(This essay is excerpted from my upcoming e-book, Christ in the Marketplace: A Business and Mission Primer.)
“The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps” – Proverbs 16:9.
There is confusion surrounding the notion of Christian calling. Many believe they are called to a particular vocation or action, some even that they cannot please God until they find that one thing to do or be in their career. The problem arises in mistaking calling with works. Calling and works do overlap but they are distinct as to how they are understood and performed.
There is but one calling for Christians and that is to obey Jesus’ command, “Follow me.” Much of the confusion of calling arises out of the inappropriate privatization of the Christian faith, an effect of Western individualism. The mission of God is personal only on the point that the body of Christ is comprised of many individuals. But the Kingdom is more aptly understood in the communal sense.
As we are called to follow Christ, we are called into the community of the Church. Vital relationships are formed within the Church for the purposes of helping all on the path of spiritual growth amidst the normal activities of life, whether in worship, at work or leisure, in serving others, or in times of fellowship. The importance of relationships is likely no more apparent than it is to marketplace Christians who interact daily with customers, employees and co-workers, superiors, vendors, business partners and investors, and the surrounding community. Partnerships are important within the business as mission movement as it brings together ministry leaders, investors, business leaderships, and the constituencies they serve.
Jeremiah 29:11—“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (NIV)— is often misappropriated to justifying calling as an individual issue. This highlights the bad practice of taking isolated verses or passages out of context, particularly as this instance reads the presuppositions of individualism (of privatized faith) into Scripture. Jeremiah’s statement was given to the elders of Israel in exile. It was spoken to the whole of Israel as a people, a community of faith, not to any one person.
The call to Christians, corporately and individually, is to becoming holy, taking on the character of God, to becoming “other” in the sense of being different from the world. Holiness cannot be exercised in isolation. It always functions within relationships. Sadly, privatized faith has been a powerful deterrent to the effectiveness of the Church in Western culture as many Christians have assumed a predominantly inward spiritual focus.
God is glorified not so much by the career choices we make but rather by the witness of His character manifest in us. Our “calling” is to be becoming different than we have been. It is a calling to make behavioral and systemic changes in every circumstance. We are “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). There is no indication that this pertains to certain occupations or is specific to charitable works. Rather, this is indicative of one living out transformed character.
Character is the issue, not any particular pursuit. Consider the “generic” sentiment of Psalm 37:3-5: “Trust in the LORD, and do good; Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it.”
Paul exhorts the church in Thessalonica “to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). He charges the Corinthians and Colossians that in whatever they do, they should do all “to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), “in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks,” (Colossians 3:17), and heartily, as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23).
There is nothing here about being “called” to particular vocations or even specific acts. Rather, as said, our calling is unto Christ. The “works” we perform within whatever circumstance we find ourselves will glorify God (Matthew 5:16). Simon Peter was still a fisherman after the first Easter (John 21).
The sentiment of Psalm 37:4-5—“Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it” (emphases mine)—offers insight as to how God views our vocational choices. First, we can see that perhaps God has not chosen specific plans for our lives. There may be specific works that present themselves amidst our journeys with God, but God is able to align our paths, whatever they may be, with specific needs or events.
That alignment is commonly called convergence, which combines our calling to follow Christ, our discipleship (especially through the ministry of the Word and Church), our experience in whatever profession or other interests we pursue, and our passion. There are far more marketplace Christians than any other occupational category (i.e., paid clergy, healthcare and social workers, government or academic employees, and so on). They are called where they are.
Many marketplace Christians are very good at what they do and enjoy their occupations thoroughly. It is in whatever circumstance, professional or volunteer, that they can serve God with the gifts and talents given to us or that we have developed. The heart of Psalm 37:3–5 is “Delight yourself in the LORD.” Knowing and communing with God is our highest passion. But He also knows our temporal interests and a multitude of ministries are birthed out of the intersections of our faith, relationships, occupations, and passions.
For business people this may mean using high incomes to bless the poor, or to bring their gifts to bear in outreach ministries, such as a fishing outfitter or guide service spending quality time with disadvantaged youth. It may mean business leaders mentoring start-up businesses that lack their particular expertise, such as in the disciplines of management practices, leadership development, logistics, technology, or strategic planning. It could be a web designer helping a not-for-profit organization get up to speed on the web and active in social media. Or it could be just being a good employee, looking out for the welfare of their employing company and co-workers. In all cases, God will be glorified as we live into the nature and character of God in our spheres of influence in humility, grace, gentleness, generosity, compassion, diligence and integrity.
Convergence is where God meets us in the details of our own lives to manifest His love for the world. By our works, He makes Himself known. Ultimately, our following Christ, living in the grace and truth of Christ, is our most powerful witness.
As an example of convergence, i.e., the discernment of the works appropriate to my ministry, I share my own experience:
My parents were avid readers and I grew up reading. I enjoy the arts because human stories are studies in psychology, anthropology, culture, sociology, history, and philosophy. My parents loved to travel, so I grew up traveling. I love adventure for the sake of discovering the previously unknown. Their curiosity rubbed off. I want to learn everything about everything so I am an avid researcher. I am a learner and I like to discover the connections (synthesis) between otherwise seemingly disparate topics or arenas of life. I enjoy “exploring” the world of ideas as much as the physical world.
I love reading and studying the Bible and theology, especially about the mission of God and economic concerns. I enjoy writing as it forces me to clarify what I think I have learned. I had a lot of research and writing practice in my undergraduate (English literature) and graduate (world mission and evangelism) studies. One of my top spiritual gifts is teaching.
I enjoy business. It is like a game with lots of rules, decision-making, and strategizing. I have thirty years’ experience in business and administrative management, including fourteen years as a three-time small business founder and owner. I have been “online” for twenty years, communicating professionally via dial-up bulletin boards before the world wide web was invented. I am very project oriented, preferring to undertake work that has closure where accomplishments can be evaluated for future reference.
So, “by coincidence,” I have had a book published (Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission, Wipf & Stock Publishers) on the theology of the marketplace; I have received requests to create e-books on business and mission and on the integration of Christian faith and economics; I have a blog (www.edensbridge.org) on the integration of Christian faith and economics, which also includes devotional and meditation materials; and, I have started writing daily devotionals for mobile device apps.
Many have spoken no truer words than to say that God comes to meet us where we are. That is never more true than in our vocation. God does not necessarily care what occupation we pursue (unless it is something immoral). He does care that we would be salt and light wherever we work.