When I was growing up, Christian ministers were widely held in high esteem. Although a few Elmer Gantrys may have been in the mix, churches and communities generally received their ministers with respect and honor.
As a result, many Christian youth and college students considered a ministry vocation as a possible direction for their own lives. It seemed like a noble option.
Churches also actively sought to encourage their young to listen for a call to ministry.
If you grew up in a Baptist church in the South, the possibility of a ministerial vocation was constantly placed before you. At the end of every service, congregants were called to respond. Non-Christians were encouraged to receive Christ. Christians were invited to offer their lives in Christian service. There was a clear sense that God was a God who called and that God’s call might very well be a call to vocational ministry.
At denominational youth retreats and summer camps, the encouragement to consider a possible call from God was pronounced even more loudly and strongly. While many still chose other paths, they didn’t do so without at least contemplating vocational service to the church.
There are churches today where this model for attracting and engaging a new generation of leaders still gives shape to congregational life, but it is certainly less common.
In most churches, much of the youth-focused energy is spent trying to entice and amuse Generation Y youth. Even that isn’t easy.
Most youth have a plethora of other, more entertaining options, many that don’t even require them to walk out their front doors. Youth ministers feel pushed to create and promote exciting activities that revolve around the youth, providing opportunities for recreation, social interaction and a bit of nurture in the faith.
Sometimes, though, churches so want to capture the youth’s attention with programs and promises that they fail to capture their imagination and their dreams for the future. They try to compete for teenage free time but offer little to inspire meaningful service or a sense of purpose.
As a result, both the church and those searching for their place in the kingdom of God are cheated. If we are to have a vibrant church in the days to come, we need to create congregational and denominational cultures in which people, young and old, can hear and respond to God’s call.
For the last 10 years, I have participated in a number of organizations, schools, congregations and ministries that have seen this need and sought to meet it.
In 2001, Georgetown College, where I taught for 12 years, received a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. that spurred the school to provide opportunities for theological exploration of vocation. Countering the cultural call of wealth and prosperity, program leaders encouraged all Christian students to contemplate their vocation, not just their future career paths.
Lilly also has helped to fund a broad initiative on “cultures of call” through the Fund for Theological Education. FTE has sponsored numerous conferences and has awarded funds to congregations that share its commitment to developing a new generation of leaders for local congregations. FTE continues to offer a variety of thought-provoking resources and materials that church leaders can use to help congregants explore their gifts and calling.
Building on the work of FTE, Smyth & Helwys, an independent publisher of Bible study materials, began publishing a vocation-focused curriculum for youth. “The Choice” encourages youth to explore their purpose, identity and gifts so they can choose “a life that matters.”
All these programs have been helpful in raising an awareness of the need to build “cultures of call.” The need, though, is an ongoing one. With budgets to be met and pews to be filled, ministers can easily forget about nurturing the next generation of congregational leaders. It is something that requires intentional and consistent effort.
This past fall, I worked with a group of pastors and academics sponsored by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to hold a conference on the theme “Creating a Culture of Call” at Campbell University Divinity School. More than 100 people gathered to explore ways they could help others discern and respond to God’s call on their lives. It was inspiring to hear about the creative ways some congregational and collegiate ministers are working toward this end.
George Mason, pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, has given significant attention to “calling out the called.” As keynote speaker at the conference, he noted that every minister needs to work to notice the gifts and passions of congregants, to name and affirm those gifts so that people can begin to contemplate their vocation, and then to nurture those they believe may be called to ministry.
At Wilshire, this informal work has been supplemented with an internship program that allows young adults to experience a ministry vocation firsthand.
Through my involvement in these programs, it has become clear to me that churches and denominations need a maintainable structure, a “culture of calling,” rather than an occasional emphasis on it.
Children and youth need to see ministers who embody the richness of a life committed to service to God and the church.
Ministers in both congregational and collegiate settings need to be about the constant work of noticing, naming and nurturing those they believe may be called to ministry.
Denominations and publishers need to provide, promote and update materials and conferences that make it possible for busy lay leaders to initiate conversations about vocation with youth.
And divinity schools need to train and inspire ministers to honor their own calling by seeking to see it multiplied in others.
This is a good work that requires intentionality. The future of the church may rest, in part, on our commitment to see it through.