Theology & Culture (7): Why Vocation Matters to God

The notion of vocation (calling) is significant to any discussion of theology and culture because all of a Christian’s vocations are at the intersection of theology and culture. In our recent Theology & Culture seminar, which was the impetus for this blog series, our discussion centered on Gene Veith’s God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Crossway, 2002). Veith’s book is a contemporary exposition of Martin Luther’s teaching on vocation, as conveyed primarily through his sermons.

As Veith argues, following Luther, God works through people and does so through their callings. Every Christian has at least four callings-family, church, workplace, and community. The purpose of one’s callings is to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mk 12:30-31). In our vocations, we demonstrate our love for God by doing all that we do to his glory. We demonstrate our love for our neighbor by fulfilling our callings faithfully and with excellence. We depend upon others, and they depend upon us.

Evangelical Christians may be very aware of their callings to family and church, but perhaps less likely to view their workplaces or communities as places of calling. For this reason, I’ll spend a bit more time on workplace and community.

Family & Church

In the family we find “the most basic of all vocations, the one in which God’s creative power and his providential care are most dramatically conveyed through human beings.”* The marriage relationship is a calling, as it is a manifestation of the relationship between Christ and the church. It is significant because our family life is a lever for unseating our unselfishness. It is further important because family is the place in which a child learns to honor their father and mother on the way toward learning to honor their Heavenly Father. Further, in the church we learn to love God and one another, serve God and one another, have our masks and pretenses unveiled, and live grace- and gospel-centered lives. The church is a window through which a watching world sees Christ because the church is indeed the body of Christ.

Workplace

Is it fair to say that most evangelicals do not recognize their workplaces as a significant way to love God and neighbor? I think so. In my experience, we tend to view our jobs as ways to “put bread on the table,” “build a good life for ourselves,” and maybe even share the gospel. But rarely if ever do we view the job itself as a calling from God.

In fact, most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at our workplaces. We make many relationships, interact in several spheres of culture, and use many of our God-given abilities while we are simply doing our jobs. It would be a shame to waste our workplaces. There are at least three ways in which we can make the most of our jobs:

First, we can speak and embody the gospel in appropriate ways at our jobs. For many people, the workplace brings them into contact with many unbelievers who may have never heard the gospel or seen a Christian living in a gospel-centered manner in front of their very eyes.

Second, we can realize that God ordained work before the Fall. God is the one who created us in his image and likeness, gifted us with the moral, rational, creative, and relational capacities we use to accomplish our work, and commanded us to do all things (including our work) for his glory and renown. Work is part of what it means to be human. Our obligation, therefore, is to offer our work to God as worship, seeking to do it with faithfulness and excellence.

Third, we can realize that God often works through our jobs to love his image-bearers. In other words, God uses the products of our work to provide for our fellow citizens. When God wants to feed a hungry child, he does not usually do so in miraculous manner; he usually does so through farmers, truck drivers, grocery store owners (and clerks and stock boys), contractors and electricians and plumbers (and everybody else who helps to build the grocery stores), and a myriad of other types of workers.

In a sentence, don’t waste your workplace.

Community

Another calling which we often neglect is our calling to be a citizen of multiple communities-town, state, national, and global communities. Even in a democratic republic, we sometimes limit our calling to voting about political candidates, and then whining about them or insulting them. In fact, God has placed each of us within multiple communities, and provides us with many ways to serve these communities within our own unique life situations.

First, we can love our communities by faithfully fulfilling our calling to our families, churches, and workplaces. In so doing, we serve our communities in a deep and profound manner. Second, we can love our communities by being active in the mediating structures of our communities-structures such as schools, non-profit organizations, newspapers, blogs, etc. Third, we can love our community by being actively involved in the political process, and doing so in a manner that embodies grace and gospel as well as wisdom and realism.

Conclusion

In conclusion, our callings are our primary means to bring God glory, loving Him and our neighbor. If we are seeking to fulfill these callings faithfully and with excellence, canmultiply our faithfulness in every dimension of society and culture, and across the fabric of our shared human existence.

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*Gene Veith, God at Work (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 78.

Gospel, Church, and City (4): The Gospel Produces Missional Planters & Churches

In the fourth session of the Greenhouse Church Planter’s CoOp, we talked about building missional churches in the 21st century post-Christendom contexts. Again, we used some passages from Keller’s Manual as starting points for our discussion.

At the beginning of the session, we talked about how we minister in the context of a dying Christendom. Christendom was marked by “cultural Christianity” in which American social institutions often stigmatized non-Christian belief and behavior. Christendom provided some advantages (such as a common language for social and moral discourse) and some disadvantages (Christian moral principles without gospel-changed hearts). Nonetheless, we increasingly recognize that we must change our Christendom-style assumptions. We cannot assume that people have heard the gospel, understand our vocabulary, will show up at our church services, etc. As we discard certain past assumptions, we must remind ourselves that:

A missional church draws people into the biblical narrative. In Christendom, the church could exhort “Christianized” people to do what they already know they should do. In a post-Christendom context, however, people do not understand or subscribe to the biblical narrative of the world. They must be taught and persuaded that the biblical narrative is the True Story of the world. Therefore, A missional church pays close attention to the surrounding culture (people and their conversations, music, movies, literature, etc.), seeking to understand its questions, felt needs, hopes, dreams, heroes, and fears. In so doing, the missional church will better be able to position that culture’s story within the True Story of the world, the narrative of God’s redemption. Augustine’s City of God is a fine example of how to do this.

A missional church speaks the language of the people. In Christendom, American culture was more monolithic and there was not as much difference between language inside and outside of the church. The current American context, however, is marked by multiple cultures and a dizzying variety of sub-cultures. The majority of these cultures and subcultures have not been exposed to the biblical narrative or to church language. Therefore, the missional church seeks to (as Keller puts it) avoid tribal language, “we-them” language, and sentimental or pompous inspirational talk in the pulpit. In particular, a missional preacher avoids talking as if non-believing people are not present. Until he does so, non-believing people are less likely to come and less likely to understand or be persuaded if they do come. In a nutshell, missional churches are adept at cross-cultural communication: they learn to communicate the gospel in a way that is faithful to the Scriptures and meaningful to the cultural context.

A missional church is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. In Christendom, Christian fellowship focused on support and accountability. In a post-Christendom context, however, Christians realize that they must embody a Christian “counter-culture.” The missional church redefines absolutely everything in life, including the three biggies: sex, money, and power. The church redefines sex: Keller writes, “We avoid both the secular society’s idolization of sex and traditional society’s fear of sex. We also exhibit love rather than hostility or fear toward those whose sexual life-patterns are different.” The church redefines money: Keller writes, “We promote a radically generous commitment of time, money, relationships, and living space to social justice and the needs of the poor, the immigrant, and the economically and physically weak.” The church redefines power: Keller writes, “We are committed to power-sharing and relationship-building between races and classes that are alienated outside of the Body of Christ.” The missional church defies categories such as “conservative” or “liberal” because it is more committed to evangelism and conversion than liberal churches and more committed to culture work (mercy ministries, vocation, culture work) than conservatives. This counter-cultural and counter-intuitive church is the only type of church that will succeed in making much of Jesus.

A missional church trains people to glorify God in all of their callings. In Christendom, the church simply trained people in prayer, Bible study, and witnessing techniques (such as wearing t-shirts that say “I’m cross-eyed,” or giving out Test-a-mints, or consoling people with clichés such as “Any time God shuts a door, he opens a window”). In a post-Christendom context, however, the church realizes that she must train her people to live “Christianly” in all of life. The missional church is full of lay people who renew their city and community by fulfilling their callings in a uniquely Christian manner. Martin Luther is a good guide here; his sermons are replete with references to a Christian’s callings to family, church, workplace, and community. Gene Veith’s God at Work is a very helpful and slim little book that teaches us how to unleash the church and the gospel through a Christian’s callings. This is the church scattered.

A missional church trains people to glorify God in all dimensions of society and culture. In Christendom, the various spheres of culture reflected (however imperfectly) a Christianized culture. In a post-Christendom context, the church realizes that she must train her people to work out the implications of the gospel in all dimensions of society and culture. Her people must consciously hold to a Christian world-and-life-view. A missional church (as Keller puts it) encourages her laypeople to venture forth humbly and boldly as Christians into the arts, the sciences, government, media, business, and education. A missional church demonstrates biblical love and true “tolerance” in the public square.

A missional church is characterized by love for those with whom they disagree. In Christendom, everybody was a “Christian.” For this reason, churches focused on defining themselves in contrast to other churches. In a post-Christendom context, however, churches find it more illuminating and helpful to define itself in contrast to “the world.” While we hold to our doctrinal convictions and limit our cooperation in various ways, we seek to love and reach out to other congregations in our local area so as to bear witness of our love for one another to a watching world.

On Disciplined Reading (Pt. 5): Questions, Answers, and Concluding Thoughts

When I conceived this series, I hoped that it would be an encouragement to our evangelical readership to read widely, deeply, and through the lens of a Christian worldview. There was a day when Christians in general and pastors in particular were committed to sustained reading and reflection. However, the multiple cultures that have arisen from our current American context seem not to be, on the whole, prone to serious reading and thinking. (Americans tend to treat the brain like the appendix, as if it has no immediately discernable function.) As a result, most of the books being published are claptrap. (The result is that winning a “book of the year” award these days is like being the valedictorian of high school summer school.) Even book clubs (such as Oprah’s) that claim to be serious reading communities are often more emotive than rational, tending toward heavy breathing, sobbing, and hugging gently rather than conscious and careful reflection on the important questions of life.

I hope that the previous installments have been helpful. I intended to end this series with the previous installment. However, during the past two weeks, some of you have commented or sent questions by blog, email or facebook, and I have chosen to add a final installment which includes several of those questions. After so doing, I will make some concluding comments.

Comments & Questions:

How to find books to read: In light of the fact that thousands of books are being published as I write, how does one become aware of those books and choose which ones to read? Steve McKinion commented that one way to do this is to read book reviews. Reviews can be found at the back of most academic journals, as well as on the internet. I would add that it is helpful to surf the websites of book publishers, most of whom have a page advertising their forthcoming books.

How to find time to read: Several of you asked how to find time to read. This is a great question, and not easily answered in one paragraph. Here are a few pointers: Take an hour or two and sketch out your activities during an ordinary day, week, or month. Most likely, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much time you can find. I have found, for example, that (1) I can come to work an hour early in order to enjoy peace and quiet and a good book; (2) anytime I am on an airplane, I can knock out quite a few pages; (3) Sunday afternoons usually provide some time for reading; and (4) sometimes instead of watching a TV show or a ballgame, I am better served to pull out a book.

How to choose between print and electronic media: One of you asked whether or not a physical library is important in an electronic age. I think it is. Although TV, YouTube, radio, facebook, audio books and podcasts are helpful for certain things and in particular ways, print media is irreplaceable for those who want to think deeply and meaningfully about the important things in life. Reading requires sustained concentration, while TV, internet, and other sources often are less demanding. Reading fosters sustained interaction and accumulation of knowledge, while other media often let the viewer “off the hook” as they provide a blitz of images and soundbytes, without allowing the viewer time to think and interact. One caveat: Sometimes, one does not have the money or the space for a large library and in such cases it is very helpful to be able to access journals and books online or through various other electronic media.

How to keep discipline from being drudgery: One reader commented that he wants to be a disciplined reader while at the same time avoiding “dutiful, joyless” reading. How can reading be a pleasure rather than a pain? Here are a few thoughts: Make sure that you are (1) selecting books that are worth reading, (2) disciplining yourself to read books from a variety of genres and disciplines, and (3) allowing yourself some flexibility and freedom within those parameters. When choosing your next book, select one that you feel like reading. If you want to read it, and feel like reading it, you likely will get more out of it. Save the book that you do not feel like reading, but need to read, for a later date.

How to retain and organize what is learned from a book: This is a great question. I am not completely satisfied with my method, but here is what I do. (1) If I am reading a serious book, I underline the author’s main points, with pencil and ruler, in such a way that I can follow the author’s flow of thought. I also underline significant quotes and make comments in the margins containing my reactions to an author’s points. This way, I can pick the book back up several years later and be able to “read” the entire book in 10 minutes by reading the underlined portions and annotations. (2) If the book is excellent, I will make a brief outline of the book for future reference. Note: There are very few excellent books. (3) I have a file folder system for topics and sub-topics of interest. When a book makes interesting or helpful (or outrageous) points, I take notes and file them. (4) Write about the book. Post a review of the book at Amazon.com, or on your blog, or in a journal. Writing will force you to think more clearly about the book and will help you to retain what you have learned from the book.

How to read with comprehension: Several questions and comments could be summarized by the question: “How do I learn to read with comprehension and with an appropriately critical eye?” In response, I will recommend three books. The first book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading is the classic text on how to read a book critically and with comprehension. After laying the foundation for such an activity, he writes specifically about how to read different kinds of books, such as imaginative literature, plays, poems, history, science, math, philosophy and the social sciences. The second book, James W. Sire’s How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension, is similar to Adler and Van Doren’s text, but is written by an evangelical Christian who reads and critiques books through the lens of a Christian worldview. Finally, Gene Veith’s Reading between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, is an excellent guidebook for those who want to learn how to recognize books that are spiritually and aesthetically good. He focuses on imaginative literature.

Concluding Thoughts:

Let us conclude the way we began, by reminding ourselves that reading is an inherently theological activity. The Triune God created through the Word and speaks through the Word. Indeed, the Trinity is a model of accomplished communication, as God the Father speaks, God the Son is the Word, and God the Spirit enables the reception of the Word. Further, God created us in his image and likeness, with part of that likeness being our rational and imaginative capacities, which are precisely the capacities needed to read. May we use our capacities in a manner that glorifies Him.

Note: In the near future, I will provide suggested reading in various disciplines and genres such as theology, intellectual history, missiology, international affairs, fiction, history, and current affairs.