Fuller

The Christian Practice of Vocation

March 21, 2022 • De Pree Journal

Every Christian is called [1]. In fact, every Christian is called twice. Recently there has been much discussion about vocation and calling [2], with the terms often used interchangeably. The discussion often begins with the Reformers.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther argued that we have two responsibilities as Christians—two callings [3]. The first call is the call from God to come and follow Jesus [4]; it is the call to discipleship. Until you answer that call, you are not really a Christian. But as soon as you answer God’s first call, a second call comes hard on its heels. The second call is the call to our neighbor—to love and serve that neighbor. The call to God always involves the call to our neighbor. Luther tied the two calls to the two great commandments: to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and spirit, and to love your neighbor as yourself. He said that they create the obligations that define us. To God we owe faith; to our neighbor we owe love.

This love propels us out into the world as ambassadors, to stand between God and the people God calls us to serve. “The Christian life,” Luther said, “sends you to people, to those that need your works [5].” God does not send us out to some generic, impersonal entity that we will collectively call a “neighbor.” God sends us out—just as God sent Jesus—to a particular people in a particular time and a particular place (as, for example, Jesus sent the seventy in Luke 10). That is why the Bible calls every one of us ambassadors: we are all sent from God to a people. No matter what your station in life—not just if you are a minister—God invites you to be an ambassador, with people entrusted to your care.

This call from God changes our mental model of “vocation.” My vocation is not about me, and your vocation is not about you. Luther suggests that our calling is not defined by our giftedness or our interests or our “passions.” Our calling as Christians is defined by “those who need our works.” A theology of vocation that begins with my interests (e.g., “Find your passion”) or even with my strengths (e.g., StrengthsFinder) can too easily become focused on me. It can too easily become about fulfilling my interests.

This is dangerous because it often promises something that the Christian life cannot deliver. Students and young Christians who are told that there is a vocation for them built around their passions and their strengths often hear that statement as a promise that a fulfilling Christian life will not be difficult. They mistakenly think that the Christian life will consist of doing only what they love. I hear students, for example, talk about how disillusioning an internship experience could be because it was too hard. The people were difficult, the work was painful, and there were not enough public accolades to justify the labor. I know high school and college-aged Christians who agonize over picking a major or a job because they think that they need to find one that will involve doing only things that they want to do.

In short, they have believed the Big Lie that pursuing their passion means never having to do something that they do not enjoy or find fulfilling. So what started out being a calling to serve others ended up being about serving the comfort of the one being called. Focusing on my passions and my strengths too easily becomes focusing on me.

There is, however, another way to describe vocation. Your vocation is a calling to a people entrusted to your care. Christian leaders do not have followers; only Jesus has followers. Christian leaders have people entrusted to their care. Our calling, then, is to serve the people whom God gives to us.

Let me illustrate how this notion of vocation involves having someone entrusted to your care. The first Pixar movie to gain attention was a short called Tin Toy (you can find it on YouTube) [6]. Tin Toy won Pixar’s first Academy Award. It is the story of a very alive windup toy that is a one-man band. When the toy walks, its arms bang a drum, its feet clang a cymbal, and its mouth blows a trumpet. The story unfolds as the wary toy encounters a toddling baby. The lumbering child towers over the toy. As the baby approaches, we can see from the look on the toy’s face that it is not sure what to do. Because the toy is frightened, it starts to back away—clattering as it walks. But then it notices that the baby enjoys the boisterous sounds. So the toy turns and entertains the child. After all, that is what the toy was created to do. Then the baby, who does not know any better, begins to threaten the toy, grabbing the toy roughly, and chewing on it.

Dripping with slobber, the toy flees under a sofa. Huffing with exhaustion and relief, the tin toy turns to find many other toys cowering in fear of the destructive child. There is a moment of peace, but only a moment. In the distance the toys can hear the baby stumble, fall, and begin to cry.

Now comes the turning point in the story. The cartoon won so many awards because with only facial expressions it captures the dilemma the toy faces. The toy can stay under the sofa, where it is safe, or it can face its fears and do what it was created to do—entertain the child. The audience identifies with the toy. We know what it is like when the right thing to do is not the safe thing to do. It is part of what it means to be human. Not everyone is willing to face those fears; that is why so many other toys cower under the couch. But the heroic tin toy sets its shoulders and marches out to entertain the wailing child. It has placed its longings before its losses and embraced its calling. The tin toy has exercised its vocation in spite of the danger and placed the needs of the child entrusted to its care ahead of its own safety. For a moment, the tin toy is a hero.

But that is not how the short story ends. At first the toy is triumphant. The crying baby directs its attention to the toy and coos in delight. The crying child is transformed by the heroic toy. But then the giant baby becomes the danger that the tin toy has feared. The towering toddler grabs the little toy, puts it in its slobbery mouth, then discards the now dented and dripping toy. Next, to add insult to injury, the baby becomes distracted by the box that once wrapped the toy.

The story ends with the mangled toy looking at the camera. The look is an invitation to the audience, an appeal to contemplate with the toy the longings and losses of the encounter. Was it worth it? The vocation of the tin toy is to entertain children; that is why it exists. But, when toy looks at the camera, it asks us to consider, Is it worth the risk to exercise your vocation—to respond to whatever crying baby you have entrusted to your care—knowing that doing what you are called to do will temporarily help the child and permanently damage yourself? These are questions of the human condition. The animated short is so powerful because it asks a question that resonates for all of us. Tin Toy asks how far you will go to exercise your vocation by serving the people entrusted to your care.

Thus, whether you are an individual Christian pursuing your vocation or you are a local congregation pursuing your mission, you are called not to a task but to a people. The people may be a large group—in the way that a missionary might be called to the Berber people of North Africa. Or the people might be a parish—in the way that a congregation might be called to the people of the west end of a town or the neighborhood around a particular inner-city park [7]. Or it might be more of an individual call. I might be called to care for the coworkers who share the cubicle space in my department at my company. Or I might be called to parent the children entrusted to my care [8] or to care for a group of elderly people. There are as many kinds of callings as there are groups of people. But either way, the calling is not about my gifts, my passions, or my tasks; it is about the people entrusted to my care. My purpose derives from my people, not from my plans.

But here is the key point. The standard (but mistaken) next step for people and organizations is to pursue only those areas of my people’s need where I have gifts.

My calling often begins with my interests, my passions, and my gifts. The most common first step is to ask where my passions and strengths intersect with my people’s need. But here is the key point. The standard (but mistaken) next step for people and organizations is to pursue only those areas of my people’s need where I have gifts [9]. By contrast, I argue that my gifts are only the first step. I need to figure out what my people’s needs are and then cultivate the strengths to address those needs—whether or not those strengths come naturally to me. I may start with my strengths, but very soon I will discover that the needs of my people push me beyond what comes naturally to me [10].

I need to figure out what my people’s needs are and then cultivate the strengths to address those needs—whether or not those strengths come naturally to me. I may start with my strengths, but very soon I will discover that the needs of my people push me beyond what comes naturally to me.

An example of becoming who your people need you to be comes from the Pixar movie The Incredibles 2. At one point in the movie, the superhero father is home with the children and feeling totally out of his element. He is accustomed to duties where he can rely on his super strength. But instead he needs to figure out how to teach his elementary-aged son (Dash) how to do new math. At first the dad is exasperated as together the father and son fail to do the math. But then, after tossing and turning in bed, the dad gets up in the middle of the night, turns on the light, picks up the book off the kitchen table, and wrestles with new math. By morning, he has it figured out and can teach it to his son before Dash heads off to school for the test.

At first the dad said that he did not have the gifts or the inclination to teach his son. But then he realized that it was his job to become whoever his son needed him to be. That is what it means to have a people entrusted to your care. You figure out what they need, and then you become who they need you to be. When I became a dad, I was passionate about basketball; I did not expect to have to learn why espadrilles are better than pumps for an outdoor wedding. Similarly, Mr. Incredible wants to wrestle villains with his super strength; he did not expect to have to wrestle with new math. But we are each called to become who our people need us to be—even if that does not fit naturally with our gifts and passions. It is not about me. It’s about the people entrusted to my care.

It is not about me. It’s about the people entrusted to my care.


References

[1] Timothy Keller’s book is particularly important for our discussion because he ties together Karl Weick’s notion of sensemaking, Alasdair MacIntyre’s understanding of practices, and our emphasis on the story that defines a person. See esp. chap. 9, “A New Story for Work,” which opens with the assertion, “People cannot make sense of anything without attaching it to a story.” Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work (New York: Dutton, 2012), 155-158,

[2] There has been a robust and interesting scholarly discussion of vocation in the last two decades. The best books are by Labberton, Hardy, Keller, and Volf (see notes below). Other important insights come from Steven Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007); Garber, Visions of Vocation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014); Amy Sherman, Kingdom Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011); Douglas Schuurman, Vocation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); Kathleen Cahalan and Douglas Schuurman, eds., Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).

[3] Lee Hardy, The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 46.

[4] Mark Labberton’s book Called (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014) is particularly articulate in explaining how the first calling placed on any Christian is the call to discipleship.

[5] Quoted in Hardy, Fabric of This World, 51; Volf argues that Luther inappropriately intertwines a calling with a job—creating what Jürgen Moltmann calls “the consecration of the vocational-occupational structure.” Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 107–8; quoting Jürgen Moltmann, On Human Dignity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 47. Placher points out that Luther’s notion of station is rooted in a static view of society that relates women and peasants to marginal status and baptizes a wealthy man’s standing. We thus need to reference his work but shift the usage of the word “station” so that it takes on a more contemporary meaning, allowing for social mobility. Thus we draw inspiration from Luther without adopting all his assumptions. See William Placher, Callings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 206.

[6] The video of Tin Toy (1988) is usually available on YouTube. See, e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffIZSAZRzDA.

[7] Compare Ammerman on the distinction between “niche congregations” and “parish congregations.” Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Congregation and Community (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 34–36, 384n58.

[8] Kate Harris, “Motherhood as Vocation,” https://washingtoninst.org/motherhood-as-vocation/; cf. Harris, “Navigating the Challenges of Career, Motherhood, and Identity,” https://vimeo.com/121758875.

[9] The idea that mission is ultimately about the people we serve is at the heart of what has come to be called the “Missional Church” movement. The movement traces its roots to the writing of Lesslie Newbigin in the 1980s and Darrell Guder in the 1990s. It then expanded with the work of Craig Van Gelder, Alan Roxburgh, Mark Lau Branson, and (of late) Dwight Zscheile. Newbigin, e.g., said at the beginning of the movement, “The task of ministry is to lead the congregation as a whole in a mission to the community as a whole, to claim its whole public life, as well as the personal lives of all its people, for God’s rule.” Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 238; Darrell Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000); Darrell Gruder et al., eds., Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007); Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009).

[10] This resonates deeply with Atul Gawande’s reflections on becoming a surgeon. No one is talented enough or gifted enough to put a knife in another person’s flesh. Strengths get you started, but ultimately serving a people entrusted to your care involves cultivating areas that do not come naturally. See Atul Gawande, “The Learning Curve,” New Yorker, Jan. 28, 2002, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/01/28/the-learning-curve.

One thought on “The Christian Practice of Vocation

  1. Vishwa Jeet says:

    I learned a lot about vocation and calling. Thank you very much for this great informative article. Also,for the example of tin toy and incredible 2 stories.

    Lot of Blessing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.