Let’s Rethink Our Language of ‘Calling’

Growing up among Baptists, I learned a language of “calling.” People would say “I feel called to _____,” and our church would pray and send them on their way. I praise God for good desires and God’s grace to send these saints. But I’m convinced we need to expand our vocabulary of calling.

Let me point out that I applaud the faithfulness of men and women who have been sustained on the field with this concept of calling, even though I think it’s worth the effort to alter our language in order to pave a new paradigm of understanding calling. This is no critique of the genuineness of their motives or the faithfulness of their labors.

But in my view, the calling language—at least how I usually hear it applied—creates an unhealthy expectation. The language itself moves us away from clear revelation to some other necessary experience.

My concern is not that we move away from the vocabulary of the Bible because “calling” is used consistently in Scripture. I merely desire to be more careful in how we apply it. Christians are the beloved and “called” of God (Jude 1:1; Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:24–31). All Christians share certain callings in Scripture, like the calling to follow in Christ’s footsteps (1 Pet. 2:21). By all means, let’s keep this vocabulary of calling.

Beyond these broad categories for all Christians, Paul refers to a unique sense of call as an apostle of the Lord Jesus (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1). The error in application I’m referring to happens when we make his experience the necessary requirement for anyone serving as a pastor or missionary. Paul’s language points in the other direction. He refrains from applying his “calling” vocabulary to other co-laborers in the New Testament (Col.1:1; 1 Cor.1:1; 2 Cor.1:1).

Three Practical Dangers

Beyond this misapplication, I see three potential dangers with making a calling experience like Paul’s the necessary requirement to serve in missions.

First, a sinful heart can use this idea of calling to neglect current areas of responsibility. Being a good neighbor can be neglected while we focus on our calling to a distant nation. We lose a sense of “place” and miss opportunities to love here and now.

Second, this idea of calling can foster an unwillingness to heed corrective influences. It’s hard to constructively criticize someone who feels a divine right to service based on an experience. A perceived call can shelter us from correction as we push others away whom we perceive to be in the way of fulfilling our “destiny.”

Third, this idea of calling can produce unnecessary stress and unwarranted guilt if someone shifts to another context for serving Christ. Using the calling language confuses our identity in Christ from our labor for Christ. Reentry is hard enough without this burden.

New Paradigm—Four Suggestions

I believe there is a better paradigm for understanding the calling to be a missionary or pastor and that we should we replace this use of “calling” with other vocabulary.

Here are four ways to think about calling that can help us pave a more helpful way forward.

1. Commanded before Called

Jesus’s words in Matthew 28:18–20 are the marching orders to all Christians. Obedience to him doesn’t wait for some additional revelation of his will. It gets to work. All Christians have been drafted. We either go or we send.

All Christians won’t engage in the same way, but the mission and scope are clear: make disciples of all nations. Period. How? Going, we baptize and we teach them to obey Jesus. Let’s not complicate what isn’t complicated. The command of the Great Commission applies now. It can’t wait for tomorrow.

“I believe there is a better paradigm for understanding the calling to be a missionary or pastor and that we should we replace this use of ‘calling’ with other vocabulary.”

In Paul’s justification of his delayed visit to the church at Rome in Romans 15, we see him employ a similar paradigm. He explains why he must go to Jerusalem before visiting the believers in Rome. After that trip, he desired to pass through Rome and be sent by them to Spain because Christ had yet to be named there (vv. 20–21).

What drove him to the far ends of the earth? His “call” didn’t justify his travel plans; the Old Testament did. Paul’s ambition was shaped by Isaiah 52:15, “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.” The prophecies of Isaiah directed his steps more than his journal of his calling experience. All the warrant Paul needed was that the news of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 would be embraced by the nations who had yet to hear.

Paul had God’s Word on it and ventured out in that confidence. “As it is written” was the language he employed.

2. Objective before Subjective

In Romans 1:15–17, Paul outlined what generated his eagerness to preach the gospel in Rome. What compelled him wasn’t the memory of his Damascus Road experience. His eagerness stemmed from the power of the gospel to save sinners. The broad reach of the gospel compelled him to stretch his ambitions to Rome and all peoples.

It isn’t that we have a possible remedy for sin in the gospel. We have the only remedy. This good news must get to sinners—all of them. The objective reality of gospel sufficiency alongside global lostness must compel us. Thousands of peoples have yet to hear the only means of being delivered from the wrath of God. This objective reality demands our life, our all, and should factor into how we understand any subjective sense of his leading.

3. Desire before Destiny

Paul affirmed the desire to serve as an elder as a good thing (1 Tim. 3:1). But desire alone doesn’t warrant the role. He outlined the other requirements necessary for serving in that role (vv. 2–7).

Language of desire will help us stay away from feeling a sense of entitlement that calling language can foster. A subjective calling experience promotes a feeling of destiny that isn’t as helpful as using the language of desire. Consider how you, as an elder at his local church, would counsel a brother differently if he came to you and said, “Brother, I have this desire to serve in this capacity” versus saying, “Brother, I feel called to serve in this capacity.”

Desire opens up a discussion and calling pulls the divine trump card, functionally closing the conversation. For the quality of our labor, we need to open ourselves to others’ feedback before we’re sent out.

4. Corporately Affirmed before Privately Called

The good desire to serve as an elder must be coupled with an identifiable blamelessness in the differing spheres of life in order for one to serve. These qualifications must be met by the individual and affirmed by the congregation. Only then is one able to serve as an elder.

Logically, church planters should also exhibit similar characteristics necessary of elders. Church planters can’t plant healthy churches with healthy leadership if they’re a living inconsistently themselves. The best possible scenario is a personal zeal alongside faithful consistency that is affirmed by those who know that individual best.

Discerning our place in ministry should not be privatized but rather a corporate process of inviting others into the conversation. Questions like “Am I fit for this? Where do I need to grow?” are helpful. I think calling language applied to pastors and missionaries can be unhelpful for cultivating a mindset of progression in life and godliness. Just as a wedding will not alter the character of a person when they were single, a move overseas will not change the character of a believer on mission.

“I’m convinced changing our language of calling will help open new pathways of faithfulness to the Great Commission.”

Learning a new language is exhausting. I speak from experience. Ever tried to form sentences like Yoda for a day? “Sleep well that night you will.” This is the case for many of us who serve among a people whose language runs in the opposite direction as English. Putting the verb first has its challenges, but it opens up new pathways to mutual understanding. I’m convinced changing our language of calling will help open new pathways of faithfulness to the Great Commission.

A focus on becoming the kind of people now that will be a blessing when we get there is helpful. Achieving “limitless” might start with removing the limiting factor of expecting a “call.” These categories would promote healthier going and sending cultures.

This language shift could help future laborers say, in Yoda-like fashion, “Commanded, desirous, affirmed, going I am.”

Greg Handley lives in Central Asia and is a church planter and writer.