The modern Western church tends to be overly pietistic. This often manifests in an attitude that says “if you really want to do God’s work, then be a missionary or a pastor.” Pursuant to this view, everyone else is a sort of second-class spiritual citizen, not really doing things that matter all that much for the Kingdom. The implicit message that comes through many times even in evangelical preaching is that if you are one of these second-class spiritual citizens, i.e., a non-missionary non-pastor type, then you should do whatever minor, secondary ministry God has given you, work hard at your “secular” job and make as much money as you can and live as frugally as you can, so that you can give as much money as you can to people who are really doing the Lord’s work.
Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales and now What’s in the Bible?, expresses his early understanding of this “truth” in Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story about God, Dreams, and Talking Vegetables. He writes: “I grew up in and around churches and Bible conferences. I knew lots of missionaries, and they knew me. (After all, I was one of R. R. Brown’s great-grandchildren.) I also knew that overseas missions was the best thing you could possibly do with your life. Pastoring a church or preaching on the radio was pretty good too, but not nearly as good as carrying the gospel to an unreached people group. Preferably one whose language had yet to be reduced to writing. Preferably one that might consider eating you if you looked at them cross-eyed (8).”
Expressed in Vischer’s characteristically humorous style, his statement demonstrates what has become the dominant view of how to really get it done for God in our times. Os Guinness calls this view the “Catholic distortion” of calling in The Call. I know why he called it that, but it is just as pervasive in modern Protestant circles. Describing how it affected him, he states:
“In my early days of following Jesus, I was nearly swayed by others to head toward spheres of work they believed were worthier for everyone and right for me. If I was truly dedicated, they said, I should train to be a minister or a missionary. . . . Coming to understand calling liberated me from their well-meaning but false teaching and set my feet on the path that has been God’s way for me (5).”
Like Vischer and Guinness, I have experienced the enormous pressure to really “do something great for God,” which of course meant either being a missionary or a pastor. I wasn’t as wise as Os Guinness, so I actually tried a run at both. I pastored a small church bi-vocationally for about three years, and I left it to go to Seminary so that I could become a missionary. I have battled the temptation to view God’s work in this way numerous times over the years, but, thankfully, I think God has finally freed me from it the way He always frees us from sin—through His word.
Don’t be shocked. It was sin. I was rebelling against what God had made me to do. I was refusing to recognize the gifts and abilities that He had given me and the way He had wired me. I was refusing to learn from His sovereign providential guiding of my life, even before I was a believer. (And, before you start to think I am being arrogant, I believe that God has done this for every single person. He has gifted you and wired you a certain way to glorify Him. Every event in your life has providentially prepared you for that calling. Nobody is without gifts, nothing happens by chance or accident, and everybody has a calling. The modern church would do well to return to this teaching.)
The Reformers and the Puritans did not suffer from this truncated and stunted view of what it means to do God’s work. (I hope to say more about this in future posts on the Puritans’ and Reformers’ views of work and calling.) This is, of course, why Os Guinness refers to it as the Catholic distortion of calling—because the Protestants so opposed it. How ironic that we, their modern descendants, have returned to it so whole-heartedly. Is it any wonder that we have stopped having any real and fundamental impact on our culture and the world as a whole?