The Myth of Calling

The following is an excerpt from Gaining by Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches that Send. If you’d like more, be sure to pick up a copy of the book today!

James, a successful businessman, a wonderful father, and prominent lay-leader in his church, wondered why God hadn’t called him into ministry. God had radically saved him during his mid-twenties, and by that point he already had a well-established career in industrial engineering. But James loved Jesus and genuinely wanted others to know him. He knew nothing was more important than the spread of the gospel. He loved to teach the Bible and had led several of his work colleagues to Christ. He was good at his job, but he wondered why God hadn’t called him to play on the “varsity squad” of full-time ministers.

There is a widespread myth in the church that “calling into ministry” is a secondary experience that happens to only a few, privileged Christians. We believe that God takes the spiritual elite and entrusts them with the ministry, and for everyone else, their responsibility is to show up faithfully at the events planned by the ministers and foot the bills.

Few lies cripple the mission more than that one.

According to the book of Acts, men like James are not the B-squad in God’s strategy; they are God’s plan-A for reaching the world.

Every Christian, you see, has two major callings: (A) The call to use your vocation for the glory of God and the blessing of others; and (B) the call to make disciples. Thus, every believer should ask these two questions about their lives:

1. What skill has God given me by which I can bless the world? What did God make you “good” at? What is your passion? Or, to say it in business terms, “What is your money maker?” Do you recognize this skill was given to you by God as a means through which he can bless his world? He gave you that teaching ability so you can help children learn the beauties of his world; or that artistic ability to bring out beauty for others to enjoy; or that passion to work with your hands so that you can build structures for others to dwell in.

2. Where and how can I do it most strategically to advance the mission of God? Rather than asking only, “How can I use this to make the most money?” we should also ask, “Where might my skill be of greatest service to others, particularly as a bridge over which I can share the gospel?” Ask yourself this: How do you decide where to pursue your career? Is it simply a “what’s best for my finances?” decision? (There’s nothing wrong with that being a factor; but should it be the only, or even primary, factor?) Why not make where you can be useful in the kingdom of God the primary factor? Jesus tells us to seek first his kingdom in all we do, and all the rest will be added to us (Matt 6:33).

At our church, we simplify these two questions into a single statement: Whatever you’re good at, do it well for the glory of God, and do it somewhere strategic for the mission of God.

When “normal” Christians embrace this idea of calling, the gospel spreads like a prairie grassfire. Luke, the writer of Acts, goes out of his way in Acts to show us that the gospel travels faster around the world in the mouths of regular Christians than it does through full-time, vocational Christian workers. Luke notes, for example, that the first time the gospel left Jerusalem, it was not in the mouths of the apostles. Regular people “went everywhere preaching the word,” while the apostles stayed in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1–4). The first time the gospel actually went out into the world, not a single apostle was involved.

The first “international mission trip” was taken later in that same chapter by Philip, another layman. The Spirit carried him to a desert road where he met an Ethiopian government official, and Philip led him to Christ. The church at Antioch, which served as the hub for missionary activity for the last half of the book of Acts, was not planted by an apostle, but simply “some brothers,” whose names Luke did not even bother to record—presumably because no one would have known whom he was talking about. Apollos, a layman, first carried the gospel into Ephesus, and unnamed brothers first established the church at Rome. These Christians didn’t travel to Rome on a formal mission trip, but were carried there through the normal relocations that come with business and life. As they went, they made disciples in every place (Acts 8:5–8; 18:24–19:1; 28:15).

As Steven Neill notes in his classic History of Christian Missions,

“Nothing is more notable than the anonymity of these early missionaries. … Luke does not turn aside to mention the name of a single one of those pioneers who laid the foundation. Few, if any, of the great Churches were really founded by apostles. Peter and Paul may have organized the Church in Rome. They certainly did not found it.”[1]

This pattern continued down through Christian history. Today, the greatest opportunities for mission advancement still lie with Christians in the business community. Consider this: If you overlay a map of world poverty with a map of world evangelization, you will find that the areas most in need of business development are also the most unevangelized. Many of the most unreached places in the world, most closed to Christian missionaries, have arms wide open to any kind of businessmen.

The next wave of missions will be carried forward, I believe, on the wings of business. I saw this happen through my dad: He worked for thirty-five years for a large, American-based textile corporation. In his last few years before retirement, he volunteered to oversee the construction of some new plants in East Asia. There he was able to rub shoulders with businessmen I would never have been able to get close to had I gone as a missionary and set up an “English corner” there. My dad led one of the businessmen to Christ. His “mission trip” did not cost the church a dime. In fact, he got paid to do it.

About six times a year my friend Nick goes to Japan, where he engages with top business officials in one of the least evangelized countries in the world. Another man, Jerome, chose to use his prestigious law degree to get a job working in the Middle East, where he engages with legal officials in a country completely closed to foreign missionary work. Erica works as a guard at a female prison facility, where she treats the prisoners with dignity and respect and prays for them to find true freedom in Christ.

We need to help “ordinary believers” in our churches recover the understanding that they are called to the mission and shaped by God for a specific role in that mission. The question is no longer if we are called to leverage our lives for the Great Commission, only where and how.

[1] Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1986), 22.