Vocation and Calling According to the Reformers

One question I am sometimes asked is how a person can know what their “calling” in life is. The Reformers had a lot to say on this topic, which is helpful for us in how we think about “calling” in our lives.

The words “occupation,” “job” and “vocation” are used more or less interchangeably by people today. “Vocational training,” for example, refers to training specific to a particular line of work. However, for the Reformers, the word “vocation” had a distinct meaning.

The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, literally: calling.

For the Reformers, to speak of work as vocation, reflected their view that “secular” work is actually a calling from God to do his work in the world and to serve your neighbor.
This was in contrast to the view which was held by the medieval Roman Catholic Church, which made a strong distinction between sacred and secular realms of life, the sacred realm being reserved for things directly related to the church and its work, and the secular realm being that of all non church-related activity. This view, however, is still very common – and the language of “secular” vs “sacred” is still very prominent. Think about all the times you have heard people talk about “secular music” as opposed to “Christian music”, or if you have heard people talk about “secular jobs” as opposed to “ministry jobs.”

To this, Luther wrote:

“What seem to be secular works are actually the praise of God and represent an obedience which is well-pleasing to him.” Housework may have “no obvious appearance of holiness, yet those household chores are to be more valued than all the works of monks and nuns.” (From Luther’s commentary on Genesis)

To the person struggling to find their calling, Luther would say, “How is it possible that you are not called? Are you a husband or a wife? Are you a mother or a father or a child or an employee?” (See Colossians 3:17-24)

The Reformers would have pushed back against the concept of “finding your calling.” Your calling, they would have said, is not something mysterious or difficult to discern. It is the current circumstances of your life. If you are a mother, then your calling is to be a mother. If you are an office worker, then it is to be an office worker. There is a freedom to change what you do, but whatever you do, you are to view it as a calling from God to serve him by serving your neighbor in that context.

What transforms a job into a calling is faith. By faith we see our daily activities as tasks given to us by God to be done for his glory and for the benefit of others.

One bit of feedback I received via social media was from a person who works in a convenience store, and who questioned how selling cigarettes, beer and junk food could possibly be service to God or others. While I’m sure that there is some redeeming value in working in a convenience store, this brings up a great point: if you do not believe that what you are doing is honoring to God or contributing to the flourishing of others, or is actually detrimental to others, then the right thing to do might be to find another job.

This teaching should not be taken to mean that you must not leave your job if, for example, the working climate or culture is unhealthy, or if you would simply like to pursue another career. It simply means that you should view whatever you do as a way to glorify God and do his work in the world by serving others.

For more on this topic see: “We Who Cut Mere Stones…”

Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 2

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In Part 1 of this post I shared some thoughts on the commonly held belief that religious belief is in decline around the world and eventually doomed for extinction.

Today, we look at three more important factors to keep in mind regarding this topic:

2. Liberal Religion is Declining, but Conservative Religion is on the Rise

I wrote about this phenomena recently here: When You Stand for Nothing…, where I talked about the case of two Presbyterian denominations, one which is theologically liberal and the other which is theologically conservative. The liberal denomination is bleeding out quickly, whereas the conservative one is growing strongly.

It seems that there has been a major miscalculation by many people about the eventual demise of theologically conservative beliefs.

Since many of the historical mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) and the Episcopal Church in America (TEC) have taken a hard turn towards theological liberalism, they have seen rapid declines in their membership and attendance. And since these denominations compromised a large portion of the population in the United States, their declines have caused many to say that Christianity in the United States is in crisis.

Of the people leaving these denominations, many have transferred into theologically conservative Evangelical Protestant Churches. According to this article from Christianity Today, over the last four decades, there has been more than a 400 percent growth in Protestants who identify as nondenominational. Non-denominational Evangelical Protestant Churches now compromises about 30% of all Christian church attendance in the United States.

Around the world, both in Christianity and outside of Christianity, it is the conservative branches of religious movements which are on the rise, not the liberal ones. This is surprising to those like Richard Dawkins, who assume that as the world becomes more educated and developed, religion will either turn into sentimental tradition or just die out completely. Quite the opposite is happening actually.

3. Secularism is Set to Decline in the Future

In an interview with the Christian Post (full article here), author and pastor Timothy Keller said:

“In the past there was hardly anybody who was secular,” Keller told the Christian Post. “In the future there will be significant numbers of people who are secular more than have ever been in history. But, the facts on the ground are that Christianity and Islam in particular are growing faster than the population. And that over the next 25-45 years the number of people who say that they are secular, the percentage of the world’s population that is secular, is actually going down.”

Is Keller correct? According to a Pew Research Center report released in April 2015, he is. That report projected out to 2050, finding that, as the world population changes in the coming decades, the world’s religious profile will also change.

Christianity is poised to remain the largest religion in the world, but Islam is growing quickly, less by conversion than by birth. This relates again to my previous post, in which I pointed out that inherited religion is in decline globally. It would be assumed that this decline will affect the growth of Islam as well.

4. Only a Small Part of the World is Moving Towards Greater Secularism, and They Will Soon be a Minority

What the Pew Research Center report had to say about the “nones”:

“Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”

So, it would seem that secularism is set to decline rather than increase in coming decades.

It is important to remember that the rise of religious beliefs is taking place as education as well as industrial and economic development is taking place. It would seem that as the world is becoming more educated and more developed, people are increasingly aware of their need for God.

Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1

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Last week a friend of mine sent me a video in which Richard Dawkins was interviewed, and in the interview he stated his view that religion as a whole is eventually destined to die out. Then he sent me another article from The Guardian (UK), about how there is a correlation between the increase of secularism and standards of living around the world.

It seems as if from every angle, people are claiming that Christianity is in decline and it is simply a matter of time until all religion dies out in the world. The assumption is that as we become more “enlightened,” people will cast off their “superstitious” religious beliefs and everyone will be secular, AKA atheist – or atheism’s more friendly cousin: agnostic.

Many people take these claims as foregone conclusions, but is this really the case? Is religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in decline?

The answer is: yes and no. The answer to those questions depends on 1) what kind of religion (and what kind of Christianity) we are talking about, and 2) which parts of the world we are talking about.

There are a few very important factors to keep in mind. We will look at the first one today, and others tomorrow.

1. Inherited Religion is in Decline, but Chosen Faith is on the Rise

This is something we experienced as missionaries in Europe. While it is true that Europe is full of empty churches and has high rates of people who identify as atheists, we also experienced great openness to the gospel, and we saw many people come to faith in Christ and churches planted.

What we are seeing is the decline of inherited religion, but at the same time there is still an increase in chosen faith. There is certainly a down-side to this, in that people who assume inherited Christianity will still be exposed to Christian teaching and the Bible, and such exposure may very well lead to real, personal faith at some point in their life. In a situation where Christian faith is inherited, Christianity is seen in a positive light, as is going to church and reading the Bible. This perception can make it easier for a person to become a Christian than if one is raised in an environment where Christianity is portrayed negatively.

However, from a Christian perspective, there are also benefits of the decline of inherited religion. For example, as many people from Muslim background come to the West, many of them, rather than assume their parents’ religion, are open to the idea that their faith is something they must choose for themselves.

Furthermore, inherited religion, including Christianity, can leave people with a false sense of security, that they are guaranteed salvation or that they are right with God, even when in fact they are not. This is one of the great themes of the Book of Deuteronomy – as Moses speaks to the new generation who will enter Canaan, and he emphasizes to them that they must have their own faith; it is not enough that the Lord was their parents’ God, He must be their God as well.

This article by Timothy Keller for The Gospel Coalition addresses this topic very well: Inherited Faith is Dying. Chosen Faith is Not.

Here’s an excerpt:

[At a recent conference in Paris,] Grace Davie, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Exeter in Great Britain pointed out that nominal or inherited Christianity is declining. However, she noted (against all expectations) that new movements of Christian faith are growing in Western cities.
The growing Christian churches are evangelical and Pentecostal, and they emphasize the biblical call to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15) and the biblical teaching that we stand or fall on our own faith, not the choices of our family or community (Ezek. 18). These churches teach that vicarious, formal religion isn’t enough; there must be a radical, inward conversion (Deut. 30:6Jer. 9:25Rom. 2:29). Christianity that foregrounds these important biblical concepts and lifts up heart-changing personal faith can reach many contemporary people—and it can reach cities.

Tomorrow we will look at the statistics which point to the fact that secularism is actually poised to decline in coming decades, whereas religious belief, and Christianity in particular is set to increase worldwide. Stay tuned!