Watch Your Language: Part Five

Calling.jpg

Nora Watson nailed it in her remark about calling. While she was serving as a magazine writer/editor, Studs Terkel interviewed her for his book, Working. She told him: “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us . . . have jobs that are too small for our spirit.” She is right. Far too many—even among Christians—go to work with no awareness of calling.

What Camouflages Calling?

But why? What prevents us from seeing our work as part of God’s mission in the world? In The Other Six Days, Paul Stevens says, “almost the only people who speak of being ‘called of God’ are ‘full-time’ missionaries and pastors.” It’s easy to find examples online that illustrate Stevens’ point:

  • “It was during my time in college that I received my calling into pastoral ministry.”  
  • “I am often asked how I received my calling from God to be a full-time pastor.”
  • “I never once doubted my calling to the mission field.”

Yet in his book, The Call, Os Guinness says: “There is not a single instance in the New Testament of God’s special call to anyone into a paid occupation or into the role of a religious professional.” 

The Multiple Meanings of Call

Calling is a useful word—and a biblical one. At the same time, I think another biblical word offers a clearer way to describe how God directs us into this or that role or job or task. I’ll get to that word shortly. But first, let’s zero in on this word calling. The words call, called, and calling appear in the Bible hundreds of times. Those words in Scripture refer to the same things we mean when we speak them:

1. Call can mean to name something. If you call your daughter Stacy, that is her name. Many English translations of Rom. 1:1 and I Cor. 1:1 say Paul was “called to be an apostle.” But the Greek text has no “to be.” It simply says, “Paul, called an apostle.” God named Paul as an apostle.

2. Call can mean to initiate communication. I dial your cell phone to call you. While the boy was still in bed, “The Lord called Samuel,” because he wanted to talk to him.

3. Call can mean to summon. If illness leaves a restaurant short-staffed, employees may be called to fill in. Rom. 1:6 speaks of those “who are called to belonged to Jesus Christ.” Here called speaks of God’s invitation to come to him.   

Primary and Secondary Callings

Os Guinness distinguishes between our primary and our secondary callings. He says: “Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost, we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Mongolia).”

Guinness continues: “Our secondary calling, considering God who is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to the practice of law or to art history. . . . Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most.”

Another Word for God’s Work Assignments

So Guinness uses the same word, “calling,” both for God’s (primary) summons to come to him and for his (secondary) assignments regarding what he wants us to do. Using the identical word to refer to two different things can be confusing. So let me suggest another term I find useful in describing what Guinness refers to as God’s secondary call. When Jesus and the Bible writers wanted to speak of God or others assigning someone to do some kind of work or task, they usually used some form of the word “send.” For example:

  • God to Moses: "Say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your fathers . . . has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:15).
  • Jesus to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." (Jn. 20:21).
  • Paul to Timothy: “I sent Tychicus to Ephesus.” (II Tim. 4:12).

Mark 3:13 and 14 use two separate words for the primary and secondary meanings. “Jesus . . . called [them] . . . that he might send them.” That fits in with the way we speak, doesn’t it? If you want me to come to you, you call me. If, after I come, you want me to go and do something, you send me.

Call Means Come; Send Means Go

Jesus called you to himself—not simply so you can go to heaven someday when you die—but that he might send you in the here and now to work in his world.

  • Calling—being summoned to come to God—provides you with a new identity. So calling relates especially to who you are.
  • Sending—being assigned by God to do something—relates to roles and tasks. So sending relates to what you do.

God called Paul, naming or identifying him, as an apostle. God then sent Paul to represent him before Gentiles. This involved Paul in such roles as church planter, tent manufacturer, and prison inmate. 

God Sends in Various Ways

When God sends someone to do something, he may use words—or he may use the outworking of circumstances. In Paul’s case, God used words: “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” (Acts 22:21). But in Joseph’s case, God used circumstances. He worked in Egypt because his brothers bullied and sold him out. But much later he explained to them, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Gen. 45:7). God works in all things--even in the world of work--for the good of those who love him, those called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). 

Many Christians toil day after day with no sense of how their work connects with God's purpose. What do they need?

  • First, we need to hear clear and frequent teaching that all of God’s children have been called, summoned, to come to him and into his Kingdom through faith in Christ.
  • Second, we all need to hear clear and frequent teaching that everyone God calls to himself he then sends back out into the world to serve him in some way. God sends some of his children to work as teachers, shepherds, and equippers in the gathered church. He sends others to demonstrate Kingdom-of-God living as they work in paid and unpaid roles in the scattered church.

God sends all of us into full-time service for him. See your work as your current Kingdom post. Your assignment may change. Stay tuned!

Watch Your Language: Part Three

The Work Bunk.jpg

When I was young, we kids had a ready-made comeback when hit with a nasty put-down: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” In the title of her new book, Joyce Schneider puts a fresh twist on that old saying: Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones: But Words Can Kill My Spirit.

A Pair of Spirit-Killing Words: Secular Work

In response to a short blog on so-called secular work, one reader wrote: “I personally struggle with this right now as a Christian, because I have a hard time seeing anything good about detailing and driving cars for a living or of what importance it has to me or to others I'm involved in. I keep seeing myself as a failure with a bachelor’s degree when I think about work right now.” Words from a spirit deeply wounded.

And no wonder. Secular work carries the implied meaning of being second-rate compared with ministry (see previous blog) or full-time Christian service. To define secular, dictionaries use words like “worldly rather than spiritual.” “Not having any connection with religion.” “Earthly.” “Profane.” “Irreligious.” The Oxford Living Dictionaries dubs secular as “Denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis. Contrasted with sacred.”

This Language Lives On

I’d like to think we Christians have gotten beyond talking of secular work. But the words are very much alive and well among us. From a blog: “I strongly felt, however, the call to something greater than just secular work.” Or, “One of the most troubled periods of my life came when I left the ministry of Youth for Christ and went into secular work.” And, “At times I was tempted to give up the ministry and go into secular work.”

Yes, sticks and stones bruise. But for those in non-church jobs who are serious about following Jesus, the secular-work dart poisons. It can make it seem as if those 80- to 100-thousand lifetime hours invested in the workplace add up to a spiritual zero. Yet Scripture never describes any work as secular. Why? The reasons reach all the way to God’s own activities and purposes.

God’s Work Becomes Our Work

In his activity, God has revealed himself in his work as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Restorer. It follows, then, that his purposes extend into all of these. By making us in his likeness, God gave us dignity by delegating to us much of his work on his planet. We workers, made in the image of the Worker, have the great honor of reflecting him in our daily work.

Garbage Collection. Our garbage-pickup driver comes every Tuesday. His job, according to the world’s value system, lies near the bottom of the occupational pecking order. That kind of work seems to have “no religious or spiritual basis.” Yet God himself engages in the cleanup business. His wind and rain cleanse the air. His sunlight disinfects. Garbage collectors are doing God’s work when they remove the debris from our homes and neighborhoods, waste that would kill us if left to putrefy. When garbage crews went on a two-day strike in Phnom Penh, 5,000 tons of rubbish piled up in the streets. It took 5 days and the intervention of military police to clear away the trash and end the stench.

Food Service. Are waitresses and waiters doing secular work? After all, in their jobs they serve merely physical (not spiritual) food to hungry, earthly bodies. But wait. God sent ravens to feed Elijah’s earthly body. He provided manna to sustain the bodies of the Israelites in the desert. Jesus fed thousands. “I do not want to send them away hungry,” he said, “or they may collapse on the way” (Mt. 15:32). So next time someone on a wait staff places that steak on your table, thank God that she or he is carrying out one of God’s purposes on earth. How can that be merely secular work?

Government Work. Surely working for an anything-but-godly government qualifies as secular work, right? Not so fast. God governs. “Dominion,” says David, “belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28). Joseph worked as prime minister of the pagan government in Egypt. Yet, he told his brothers it was to that very place that “God sent me” (Gen. 45:5). As a young man, Daniel went to work for the ungodly Babylonian government—and served God in that work for perhaps 70 years. Because they are carrying out God’s purposes, government authorities, says Paul, “are God’s servants" (Rom. 13:6). So is it right to call what they do secular work? Does it really have no spiritual basis?

Gathered-Church Work. Those who do what often gets called ministry or spiritual work are also carrying out God’s purposes. God rescues. He “redeems your life from the pit” (Ps. 103:4). “Our God is a God who saves” (Ps. 68:20). So those, too, who serve God and others by proclaiming and explaining the Good News are doing what God himself has been doing all along.

Church or Kingdom Perspective?

In light of who God is and what he does—and our being made in his likeness—what, then, keeps feeding this unbiblical concept of secular work? Could it be that we have allowed our practice of “church” to dwarf the far larger biblical theme of God’s Kingdom? As already quoted, “God rules over the nations.” When Jesus began teaching, he did not say the Church had arrived. Instead, his good news was that the Kingdom of God had come near. In The Other Six Days, R. Paul Stevens says, “Kingdom ministry has been almost totally eclipsed by church ministry.”

As King, with all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus cares about the well-being of both his original Creation and his New Creation. He sends people to work in both arenas to carry out his Kingdom purposes. The Church—in both its gathered and scattered modes—is here to announce and to demonstrate the presence of the King and his Kingdom.

To a church-program mindset, managing a bank, sweeping floors, or designing a building may seem irrelevant except as a means for evangelizing or making money to support “the ministry.” Which makes it so telling how the Collins English Dictionary defines secular: “not within the control of the Church.”

Kingdom work--carrying out  our Father's business--takes the labor of both the gathered and the scattered church. Making a higher-lower distinction between so-called secular and sacred work disables shared church.

How Can a Church of 200 Serve 3,000?

Snowball Effect.jpg

Get set for an out-of-the-box outreach idea. The good news: it won’t cost your church a dime. More good news: it will not involve another program. It does not require making new contacts or building new relationships. Sound too good to be true? Walk with me through some simple math.

Let’s begin with your church of, say, 200. If your church numbers half that, simply divide what follows by two, and you will see a similar potential in your congregation.

About 327 million people now live in the U.S. Of those, nearly 162 million are part of the nation’s labor force. So, roughly speaking, about half the population spend their weekdays on the job. That means that in your church of 200, there’s a good chance some 100 fan out on Monday into offices, shops, schools, hospitals, and so on. Perhaps 92 of these are employees and 8 are employers or supervisors of large staffs.

Now the Easy Math

At this point, let’s estimate that each of the 92 employees has already established some level of a job-related relationship with 25 others. These would include coworkers, supervisors, students and parents, patients, vendors, customers, and so on. Ninety-two employees times 25 contacts equals 2300.

When we factor in the entrepreneurs and supervisors, the number of relationships multiplies dramatically—perhaps to 100 or more per person. A friend who owns a manufacturing plant in Wisconsin that employs about 25 estimates his workplace relationships at hundreds. Eight employers/supervisors times even just 100 equals 800.

Add the two totals and you’ll see that your church of 200 may well have a salt-and-light reach of 3,100. (Or your church of 100? A reach of 1,550.)

Jesus Sends His People into the Work World

Come Monday morning the working folks in your congregation go just exactly where Jesus sends his followers—into the world. Their presence there makes not the slightest dent in the church budget. Someone else is paying them to be right where Jesus wants them.

Sadly, many see their jobs as placing them in a “secular” zone where any signs of faith must be parked outside the office door. Neither their training nor their experience prepares pastors to understand the challenges and opportunities of working as a Christian government employee, sales representative for a tech firm, or journalist. How, then, can those in non-church jobs learn how to serve as workplace-ready disciples? If given the opportunity, they can help equip each other.

You can search out mature Christ-followers who have learned how to shine the light of Christ into the dark corners of their work world. How do they “glow” without “glaring”? You can invite them to tell their faith-on-the-job stories during your congregational meetings. You can provide coaching to help them prepare and present those stories effectively. Trust the Holy Spirit to work through them to equip others to serve Christ by what they do and say in the work world.

Mutual Equipping through Workplace Stories

I was invited one Sunday to bring a workplace message to a congregation in another city. My wife and I invited “Brenda,” a Christian woman who worked for a state agency, to share—as a part of the message—her workplace story. After she finished, not knowing anyone in that unfamiliar church group, I asked whether anyone would be willing to pray for Brenda. Immediately a young woman raised her hand and volunteered to do so. As she began to pray, the young woman began to weep. Quickly regaining her composure, she offered a heartfelt prayer for Brenda. Afterward, we learned that what Brenda had said spoke directly to what this young woman had been facing in her own workplace that week. Nothing I might have said in my message could have spoken so well to the need this woman was facing as a Christian on the job.

 In The Other Six Days, R. Paul Stevens suggests that, “each week [in the church meeting] an ordinary member should be brought forward and in five minutes interviewed along these lines: What do you do for a living? What are the issues you face in your work? What difference does your faith make to the way you address these issues? How would you like us as a church to pray for you in your ministry in the workplace?” Stevens says that by including such reports, “the culture of a local church can be partially changed in fifty-two weeks . . . .” (p. 159).

Shared church includes both the church gathered and the church scattered. Openings in congregational gatherings create room for “reports from the front lines.” In these, members of the body of Christ help prepare each other to confront the challenges they face in their roles in the scattered church. Even a fairly small congregation can have a surprisingly large salt-light footprint in its community and beyond. How? By tapping into and releasing the treasures the Holy Spirit has already deposited in the hearts and experiences of seasoned believers from the world of work.

Shared Church on Sunday Morning?

The other day, a woman who recently began participating in our home group made a telling comment. She has regularly attended a variety of churches for decades. “But in church,” she told us, “I could never ask my questions and hear answers about the Christian life.”

Sunday Calendar.jpg

Today shared church—the sort of one-anothering seen in the New Testament church—is more likely to take place in small groups that meet in living rooms than in main congregational meetings. Yet few Christians ever call those home gatherings “church.” Instead, like the woman in our small group, when they say “church," they mean the large assembly that usually gets together on Sunday.

Many Never Take Part in a Small Group

So although what happens in a home cluster comes closer to the practice of first-century Christians, a great many believers never experience that kind of involvement. According to Joseph R. Meyers, in The Search to Belong, “Books on small groups, tapes, seminars, and models abound, yet few of us achieve more than a 30 to 35 percent participation rate.” If accurate this translates to 65-70 percent whose experience of church is something far less participatory.  

Aaron Earls, writing in the website, “Facts & Trends,” pegs the small-group participation rate a bit higher: “In a typical month, less than 6 in 10 churchgoers attend some type of small Bible study group at least once. This means that over 40 percent of those who are in your church building at least on a monthly basis never go a small group.” 

Jesus clearly intended that his followers share in the give-and-take of one-anothering: “A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).

The dynamics in a congregation of 150 or 300, of course, differ greatly from those in a group of 8 to 12. But as already noted, a large proportion of believers never take part in a small group. How, then,  can they experience one-anothering in the only form of church life they know?  

One-Anothering Possible in Congregational Meetings

The interviews with church leaders in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis make it clear that some level of body life can take place even in the larger congregational setting. For example:

Panels. One pastor, after his sermon, invites questions from members of the body. Sometimes he organizes a panel of mature believers to help him respond to what people ask. Those on the panel may join him up front or speak from roving microphones.

Shared Preaching/Teaching. In another church of about 300, the pastor shares the preaching/teaching ministry with a dozen or so church members who are gifted and able to serve in this way. “My goal,” he says, “is to have someone from the congregation preach once a month, without pulling in a guest speaker from the outside.”

FaithStories. Nearly every Sunday a church in Minnesota includes “FaithStories” in their congregational meeting. Each one usually runs about five minutes. In addition to the examples included in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, these stories  cover a wide range of topics, including reports on: How Christians are living out their faith on the job; How a new mom received encouragement from the church’s meal’s ministry; How God worked in the life of another mother to heal her after she lost two of her children; How the Lord delivered a man from his involvement in a cult. Those presenting their stories are carefully coached as they develop what they will say and how they will say it. This avoids the objections raised against what, in other times, were called “testimonies.”

Sermons with Dialogue. Some pastors have carefully developed the art of preaching that draws the congregation into conversation. They prepare a significant part of the message ahead of time and present it without interruption. But with the skillful use of thought-provoking questions, these pastors invite the people to take part in a dialogue. Anyone may ask about something they do not understand, contribute an insight, express a doubt, or read a related Scripture.

By means of these and other ways to structure the main church meeting, a leader can open new opportunities for those who will never join a small group. This frees them to become contributors instead of passive consumers. They get to know the names and stories of others in the congregation. And after tasting body life, they may even choose to join a home group.

An Experiment

In The Other Six Days, R. Paul Stevens invites churches to “Consider an experiment that has been undertaken in several churches. The culture of a local church can be partially changed in fifty-two weeks by refusing for one year to give ‘air-time,’ speaking time, to visiting missionaries, denominational officials and professors from denominational colleges in the Sunday service. Instead each week an ordinary member should be brought forward and in five minutes interviewed along these lines: 'What do you do for a living? What are the issues you face in your work? What difference does your faith make to the way you address these issues? How would you like us as a church to pray for you in your ministry in the workplace?'”

Ephesians 4:11-12 calls church leaders “to equip God's people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ (NLT).” God’s people include not just those in small groups but also those whose only church experience occurs in the main congregational meeting. Church meetings, even fairly large ones, can be structured to some degree as shared-church gatherings that allow that kind of body-building work to take place.