The other day I attended an event aimed at helping people – in particular, though not exclusively, those at school – explore their Christian vocation; an event which confirmed for me my belief that we are coming up with creative new answers to old questions, when in fact we need to come up with new questions.
At this event, several theological colleges were represented, from across the theological spectrum, and offering an increasing mix of modes of training. Also represented were several para-church Christian organisations and mission societies, all of which are looking to recruit the next generation. There was opportunity to find out about ways in which you could be trained and licensed for lay ministry within the church; or explore spiritual direction; or become a third order Religious. Or you might pick up a copy of the Church of England magazine ‘VOCATIONS: is God calling you into ordained ministry? Information for young people thinking about becoming a priest in the Church of England.’
There were, as I noted above, a diverse set of answers to an old question, answers which have been adapted (more, or less, successfully) for a new context. The question is, in essence: how do we validate vocation, and create ways for it to be expressed? But behind the question lies an assumption: the assumption that vocation refers to a particular type of calling, a calling to serve within particular roles – the clergy, the missionary, the church worker – a calling that applies to the few. And on the basis of that assumption, we deny (whether we intend to or not) the calling of everyone else, and we compete for the Chosen, and we push anyone who expresses a seriousness about following Christ into a very narrow mould which removes them from the places where those who most need them live out their lives. We might even suggest that they serve a gap-year – national service for the kingdom of heaven – before (or after – after all, we’re being creative) getting on with a career.
What we need are new questions, based on a different assumption: on the assumption that everyone has a vocation – that each one of us has been made by God to be a unique someone and to do particular things as well as things common to others. That we are all called, and need to learn to discern our calling in the world.
As I see it, my calling is to a large degree to help other people to discover and grow in their calling.
So, here are some questions that we might ask:
What subjects do you enjoy engaging with? What are you naturally good at? Which teachers engaged and inspired you (were a Person of Peace to you)?
God does ask us to do things we don’t want to do, in order to help us grow to maturity; in order that we do not end up spoilt brats, lacking the strength of character to stand up to hardship. But God does not go looking in the recesses of your mind to find the thing you most fear he might ask you to do, the thing that goes against how he made you, and decide to make you do that. God is not a monster. But if that is what you believe, please do me a favour: please don’t talk to anyone about God. Ever.
And then, within any calling, there are different ways of expressing that calling, different ways of contributing, according to how God has created us. So:
Do you come alive at the thought of pioneering into as-yet uncharted territory for your discipline, pushing back boundaries or expanding into new places? Do you imagine going beyond where others have gone? (You might be an apostle.)
Do you come alive at the thought that your chosen work environment or community or world might be a more just, fairer, or more creative place; might encompass a broader and deeper and fuller imagination and experience of the kingdom of God? Do you dream of challenging the status quo? (You might be a prophet.)
Do you come alive at the thought of recruiting others to your cause or spreading the word regarding good news, whatever that might be in your sphere of interest? (You might be an evangelist.)
Do you come alive at the thought of humanising whatever field you find yourself drawn to, so that the person is not lost sight of in the pursuit of principles or the demands of tasks? (You might be a pastor.)
Do you come alive at the thought of training others, of passing-on the on-going learning of those who have gone before, and of raising-up the next generation who will take your place? (You might be a teacher.)
Every sphere of endeavour humanity has turned our hands to – the arts and the sciences, the theoretical and the practical – in the fulfilment of our being created in the image of a creator God needs the contributions of all five of these different types of people. (Including that very peculiar calling to be ordained within the Church of England: can you guess what type of person I am?)
Young people need to help to navigate their vocation. Plenty of other people will give them grounds to do so: potential fame or wealth or power spring to mind. The church can help us discover what God has planned for us. Or we can abdicate that responsibility, and concern ourselves only with securing our own future...which would be a sure-fire way of consigning our future to hell by degrees...