calls were misguided and I would now urge you to look to the One who performed perfectly in your place.
* Our church gives 30% of it’s budget to missions, so I am in no way disparaging international missions, but urging you to first consider assenting to God’s sovereignty over the current details – both past and present – of your life, before rushing off to hastily embrace a supposedly higher calling.