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Called to a community

"Called to a community" Continued...

Issue: "Biblical callings," Dec. 4, 2010

Some who feel starved for authentic human relationships are finding them in callings to community, to "small things," and to particular places and moments. Let's look at these three trends.

First, some American evangelicals are reinterpreting vocation today by emphasizing a call to follow Christ and redeem the world together: Vocation is less a profession than a purpose pursued through our careers but also through the common life we share. Thus in urban centers such as Boston, New York, and Chicago, many evangelicals live in intentional communities. They share homes, buildings, or neighborhoods. They try to form enduring relationships and a healing presence within a community.

One well-known example is Shane Claiborne's Potter Street community in Philadelphia. He explains, "In a hyper-mobile culture, we value stability. We value growing roots. Our neighborhood is fractured and infected with instability, so we grow gardens and renovate houses and build the kind of relationships where we know everyone's names and god-parent their children." He points to biblical examples of a community restoring ancient ruins: The call of God summons us to renew the world together.

Jeff Barneson, a minister to Harvard graduate students and faculty for over 25 years, has made his home into the center of a community that engages the university culture: "Whatever calling one has, it's hard or impossible to do it by yourself. It's more fun, more fruitful, and more sustainable in community." Andy Crouch similarly argues in Culture Making that those who scatter to pursue greatness as individuals miss out on the opportunity to establish an enduring influence upon the culture with a community of people committed to creative redemption.

Second, some are learning that in the economy of a providential God, the slightest acts of obedience can have dramatic consequences. God calls some to socially significant roles, and calls others to make each act significant by doing it for God.

This is not an easy lesson to learn in contemporary American culture. Ever since teachers became the curators of children's self-esteem, the younger generations have been raised with a finely nurtured sense of their own specialness and significance. A recent Barna study shows that 80 percent of American teenagers believe they will definitely or probably, by the age of 25, have a job that is both "great-paying" and allows them to "make a difference." Roughly half believe they will regularly serve the poor by 25, and over a quarter believe they will be famous.

Christians in American culture struggle with a sort of vocational schizophrenia. We want to make a difference while making money, to be remembered for serving the forgotten. We want to give our cake to the poor and sell it too.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with striving both to do good and to do well, as long as we seek God's kingdom first-but mixed motives are often hidden within the yearning for significance. I can see this in my own story. An elite gymnast as a teenager, I was certain that God had called me (although I would never have put it this way) to win enough Olympic glory to give lots to Him and keep some for myself. Even when my career crashed to an end before the 1996 Olympic Trials, it was easy to present a strong faith. I had broken my neck in a fall from the horizontal bar, yet this presented its own opportunity for greatness, as though I were playing the part of the faithful sufferer for my eventual biographers.

Grasping at spiritual greatness in a critical, observed moment was easy because it appealed to my pride. The quiet heroism of small things, the constant surrender to God in unobserved decisions and unimportant matters, is far more difficult. Yet those who follow Christ are to do small things with great love and never care about winning the world's applause.

Third, some are learning what John Stott observed long ago: There are general callings for all believers and specific callings for each, but our most essential vocation is to a person, not a profession-and following Christ is a possibility in every moment. Christ calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him "daily," never "tomorrow."

During my seminary years I worked with a congregation within the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. My first sermon focused, for obvious reasons, on the biblical metaphor of exile, yet I soon discovered inmates who spoke as though they were living already in the Promised Land. Many had come to Christ within the prison and had grown the congregation there. They could not set their hearts upon a future that was distant and might never come. They had to find their vocation in that place and that moment.

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