The concept of "vocation" or "calling" is an application of the doctrine of providence: God not only preserves the cosmos and superintends the history of nations but is subtly at work in the most minute circumstances of each individual life.
The doctrine's biblical lineage is clear: Since God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies in splendor (Matthew 6:26-29), and since a sparrow cannot fall from the sky apart from the will of the Father (Matthew 10:29), then surely God provides and cares even more for His children. If God has a plan to prosper us (Jeremiah 29:11), and works all things to good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28), then surely each believer is called to a role in the salvation of the world and the redemption of all things.
The concept's attractiveness is also clear. The doctrine of providence has the Creator God as a personal, intentional being, not a distant God but a God compassionately involved in the fates of persons and communities. Special providence fills the universe with subtle threads of purpose, and promises they will weave together beyond the sorrows of the world for the ultimate triumph of the kingdom of God. Each person becomes the subject of God's most intimate concern. The concept of vocation slakes our thirst for significance.
Yet, the theology of vocation is complex. As an undergraduate, I belonged to a fellowship of faithful overachievers at Stanford University. We thought of vocation in the same way we thought of finding a spouse. Just as we sought "the one" partner God meant for us to marry, so we sought the one path God had prepared for us. This was the occasion for great anxiety. Students feared that if they diverged from God's intended path, or never found it, then they would miss out on the blessing of becoming who they were created and called to be.
We rarely challenged the equation of vocation and profession: We were to venture great things for God and reach the heights of our professions in order to acquire a broader influence for the sake of the kingdom. Yet I could not escape the feeling, when we joined together for fellowship and worship and service, that we were already living the life for which we were designed. We loved God and loved the world shoulder to shoulder.
When our four years at Stanford were up, we scattered across the globe in pursuit of our vocations. The costs became clear over time. To use myself as an example, none of my five closest friends live in the same city as I do, and none of their closest friends live in the same cities they do. We have equated vocation with profession at the expense of family and fellowship. And many who believed they were called to particular professions find themselves, when their jobs are lost or unfulfilling, frustrated and disillusioned.
I have spoken with many of these Stanford students. Some are still chasing significance or success. Others have given up the search and only want to pay the bills. Many regret the sacrifices they have made to the idol of their careers. One friend recently wrote, "I share my life with virtually no one, and if I don't do something about it then I will die just having been someone's employee." The right-minded pursuit of professional excellence is important. But were we right to leave family and friends in the belief that our calling to particular careers trumped everything else?
The conditions of modern living only exacerbate such problems. We are connected superficially to vastly more people than before, yet connected deeply to far fewer. When my father grew up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s, he saw 10 to 30 people on a typical day. He knew them all. He knew their stories. They knew his. Today we see thousands of faces every day, yet know hardly any of the souls behind them. Surrounded by a sea of company, we die of thirst for companionship.
The most mobile and networked society in the history of the planet has its drawbacks. Duke University researchers have found that Americans in 1984 enjoyed an average of three deep relationships in which they shared "important matters." By 2004 that number had fallen to two, and a quarter of respondents confessed they did not have a single confidant. In 1940, single-person households composed roughly 7 percent of all households. Today that number is nearing 30 percent. Sociologists like Robert Putnam and Robert Bellah have shown how technology that decreases the distance between nations has increased the distance between neighbors. We know the news on the other side of the world, but not the neighbor on the other side of the fence.
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.
As college students my friends and I regarded our vocation as something that would begin in earnest in later years-but the call of Christ is always now. It's ironic that Christian inmates at a maximum security prison found it easier to live their calling than members of a college fellowship at Stanford University 15 years ago. Confined to a single location, hidden from the world, trapped in a kind of endless present, the brothers within those walls had no choice but to live their calling as a community, then and there, in thousands of everyday acts that the world would never see. By answering the call, they made their exile into the Promised Land. They found in the prison, as Thomas Merton found at a Trappist abbey, "the four walls of my new freedom."
In a culture that tells us to "go where the jobs are," some evangelicals are reexamining what it means to follow their calling. A vocation is both greater and more intimate than a call to a career. Paul is not renowned for his tents, nor Luke for his skill as a physician, but God employed these skills to serve a greater purpose. Perhaps we too can rediscover our freedom as we answer the call to root ourselves in a community that labors together, here and now, in deeds great and small, to give witness to the love of God.
Readers who enjoyed Gene Edward Veith's article on calling in WORLD's first special section on the subject ("Arenas of service," Aug. 28, 2010) can go to www.acton.org/veith to hear a lecture on "Vocation: The Doctrine of the Christian Life" that Veith gave last month at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.