Down To Earth Discipleship    .    Getting real with issues facing young Christians today
Chapter 11
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11. Gifts, vocation and work

  • Discerning vocation is a high priority in and before our early years of work.
  • Developing our gifts and abilities is fundamental to this.
  • Most of us will serve God and contribute to his purposes in and through the broader economy.
  • The work we do here and now will attain its full significance in God's restored creation.
  • Some comments on professional ministry in the church are included.

"As well as being delivered, we need to be driven!"

"His sacrifice compels our sacrifice."66

An essential outworking of Christian faith is turning our beliefs into behaviour, and especially activity which, over the long term, utilises the gifts God has given each of us and is aligned with his purposes in the world. Utilising those gifts however should not be for personal money or status, but primarily in order to serve others and meet human needs through our role in the broader economy

But before turning to that broader picture we need to pause and think about what sort of person we are called to be as a disciple of Christ, and how that contrasts with the alternative. How are our values expressed in lifestyle? - In how we spend our money (cf chapter 6) and how we stand apart from consumerist culture. - In how we prepare ourselves for later life and ministry of all kinds.

As disciples, we need to perceive purpose, significance and real meaning in each day's activities throughout our lives! And we need to understand that work is a characteristic of God who is creator, and is part of his commission to all of us. The Bible has much to say about work as a normal human activity, and its purposes.

Saint Augustine is quoted as observing that the beginning of adulthood is when a person starts thinking about what they want to be remembered for.

There is a much-recounted story of someone visiting a big cathedral construction project and talking with three workers who were shaping stones for it. When asked what they were doing, the first said that he was shaping a stone - his 20th for the day. The second said he was helping build a wall. The third said he was building a wonderful cathedral for the glory of God, and was excited by that. This is very relevant to how any of us sees our work. While any job has its boring aspects, overall we have the option of seeing only the details or looking past those to the goal and purpose of it all.

It is important to explore the need for work from a Christian perspective, along with its purposes, meaning, motivation and rewards. A Christian needs to have a clearer and richer perspective on work than anyone operating without a keen awareness of being part of God's kingdom. He or she needs to understand it in the context of God's purposes in restoring his creation and the individual's own calling in relation to that. Hence work hard, fight laziness, take responsibility, and serve others with joy. This should be exciting at best, and certainly always lift it out of the mundane!

At the same time, beware of looking for ultimate meaning in work, or complete fulfillment in anything but the God of the bible, and Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. A Christian's work fits wonderfully in that context, but as a substitute for it, it is meaningless, as enigmatically outlined in Ecclesiastes 2:17-26.

11.1 Vocational guidance

So having talked about general guidance in life and God's guidance as a concept, we now narrow the focus to the aspect of guidance which is discerning God's calling for our lives (i.e. our vocation). This means understanding what he wants us to focus on and do with our time, energy, abilities, opportunities and money. St Paul refers to the sphere of service God has assigned to him (2 Cor 10:13). Discerning this relates very much to what he has endowed us with in gifts and opportunities - most of us are hopeless at far more things than we are good at! For each of us, that vocational calling needs to be distinguished from what is more appropriate to recreation.

In assessing vocational thrust, first look at what might be God's view of a discipline (eg economics, law, music, building houses) and his purposes in and through it. One's own potential vocational role in the light of one's gifts then becomes clearer, if not obvious, and one can go about progressively increasing theological insight on that over years of biblical reflection and workplace experience. (Ian is passionate about contributing towards providing greater access to energy by more of the world's people through focusing on an important provision by God in providing uranium in the ground and the technology to use it for electricity and also medicine as well as many other things through human creativity. There are a number of theological aspects to all this. 66a)

The Bible does not talk directly about God providing gifts and callings for secular work. But the notion of any work being entirely secular is questionable - the New Testament teaches much about serving God faithfully wherever we are. Indeed, many Christians, especially professionals and creative people, feel called to the work they do, and perceive in it a ministry from God. In fact we all should do so if we understand the implications of sharing Jesus' resurrection life. The calling is both in terms of the Christian love and witness we can show to all whom we meet through this work, and also the way we can influence work and the operation of each workplace to be more congruent with God's purposes in his world. St Paul finishes off his great exposition to the Corinthian church of the significance of the resurrection with: "Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain."67

Christians need to think big and aim high in these regards. As mentioned in chapter 1 on Fellowship, the "Clapham Sect" transformed the whole of British politics. In fact most social reform movements in history have spiritual foundations, notably those tackling slavery, suffrage, child labour and civil rights. All these were built and driven by faithful believers who were passionately (but often also patiently) committed to embodying Christian values firmly in political and economic structures. In God's purposes they were clearly equipped and enabled to do that. Their legacy lives on very powerfully in politics and the whole economic sphere, albeit with diminishing awareness of the origins.

It is entirely realistic to aim to be the best in the world in your vocation! Of course that may require your role to be defined fairly specifically or even narrowly, but the point remains: if you are called and equipped for a role there should be no mediocrity in how it is filled. Ian in his last 20 years of working life has evolved his role (the provision of comprehensive and up to date information on nuclear power) so as to make that aim realistic, and he is confident that co-author Will will in due course be able to say the same in whatever specific role he fills in his peak professional years. The inevitable specificity saves such an aim from becoming a source of pride, such as being the best footballer, the best surgeon or the best economist in specific settings! It also contrasts the classical Greek notion of high-profile virtue with that which is servant-motivated and arising from the Holy Sprit's influence.

The broader public agenda today is more about fighting poverty and the ingrained corruption in many countries which perpetuates it. There is no lack of challenge for Christians here, but one needs a more specific vocational target than the big picture. Indignation about those wider dehumanizing wrongs must feed into effective specific work to counter them in particular respects. Wisdom is required.

One particular way of gaining some wisdom and certainly broadening the mind usefully is the GAP year away from home base either after school years or after graduation. This can be a useful pointer to vocation either immediately or much later.

Gifts wider than 'spiritual': Unless we take a narrow view of God's purposes in the world and about Christian vocation in it, not to mention his concern for seven billion people inhabiting planet Earth, our understanding of those gifts should not be limited to "spiritual" ones. If God is not indifferent to the welfare of all people - as any reading of the bible would suggest, then what is our role in providing for that welfare? - both through our paid work and in our unpaid time? Our prayer needs to canvass broader options than church or personal ministry to people, and take in elements of all that is happening in his world, since he is sovereign Lord of it all. The parable of the talents68 is germane: we need to invest what we have in the way of gifts, not just sit on them.

Generally we can expect gifts - both those given to each of us for building up the church, and those with wider application - to become evident by early adulthood and then be developed continually through the different stages of life. Mozart wrote some of his best music while a teenager. But we also need to be effectively open to the progressive recognition and development of further gifts. The Christian fellowship has a significant role to play in this, along with prayer partnerships and more particular personal relationships. We need to be alert to how each of us can more strongly affirm and encourage the development of gifts in one another.

Vocation or hobby? We need to try and distinguish interests which are more properly pursued as recreation or hobbies throughout life from those which are truly vocational, or we risk being diverted into trivial vocations and at the same time depriving ourselves of some absorbing future recreation. This is an individual matter - what is recreational for many people may be vocational for a few.

How to discern for each of us? What is the most interesting and fulfilling thing a person has done in the last few months or more may be some guide. And more generally: what one finds most stimulating (the opposite is also a guide!), and what sort of things sustain one's interest and passion beyond the short term, providing new and absorbing challenges from one week or month to the next. Can one identify these reasonably clearly? How many are task-oriented? How many people-oriented? And which of them achieve something for the greater good, as distinct from simply being self-indulgent? Of course that is likely to be reflected in what one can arrange to be paid for pursuing them!

We also need to check what is the feedback from friends and colleagues on what they think are one's strengths and gifts. What is our own blend of practical and planning skills? Ability to read the cultural undercurrents of things one has observed and commented upon? Leadership of people?

As we go through the early years of life we will make many contacts and friendships. It becomes increasingly impossible to maintain all of these, but building and maintaining a network is important for each of us vocationally as well as providing opportunity to give and receive hospitality (which reinforces the network). One never knows which contact may later become significant in some aspect of personal growth, guidance, ministry (eg mentoring) or vocational endeavour. So, a little effort in maintaining a network of friends and contacts is a good investment, and works both ways.

Becoming a parent is an important vocation for many of us — it should not be simply an inexorable consequence of marriage, let alone an inconvenience arising from that, but a privilege and calling. It requires prior thought and discussion with our spouse as it will call for a major re-ordering of priorities regarding time and money, and often also our paid work - usually more so for mothers than fathers. Young women may need to think ahead and consider seeking 'family-friendly' work roles so that motherhood does not displace other vocational priorities long-term. Shared responsibility and job sharing is workable and rewarding for some.

Along with the sense of being called to serve people as a doctor, accountant, plumber, business executive or whatever, comes the need to develop a specifically Christian understanding of that personal vocation and the wider consideration of work, and where it fits into God's purposes in the world. Often this will be congruent with a range of other activities drawing on professional skills which may serve people without remuneration, including ministry in its narrower senses. One thinks of medical doctors - by no means only Christians - who use vacation or retirement time to serve in third world situations.

11.1 Discussion questions:
How are your values expressed in your lifestyle?
How do you understand your work or study in the context of God's purposes?
Do you see yourself as having spiritual gifts for secular work? To apply to God's wider concerns in the world?
How are you contributing to making your workplace more congruent with God's purposes?
To what extent do you to aim to be the best in the world in your vocation?
Have you had to wrestle with the question of what interests should be relegated to recreation, and which comprise a major element of vocational calling?
How much do your friends reinforce or counter your vocational instincts?

11.2 Get going early!

The whole business of post-secondary education and the intimidating effect of big organisations can put one off being proactive and taking initiative early in life. It should not. There is huge scope for any energetic and thoughtful young person to make their mark even as a teenager.

Without any need to factor in considerations of long-term vocational commitment, where ideas are matched by opportunities, take them! Be ready to step forward and take responsibilities, exercise leadership and have a go at any stage of life. It is never too early! In school, university, church and community organisations there are many opportunities for young leaders, though there will also be plenty of places where upstarts are discouraged. That is a challenge to be met and overcome.

Speaking to a (male) church leaders' seminar in Sydney, Mark Driscoll, pastor of the large Mars Hill church in Seattle, USA, said: "The longer you delay responsibility, the longer you delay masculinity. Being in a Peter Pan lifestyle indefinitely is a sin. Jesus Christ had atoned for the sins of the world by the age most men become associate ministers. There are good godly men in their 30s leading big churches overseas, and you are flying them in to preach to you because you don't have them in your system." These comments, and the need to take responsibility early in life, apply particularly to young men. However, gender should not be seen as a barrier to discerning opportunities and acting on them under God's guidance.

Taking on responsibilities and exercising initiative early in life is both good training for the long term and a good indicator of gifts. So in general, don't hold back when opportunities arise, and be ready to find and create opportunities well before they are offered to you on a plate.

There is a lot to be said for getting involved in as much leadership and volunteer organisational work as possible as early in life as one can. While not wanting to deprive yourself of fun during your teenage years, the skills and the patterns of work and leadership that can be set into your life at that age are phenomenal. A young person who is able to pick up on management, organisational and leadership skills as a teenager is set up to be able to be used in God's kingdom in many different ways for the rest of their life as a person who makes things happen. Acquiring early a mindset of service and then applying this without necessarily getting anything back in return is a wonderful attribute, and once again is something that God will really be able to use throughout their life.

One of the founding fathers of the USA, Benjamin Franklin, said that a lot of people die by the age of 25, even though they are not buried until their 70s. Don't be one of them! Nurture your vocational passions!

There is a view of work that is essentially just putting in the time and average effort. Without your becoming an obsessive workaholic, we suggest that in fact you do much more than this. First class performance needs to be your standard, with reliability and cooperation being the characteristics. Build quality relationships even with people you do not esteem, where humility is a real challenge, and look after your colleagues' interests, not just your own.

11.2 Discussion questions (use with 11.3):
How much of a start did you make in vocational discernment as a teenager?
Are there opportunities you can still take for responsibility and leadership?
Is Mark Driscoll correct in telling guys that "The longer you delay responsibility, the longer you delay masculinity."
Are you just coasting or really performing in any work-type roles that you have? Are you perceived as cooperative and reliable?

11.3 Seeking specific roles

The intersection of talent, passion and market/ need/ opportunity is where to aim. Don't dissipate effort simply because you are capable widely. Be distinctive! Set out to work so that people benefit and flourish.

Gaining access to many work roles will mean applying for jobs. The main tool here is a resumé or CV (curriculum vitae - a running sheet or course of life). A CV needs to outline a person's education, achievements and experience, and it also needs to reveal much more, including personal interests and values. Often what a person does recreationally tells a potential employer much more about them than simply the basic education and employment history.

An employer who gains a positive impression of a person from the CV will interview them ahead of another with equal or better "paper" qualification. So it is important to communicate in a CV, through listing experience in non-work (as well as work) activities, such things as your reliability, initiative, teamwork skill, ability to work independently, your energy, thoroughness, communication skills, people and leadership skills, and so on. These need to be implicit in what you document factually about your activities and experience, certainly not just asserted!69 Documenting something like musical ability will imply a lot about self-discipline, summarising major travel experience will imply much about your ability to cope in unfamiliar circumstances and mentioning church or Christian group involvement will convey something of your values.

From the point of view of the individual seeking guidance in relation to vocation, one of the most important things is to actually frame the relevant questions concerning a possible way of proceeding. Then they can be addressed and answered. It is all too easy to be influenced unduly either by a positive or optimistic attitude to a proposed course of action or commitment, or by a negative but superficial impression of it. In both cases there needs to be logical approach which identifies the real questions concerning a possibility and its consequences so that the answers are obtained and understood. This is likely to save much disappointment later.

The other point that needs making is that no role can be expected to continue for long - more than a few years. The idea of a job for life is two generations out of date. Most people today can expect to fill many successive roles through an active employment lifetime, and any vocational thinking must allow for this. Of course those roles may not be very diverse, and many could be with one employer.

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that at Blackburn High School in suburban Melbourne a relatively high proportion of the elected student leadership for many years has been committed Christians. This is a much higher proportion than in the student body generally, and is perhaps largely attributable to the fact that these leaders have come up through the ranks of three local churches and taken the initiative to gain experience in responsible roles throughout their teens. It possibly also says something about their attitude to fellow students being something which equips them as servant leaders. This situation is probably quite common; the point here is that the kind of experience giving rise to it is definitely worth mentioning in a CV.

Another perspective on vocational guidance is to note that all of us are pretty hopeless, if not absolutely incompetent, at most things! The trick is to identify what you are good at, and what satisfies one in the doing of it.

11.3 Discussion questions (use with 11.2):
What does you CV look like? Have you had it checked by experienced friends?
What are the main relevant questions concerning possible roles for you? Have you talked these through with friends who have some idea of the workplaces and organisations concerned?

11.4 A Christian vision to define the meaning of our lives (and hence understanding of work)

The implications of Jesus inaugurating his kingdom include our roles in serving him towards its consummation. Not only so, but we look forward to God restoring his groaning and blemished creation, and in our endeavours to serve him and pursue his purposes, we know that our labour cannot be lost. So, understanding that in his creation he has provided abundantly for every kind of human need, and observing that two thirds of the world's population lacks all or most of the basic necessities of life, there is an immense challenge which needs to absorb our energies. Where someone sees a need not being met, and invests his or her time, resources and energy to do something about it either directly or indirectly (perhaps as a banker or supplier), then this is God-like creativity and provision.

Supplying food, fibres, building materials, minerals and energy and infrastructure at both primary and manufacturing levels all require application of human creativity (in God's image) and sometimes huge amounts of capital. This presupposes efficient banking systems and political contexts of property rights and contract law, without which no dreams can be turned into reality on any scale. In many parts of the world endemic corruption frustrates efforts to develop resources and apply them affordably to the needs of people. Christians potentially have major roles both in the economic system itself with its legal infrastructure which we take for granted in most Western countries, and in shaping its ethics - contributing to its freedom from corruption and rip-offs. This is all part of seeing work in the eternal context of God's kingdom moving towards him restoring his creation.

Even in churches with 'workplace ministry' on their agendas, most of this is right off the radar. Bankers, accountants, engineers, metallurgists, miners, oil industry execs, manufacturing managers are all left without any real sense of how their daily endeavours and the application of sometimes considerable skills and experience are contributing to God's purposes in the overall economy. Often the church is only able to affirm the 'visible' roles of those with whom the staff come into personal contact - teachers, doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, some public servants, operators of urban infrastructure, and of course those in church-related ministries (cf 11.5). Mines, steelmills, LNG terminals, power plants, merchant shipping, etc might as well be on another planet (of course they are just as remote from the consciousness of most people who depend on them). Likewise, the entrepreneurs and discerning investors who bring those enterprises into being economically are largely invisible to most. Yet they all need to be part of the church's vision of a restored creation where all the needs of all people on Earth are fully met, and they need to feature in a church's witness that looks beyond the world's goals of productivity and material prosperity to an economy based on a notion of servant stewardship.

Work is a major aspect of a Christian's role in the world. Certainly there is a practical role in providing for our material needs, but our involvement should be much more than this. We should aim to understand how to participate in the economic enterprise of our communities and societies, creating wealth in the broadest sense of that term, and serving others even as a relatively insignificant cog in larger enterprise. This is a true missional calling, and one which showcases the character of God's kingdom in the context of the grand biblical narrative (cf 12.1).

Such wealth creation, although not a central aspect of the church's mission in the world, nevertheless is part of it and forms an important part of ensuring life on Earth is sustainable, and even enjoyable. It is therefore fundamental in the perspective of God's kingdom purposes. Since the church's mission must occur in the world, the church has a clear interest and even mandate in respect to the world's basic affairs, central among which is wealth creation - broadly understood. It is important for Christians to be involved and setting the tone of this in all aspects of public life and professions. In his 2009 New Year message on the importance of economic development in alleviating poverty and creating peace, Pope Benedict affirmed that: "The creation of wealth is an inescapable moral duty". Paul is careful to make clear that being a heavenly-minded Christian is not a sufficient reason to be idle and unproductive70.

The Lausanne Movement's 2011 Cape Town Commitment included: "We cannot claim to love God while abusing what belongs to Christ by right of creation, redemption and inheritance. We care for the Earth and responsibly use its abundant resources, not according to the rationale of the secular world, but for the Lord's sake." "We support Christians whose particular missional calling is to environmental advocacy and action, as well as those committed to godly fulfilment of the mandate to provide for human welfare and needs by exercising responsible dominion and stewardship. The Bible declares God's redemptive purpose for creation itself. Integral mission means discerning, proclaiming, and living out, the biblical truth that the gospel is God's good news, through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for individual persons, and for society, and for creation. All three are broken and suffering because of sin; all three are included in the redeeming love and mission of God; all three must be part of the comprehensive mission of God's people."(I, 7) "All human beings are to be stewards of the rich abundance of God's good creation. We are authorized to exercise godly dominion in using it for the sake of human welfare and needs, for example in farming, fishing, mining, energy generation, engineering, construction, trade, medicine. As we do so, we are also commanded to care for the Earth and all its creatures, because the Earth belongs to God, not to us. We do this for the sake of the Lord Jesus Christ who is the creator, owner, sustainer, redeemer and heir of all creation." (IIB) 70a

Furthermore we should personally develop an understanding of how our work fits in to God's kingdom and purposes, and attains its full significance in the restored creation and realized kingdom. Having developed that understanding it is good to be able to articulate it on a biblical basis, as one aspect of developing a Christian mind - further discussed in chapter 12.

'Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the LordÉ your labor is not in vain' (1 Cor. 15:58). 'When the final consummation comes, the work you have done - in Bible study or biochemistry, preaching or pure mathematics, digging ditches or composing symphonies - will stand, will last.' (N.T.Wright, The Challenge of Jesus).

One important perspective on work is Christian stewardship of God's creation, and how this is undertaken. In response to an understanding that God has provided very liberally for us, it needs to involve attention to the human economy as well as to the natural ecology. Science and technology can bring these aspects together and provide the tools for the job. (Christians above all should resist the extreme green agenda, which puts a majority of seven billion people in second place to some narrow, idealised concept of "the environment". It would seem that some of today's Christian environmentalism is essentially pagan, effectively commending the elevation of God's creation to something more like God himself.)

Care for creation is important but does not preclude careful and respectful use of it in the course of deploying its resources to "make poverty history". Christians should understand that they can virtuously apply their lives to meeting people's needs by focusing on the utilitarian aspects of creation - notably its productive potential including minerals and energy - without losing sight of the need for care and respect. Respect and care for God's creation must not divert us from using its resources to benefit people, especially those people who are in poverty or economic disadvantage, effectively deprived of access to God's bounty unless through trade or aid we make resources available.

This perspective needs to go alongside understanding human work as part of God's transforming purposes in the world.

11.4 Discussion questions (use with 11.5):
How do you see your present or likely future work serving others?
How do you understand economic wealth creation and the Christian role in it?
Do you agree with Pope Benedict on wealth creation?
How does the stewardship statement of the Cape Town Commitment relate to your understanding of vocation?
Do science and technology contribute to your role in the stewardship of God's creation?

11.5 Professional ministry in the church

Professional paid ministry in the church, notably ordination, is an important and particular expression of vocation for some. The timing of offering for it, the whole question of personal gifts and experience qualifying for it, are major issues to address. Professional ministry of this kind may be outside the confines of the church, and also inside the church but preceding professional commitment to it. Theological education is mostly just that - beyond some minor particulars it cannot itself equip a person to lead a church and manage its affairs competently. It is Ian's observation that most effective management and leadership training probably occurs in teenage years, at school and maybe university, and not so much in management or leadership courses later on (though they can certainly help develop such abilities).

Two kinds of experience in particular are required for the ordained ministry: that of effective ministry in the church on the basis of gifts, energy, love and commitment as a lay person; and life experience involving the application of basic organisational, management and leadership skills in any context. The emphasis given to each will differ according to individual situations.

Of course, following theological training and ordination much experience remains to be gained on the job, and this too is critical. Today in the UK the Church of England is becoming less concerned about prior workplace experience. The reasons advanced are two-fold: 1) because they would like younger priests. 2) because it has been recognised that leading a church is not hugely similar to managing in a business. Many now think that the best preparation for church work is actually engaging with the issues in church work, learning from elders.

An objection to this is that a minister who has only ever done church work will not sufficiently understand the pressures, temptations and difficulties of daily life. The lack of worldliness and the shallow life experience is most likely to be considered alienating and limiting rather than suitable for a minister. On the other hand, workplaces differ. So wherever a minister comes from, he or she will have to establish credibility by listening and learning.

11.5 Discussion questions (use with 11.4):
Do you sense any calling to ordained or other professional ministry? How?
What are the gifts you consider most important for such ministry?
How important do you think life experience is for such ministry?

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66 David Turner, sermon on Rom12:1-8 at All Souls 18/6/06.

66a Hore-Lacy I, Nuclear Power and Energy Sustainability, Science & Christian Belief, 23 (2), Oct 2011.

67 1 Cor 15:58

68 Matt 25: 14-30

69 Keep a matter of fact tone, avoid all hype, and check adjectives carefully. Make sure they under- rather than overstate your wonderful attributes!

70 2 Thess 3:6-15

70aLausanne Movement 2011: The Cape Town Commitment - A confession of faith and call to commitment, part I Confession of Faith, 7 Love for God's World; part II, Call to Action, IIB Building the peace of Christ.