Some years ago I posted here about Vocational Discernment as a vital piece of intentional discipleship. This is the ongoing conversation focused on the question: What is God calling you to do? (And what steps are you taking?)
Without a tailored conversation around each individual disciple’s unique shaping, gifting and calling by God, discipleship mentoring so often loses intensity in the following ways:
1. It gets lost climbing the asymptotic mountain of theoretical perfection. The trainee is measured up against a long list of ideals and spends huge energy trying to make 1% improvements towards an imagined ‘ideal Christian’ that God does not expect of any of us individually.
2. It wastes time and energy shaping the trainee into a body part they’re not made to be – often the part that the mentor is.
3. It gives a false impression of non-urgency where the trainee has their whole life to plod towards general ‘fitness’, rather than training for an event (or events) that God has entered you for in his great Games.
Years later I still passionately believe this. But I’ve come to see that Vocational Discernment is just as important for churches as it is for individuals.
Typically churches use the term vision to describe the bigger and future direction for a church. But I think vocation is better. It asks the question “What is God’s vision for this church?” “What has he put us here and called us together for?” It helps in the following ways:
1. It centres the process outside of ourselves, reminding ourselves that there can be a significant difference between what we’d like to do and what we ought to be doing.
2. It invites a uniqueness and contextualisation of ministry, rather than every church trying to be a replica of some other (often imagined) ‘successful’ church.
3. It lasts longer than the current leadership. Often in our churches there’s a new era and a new focus with each new pastor. But where a church knows its vocation, it has a reference point for the appointment of pastors and other leaders.
So what’s your vocation? And your church’s? And how do they intersect?
Our kids have a weird tradition whenever we drive through the tunnels on Adelaide’s South-Eastern Freeway: They hold their breath until we’re out the other side. Why? I don’t have time (or importantly, a good answer) to get into that.
I have a feeling that the coming New Year’s Eve is going to be celebrated with greater than usual gusto. 2020 has been a hated year and become a reviled number. Again and again we’ve seen on social media comments like “2020 strikes again.” It’s like we’re collectively holding our breath until we get through these last few weeks.
I get that it is some sort of coping mechanism, but let’s admit that it’s unhelpful and childish, just when the world needs help and maturity. It is victim language, as though this year is just something that happened to us. Putting everything onto the arbitrary year-number is a powerful form of fatalism, and the problem with fatalism is that we resign from responsibility. When you think about it, holding one’s breath is about the most passive thing one can do.
The other problem, of course, is that there’s no guarantee that the dawn of Friday January 1st is going to usher in peace and prosperity. It’s putting our hopes in sheer luck – it is actual astrology.
When you think about yourself as an agent, and agent of God’s kingdom, no less, you simply can’t go down that path. We are responsible agents. It’s true we can’t fix everything, but it’s also true that we can wake up each day and ask the Lord ‘What can I do to help?’.
Even in a pandemic; even in economic and political upheaval; even if China, or worse, New Zealand take us over, then there’s plenty for us to do, and we can see 2021 as a year of worship and a year of mission. Instead of holding our breath, are there people we can encourage? Real hope we can share? Instead of counting the days, let’s make every day count.
Announcement: The wait is over! Taking the Plunge: Baptism and Belonging to Jesus is off the press, in stock and ready to be sent to you. But you’re already baptised? This book is still, especially for you – to keep on hand (why not a few copies) for those you know who are coming to faith, or close, or raised in the faith and coming of age to own it for themselves. Order at: sacredagents.net
Smartphones have ruined our lives in many ways, and not least among them is that it’s no longer acceptable to spot someone standing by a swimming pool and just shove them straight in. We’re reticent, too, to do this with baptisteries.
Baptists like me are keenly aware that you can’t force people to believe, that people should only be baptised according to their own faith, not someone else’s. We’ve been wary, therefore, of prompting people to be baptised. The ideal scenario, when you follow that weird logic, is that we should be completely silent on the subject, and wait for the people coming to faith and kids in the youth group to suddenly come to us and request baptism. ‘That’s how we’ll really know that it’s genuine faith,’ we tell ourselves, ‘if we had nothing to do with it.’
Of course, we don’t consciously tell that to ourselves quite so clearly, because it’s clearly ridiculous. As I’ve mentioned once or two hundred times here: passivity is not purity of mission. God involves us in sparking faith in others, not merely to wait for spontaneous combustion. We should mention baptism more, not less. It’s right there in the Great Commission so it should absolutely be normalised as something that lots of people do, and have across the history of the church and around the world. There are many ways we can regularly offer opportunities for people to explore baptism, and stop short of coercing people.
Even if – especially if – your church has not had a baptism in quite some time, might you consider setting a rhythm of offering baptism discussion sessions once per quarter? Even if – especially if – every last person in your congregation has already been baptised, might it not indicate that it’s time to invite others in? And if you know someone who wittingly or unwittingly is standing a little too close to the pool of faith, why not smile mischievously, put your arm round them … and give them a copy of Taking the Plunge?
Many years ago I was chairing a committee that was tackling a complex problem. As far as committees go, it was a good one, well stocked with highly intelligent people and united in our purpose. It didn’t take too long before they came up with a very clever approach to overcome the problem. “Well done! Sounds like a great way forward,” I said.
The next month we met again, and to my surprise the problem hadn’t been overcome. “Oh, I said, did it prove to be more difficult than we thought?” But they assured me it wasn’t, and in fact it wasn’t very difficult at all. They laid out the series of simple steps needed and again I said “Go for it.”
After another month you’d think that this brilliant committee would have knocked it on the head, but once again there was our problem, undented. “Well this one really is mocking us, isn’t it? We just can’t seem to win,” I said. But again they assured me that this problem would really be no problem, no problem at all. Then it began to dawn on me. “Could it be,” I asked, “That you’ve found a great plan for solving the problem, and it’s not that the steps are too hard for you, but rather that they’re too easy?” Their eyes brightened. You see, this group of great thinkers were not great doers. The actual steps, once found, required little thinking, and thinking was their thing.
And it got me thinking about mission, because, well, everything does. Does the mission of our largely white, educated, middle class movement suffer because our task is too difficult? Or is it too easy. People like us – like me – enjoy a good puzzle, a good debate, the wrestling with ideas, but not so much the wrestling with a lawnmower. If there’s a process, and it’s simple, then it should be automated. Done by robots. Or just by ‘others’. Once we’ve thought up a good way, well, the rest is boring.
There are a lot of good books and conferences and discussion groups about mission, but the truth is that the way the Lord has given to us isn’t rocket science. It involves taking an interest in others, sharing meals, asking questions, serving, praying, and the talking needed is hardly ever hifalutin. It’s labour-intensive. God wants to reach out to each person, to connect personally with them, through people. That will take many of us, even for a small suburb, but we prefer to fantasize about God ‘sweeping his hand across the suburb’ and getting it done without anyone having to get their fingernails dirty. But that’s not his way. I’m not saying we should stop reading, or doing great thinking about mission. But if we’re dreaming that our lab will suddenly mass-produce a vaccine to automatically Christianise everyone, we need to wake up. And attend to the patch that the Lord has assigned to us. There’s someone at hand that you can visit, call, share a meal with, share God’s love. Too easy, eh?
The Korean pastor handed his business card to me, and immediately two words jumped out from his vision statement: Powerful church. I found myself recoiling, the words grated on me. ‘How arrogant!’ I thought, judging before even thinking.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” says Jesus at the start of the Book of Acts, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” If Pastor Park was arrogant in his vision for a powerful church, then how much more Christ himself?
It’s interesting and wonderful how it takes believers of other cultures to see the ways in which we have sold out to ours. Australians value humility. We really value it, and are at our most powerful when we’re pulling down someone who’s up themselves. We hate pride and arrogance, and sometimes so much that we forget to love God.
You see, we tend to draw a straight line from strength and success to pride and arrogance, so much so that we often can’t tell the difference. Someone who’s successful is obviously proud. And therefore, one way that we can cleverly avoid that deadly sin is to not be successful. To not strive, nor pursue excellence. The words “powerful church” grate on us, because we can make a virtue out of our churches being weak, disorganised and unfruitful. We congratulate ourselves, agreeing that “we’d rather be like this that like one of those try-hard churches.”
Yes, churches and Christians who make efforts to love the Lord their God with all their heart, all their soul, all their mind and all their strength are obviously doing it wrong! Believers who study the Scriptures hard, pray regularly and work on sharpening their ministry are clearly mistaken and trying to build up Brownie points with God. Don’t they know we’re saved by grace, and our Master loves it most when we bury our talents to show our trust in him?
Sacred agents, let’s try to recognise this idiocy when we see it and repent from it. God is calling us to step up and grow up, strive forward (1 Co 9:24-27), and actively seek his empowering. “Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees,” says the writer to Hebrews “…so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” In Christ it is perfectly possible to be both strong and humble, powerful and noble, excellent and gentle. Worth a shot, despite what the Aussies around us will say?
For more on the pursuit of true humility, rather than pride-in-shame, see Dan Kent’s provocative little book Confident Humility. And while I’m plugging books, keep an eye out for Taking the Plunge: Baptism and Belonging to Jesus. Coming soon!
Let’s get the shameless plug out the way – I’ve a new little book coming soon. It’s called Taking the Plunge: Baptism and Belonging to Jesus, and it’s a guide for enquirers and new believers. Keep an eye out for it!
Have you noticed, though, that for many people, baptism is coming a long time after the decision to entrust themselves to Christ? In Scripture we see people being baptised quite immediately upon receiving Christ. In fact, it’s presented as the way of receiving Christ – faith and action, mind and body together.
A similar shift has happened with weddings, that other ceremony of initiation, and I think there’s a cultural correlation. Many used to marry in their early 20s, or even teens, but now wait much longer. Marriage is no longer seen as an initiation into a relationship, but the culmination of it. So what’s happening? Why the mass outbreak of gamophobia (fear of commitment)?
It may be the fear of failure. Divorce is so painful and costly. Why not wait to be sure that your partner is the right one, and that you yourself have the strength to make it work, before ‘sealing the deal’? At one level it’s understandable. It could even be seen as respecting commitment, not just fearing it. But it’s worth us resisting this trend – particularly with baptism. People will never have a better option than Jesus. It’s a pathway we can encourage without reservation, its difficulties notwithstanding.
I like to tell this story: A young woman had a medical condition that made her hands shake continually. She was told that it could be cured, but would require brain surgery. Disturbed by the thought of such an invasive step, she put it off continually and just put up with the shakes. Eventually in later life, she came to her senses and had the surgery. And she was cured! Suddenly some new hobbies were possible for her. But one thing she’d missed: The possibility of becoming a brain surgeon herself and helping others like her. So don’t spend your life deciding whether or not you’ll be in with Christ. Not only is it disrespectful to expect a bridegroom to wait decades at the altar for you, even if he does, you’ve also missed out on some incredible, noble, adventure with him.
FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) should rightly overcome KOOO (Keeping One’s Options Open), and people should take the plunge. There is no fuller or freer life than wholeheartedly belonging to Christ, so encouraging people to whole-body-and-heartedly decide is rightly a part of our gospel.