Is vocational ministry a biblical calling?

My understanding of “calling” has evolved over the years. Early on, a narrow institutional perspective defined my view of being called. It was the only framework I understood at the time, but now my view of calling is profoundly relational. My perspective underwent a necessary shift that led me to a more Biblical understanding of calling.

I grew up in a typical Baptist church in North Texas. It was not perfect, but the people were good. They discipled me and taught me the Scriptures. They loved me through my rough years. When I began to hear the Lord speaking to me about my future, I processed it through that institutional church lens. In my view, I had only a handful of options. It was like a Holy Multiple Choice Quiz.

  • Option A — Pastor: Yeah, that wasn’t me. Though I love God’s word and proclaiming Truth, I didn’t feel I fit into that role.
  • Option B — Music Minister: Nope, I love listening to music, but leading people into His presence through a worship experience was not in my gifting.
  • Option C — Youth/Student Minister: Ministering to youth was great in my college years, but it was clear I couldn’t keep up the silliness required for the long haul.
  • Option D — Missionary: This seemed a good fit. I loved the idea of sharing the love of Christ with those who had not heard. I was not afraid to eat strange things or live in a different country.

So as a freshman in high school, I first surrendered to full-time ministry then less than a year later, I surrendered to a more precise calling to missions. But it was more like choosing a career path than following the LORD who was doing the calling.

My first mission trip to Brazil changed my life. Being exposed to the physical and spiritual needs in the world opened my eyes. I knew this was what God had called me to do.

So here is the short version of how it went from there:

  • I felt called to be a missionary in Brazil. (1992)
  • I was called specifically to do sports ministry in Brazil. (1998)
  • Oops, I was called to work with the Asheninka people in Peru. (1999)
  • I was called to work with remote people in the Amazon and Andes. (2002)
  • I was called to work with unreached and unengaged people. (2010)
  • I was called to disciple whoever I encountered. (2010)
  • I was called to people in remote and difficult locations. (2011)

At each step, I thought I had finally understood what God wanted to do with my life. After ten years in the Amazon, God instructed us to leave the ministry we led and start over in Africa. And I thought, maybe this is it, perhaps I am called to Africa.

While we were in transition preparing to move to Africa, the reality began to sink in. We were leaving a thriving ministry in the Amazon, where we knew the language and culture very well. We were starting all over in a completely different place. Did we hear God correctly? Deep inside, I began to question. What were we doing?! This was crazy!

Then one day, I was in a fine eating establishment in Texas (Waffle House). While standing in line to pay my bill, I struck up a conversation with a guy in front of me. As we shared about our lives, I told him about our move to Africa. He was baffled, and he asked a simple question, “Why are you going to Africa?!”

I froze.

This simple question brought my secret doubts out in the open. At that moment, I asked God to help me understand what I was doing because I didn’t fully comprehend it, and I knew I couldn’t explain it.

Suddenly, with all clarity, my whole definition of calling changed right there in Waffle House. The Lord opened my eyes to an eternal truth and helped me to understand the motivation behind our decision. I said, “In the process of following Jesus, this is where I find myself. I was somewhere before, and I will be somewhere else in the future. But Jesus determines where I go and what I do there.” 

So I don’t know where you are in your journey, but I want to help you understand your calling without the confusing church structure or vocabulary. It’s simple, no need for a holy multiple choice quiz; I don’t know how I missed it for so many years.

God did not call you to a vocation or a job. He called you to follow a person. His name is Jesus.

“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24–25 ESV)

Jesus called Peter and Andrew to follow Him, but He also told them to drop their nets, essentially leaving their hopes, dreams, and vocation on the shore and putting complete faith in Christ. He called Levi (Matthew) to leave his life (including his career) and follow Him to become His disciple.

You are no different than these ancient disciples. You live out that calling through radical obedience to your Savior, just like His disciples did.

When Jesus invited you to be His disciple, He called to follow Him anywhere in the world that He leads you and do whatever He commands. That is obedience. It is not always comfortable, but it is the foundation on which we build our relationship with Christ.

This solves a lot of problems for us. Disciples no longer find their identity in their job, ministry, or even location because He can change that at any moment.  

Also, we have no excuses. If we hear that still small voice whisper to us to sell our things and prepare to go overseas, we can’t say, “But LORD, I’m called to pastor. That isn’t my ministry.” You see, if you are called to obedience to Christ, your answer must always be “Yes, LORD Jesus,” no matter what the request is because your allegiance is 100% to Him.

We are called to Jesus, but then what?!

After you accept your call, He puts you to work. He gives you a task. Maybe He will want you to teach a Sunday school class for a few years. That is your task. Then He may want you to work with inner-city youth. Or He may direct you to take a step back to focus on your family. If you are on the mission field, He may send you to another place, or He may send you back to your home culture. But when your calling is found in Him, nothing changes except the current task. Your calling is secure because your calling is to Jesus.

“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe — as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:5–6)

I have seen many pastors and missionaries lose their way when they retire or return to the States. They put their identity in doing the task and not in the One who called them to that work.

It’s not the end of the world. We all get turned around sometimes. But if your focus is on the Master, you can be assured that His calling to you has not wavered, and He has not changed. He has just given you a new task. He is accomplishing His purpose. He wants to use you to do that.

So here it is in the simplest of terms:

  • Your calling is to follow and obey Jesus. That never changes.
  • Your task is the assignment He has given to you to do (for now). The task will change from time to time.
  • Keep your eyes on the Master to know what you are supposed to do.
  • Make adjustments as He directs.

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