Friday, August 24, 2007

The Call to the Ministry

The report came back from the recent church youth camp: ten children had committed their lives to full-time Christian ministry. While this seems to be a reason to rejoice, I've often wondered if we push too hard for such commitments. It seems like just another excuse to report numbers.

When it comes to a "call to the ministry," we all know what is meant. The phrase is intended to refer to a career in Christian ministry, whether as preachers, missionaries, para-church workers, or Christian school teachers. Of course, these are good and noble professions. But surely we all agree that those who hold such positions are not the only ones who are called to the ministry. Every believer is to be a minister, including Christian doctors, engineers, landscapers, and farmers. This fact suggests that we should do away with urging impressionable young people to make a commitment to vocational ministry. When was the last time the church rejoiced over a youngster's desire to be a firefighter? I am afraid that we have communicated to our children the idea that work in vocational ministry somehow comes with more of God's approval, even if it doesn't always bring more financial prosperity.

But surely we need pastors, missionaries, and other vocational ministry people. My contention is not that we stop filling these positions, but that we start filling them with the appropriate people. And who might that be? How can we discern God's "call" to the ministry?

According to 1 Timothy 3:1, desire is not a bad motive to have. "If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task." Instead of laying guilt upon some overly-sensitive soul, it may be best to look for those who have come to the conclusion on their own that they would like to labor in vocational ministry. It is far easier to motivate the already-motivated, and I'm sure we would find vocational ministers who want to be there far more successful than those who are serving out of compulsion.

But desire itself is not enough, as the further qualifications for an overseer in 1 Timothy 3 suggest. There can always be impure motives. Ministry can afford too many the opportunity to seek notoriety, and too many have consequently become entangled with pride in their ministries. This post by Carl Trueman (yes, I know it is three weeks old already!) points to the difference between desiring to teach and desiring to be teachers. Thus, there are many who focus on their own status and not on the words they proclaim which "are merely instrumental to getting them status and boosting their careers." The post goes on to make a suggestion as to how we might fill vocational ministry positions:

Nine times out of ten, I believe that the church should first discern who should be considering the Christian ministry, not simply act as a rubber-stamp for a putative internal call which an individual may think he has.
In spite of the fact that I myself experienced this "putative internal call," I find myself agreeing with these sentiments. I would like to see the church taking a more active approach in filling vocational ministry positions. In Acts 13, the Holy Spirit "calls" Barnabas and Paul into missionary work, but it happened "while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting" and it apparently was not these two who sensed the inner call, but the church at large who heard (or sensed, or knew) the Holy Spirit's call. These two men were some of the "prophets and teachers" in the church at Antioch, but the church "laid their hands on them and sent them off."

I'm wondering why something more like this couldn't continue to happen today. Why can't the church initiate the "call to ministry"? Why not suggest to effective church volunteers and lay leaders that they fill needed ministry positions. Why not send our own pastors and teachers to the mission field, or our own Sunday school teachers to the pastorate? Indeed this does happen in some churches. I’m just wishing it happened more often. Surely there are many individuals who could use the help of their church in discerning God’s call to the ministry. After all, they may be struggling with some “inner sense” that just doesn’t square with all the risks that will be created by giving up their current career for vocational ministry.

We will still be eager to see our children grow up in the church and to see some become involved in vocational ministry, but perhaps it should be the church who sends them off in this direction, rather than some dubious internal "call." Meanwhile, praise God that the Holy Spirit does lead many into ministry, even if that call is first heard at youth camp.

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