This past weekend, friends from my former church gathered in Austin for some fellowship time. It was a weekend of food, laughter, and serious discussions. Our last meal together, after the Sunday morning church service and class, began with the blessing of our meal and ended with more serious discussions facing the Church and our society. There were broad spectrums of opinions on various topics. Some expressed their beliefs passionately and others decided to just listen. One expressed his evolving beliefs and attitudes. My joy was that we respected one another and listened with love. We are individuals which a variety of vocational gifts, yet we are one in Christ. Our joy was counterbalanced by concerns about the Church.
Christianity in North America and Western Europe is in decline. The mainline Christian denominations are declining while the general population increases. Dr. William C. Placher, previously the Charles D. and Elizabeth S. LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Wabash College, edited a book on the historical progression of Christian writings on vocations (Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005).
The early Christian Church existed in the ancient world dominated by pagan Romans. In the introduction, he compares current Christianity with the early Church:
“What is God calling me to do?” or “How can I pick up my cross and follow Jesus?” – these seem ever stranger questions. Trying to live as a Christian pushes upstream against the dominant values around us. We do not face the threat of martyrdom, but it is possible to see a connection between our time and the earliest centuries of Christianity, when Christians were outsiders in a world dominated by non-Christian values and assumptions. Simply living as Christians could be our calling too. (page 9)
Today, workers in the United States have so many vocational options. This was not the case from the time Jesus lived until the end of the early Church period (100 – 500CE). “Most people in the ancient world had little choice of job or profession anyway; they did what their parents had done before them. What Christians had to decide was not what job to take, but whether ‘to be conformed to this world’ (Rom. 12:2), or to commit themselves to this new community of ‘aliens and exiles’ (1 Pet. 2:11) that followed Christ.” (page 23-24)
My research has revealed that our current understanding of ‘calling’ is interchangeable with the Latin derived word ‘vocation’ (from vocare – to call). Yet, Scripture uses these words differently. “When the Bible talks about ‘call’ or ‘vocation,’ it characteristically means a call to faith or to do a special task in God’s service. In the Old Testament, God calls the first Israelites, the prophets, and rulers to do his will. In the New Testament the word klēsis (“calling,” from the Greek verb kaleō, “to call,” used eleven times, mostly in letters by Paul or authors influenced by him) consistently refers to God’s call to a life of faith.” (pages 4-5)
Why accept God’s call into a life of faith and obedience when the surrounding dominant culture offers a different path? Why buck the current trends and risk alienation and possible harm? Why not just enjoy a Sunday meal and not discuss matters of faith? To be continued in Part II.