Pioneer Ministry today,
Paul Bernier writes: ‘In the New Testament Jesus does not invite his followers to a decent but passive secular life, but to a life of faith in service to the Kingdom of God. The church and the world are the foci around which the streams of creation, sin and grace swirl.’
This apposite insight into the meaning of Christian vocation remains true whatever state of culture the church finds itself in. The Kingdom of God is not dependent on the moral condition of our society, nor its spiritual awareness. It is here, in our midst in every age, every culture, every political ethos. It challenges cultural values and confronts society’s belief systems.
This Kingdom is the context of our vocation, for as Christian believers we are its citizens and its public servants. Everyone who follows Christ is called to fulltime Christian service in the Kingdom of God.
Many of us, however, lack the tools we need for effective service. Some of us may only become aware of this lack when we are faced with something unexpected, which takes us out of our comfort zone, and stretches our understanding. Others of us recognize all the time that there are issues we do not fully grasp, and huge gaps in our Christian discernment. We are painfully aware that we don’t know what a Christian perspective might be or what stand we should take on a whole range of subjects.
This becomes sharply evident in our disagreements. Christians do not speak with one voice or think with one mind, even in areas where time given to biblical reflection could draw us much closer.
How, for example, should we respond to issues of economics, corrupted leadership or medical ethics? And where do we get the equipment to engage fully in our Christian vocation? We need to work out what it means to live redemptively in our family life, or in our financial transactions. We need to know how to relate spiritually to our irreligious neighbours, or what questions to ask a candidate for political office.
The problem is that we often have to work all this out whilst we are studying in a secular university, serving an apprenticeship in a job, or developing skills in a profession. In any of these areas, the powerful myth of ‘neutrality’ has penetrated the way things are seen. But working out our responses thoughtfully, can show us that such ‘neutrality’ hides values and assumptions embedded in work or money or decision-making, and our faith can bring us into conflict with the ethos that surrounds our daily lives.
It can involve us in even having to unlearn the orthodoxies dominant in the thinking undergirding our profession. When we do careful study we can find that the dominant worldview of any culture is often at odds with the Christian faith. Part of the prophetic task of the Church, and of Christians, is to address this with the Gospel.
Many resources exist that can help us in developing tools for our Christian citizenship. Over the last few years, courses have proliferated, from basic lay education programmes, to specialized institutes that design curricula to help Christian professionals reflect and rethink. The postgraduate ‘Developing a Christian Mind’ course at Oxford University offers those who have finished undergraduate work the chance to step back and reassess what they have learnt with Christian insight.
These, along with dozens of vocational institutions, training courses, retreat centres and youth work programmes, are valuable initiatives. Yet, compared with secular training and education, they are run often on a shoestring.
Residential communities rely on generous volunteers to share community life and serve visitors at their centres. Dedicated teachers often take precious time out of their own professions to help other Christians to grow. Having travelled to many key institutions as a visiting lecturer I see the time and commitment given to help Christians to be more effective in their work and calling, and realize what an important but under-used resource they are. If the opportunities they offer for Christian study were taken up by far more of us, it would increase their revenue and deepen the quality of our own Christian awareness.
And surely a greater understanding of the faith could give any one of us more confidence in applying our Gospel vision to everyday life. Better training would help us to become more useful as servants in the Kingdom of God.
Alongside these local initiatives are institutions that have long been dedicated to training for Christian service. Well-equipped and mostly well-resourced, theological colleges and courses are designed for preparing people for future ministry in the Church, whether that ministry is in parishes, sector chaplaincies, youth work or pioneering contexts. Their work is monitored and regulated both by the accrediting institutions and the Church of England.
Curricula are regularly updated, university teachers sit on college councils and bishops’ inspectors visit them regularly to see that they remain fit for purpose. Having spent some years of my life living and working in theological colleges, I recognize the significance of what they offer, and the potential they have for producing Christian leaders.
A variety of forms of training is available in these colleges and courses, and sponsoring dioceses or churches can advise what fits the needs of individual students. Some are best served by full-time residential training, others take mixed mode options and many train whilst continuing in their present career or work. Each training pathway has its advantages. People in part-time study often feel they keep their feet ‘on the ground’ and are encouraged, from the start, to bring their developing theological perspective into their everyday life of work and relationships. They can readily engage in ‘double listening’ – to the word of God and to the cultural context of their lives.
People in full-time residential often feel they learn more about themselves, their psychological and spiritual needs and their relationships than they might ever have imagined. They also face the challenges of living more exposed lives in a ‘total institution’.
Whichever route is taken, training can also be a humbling experience, as people who are competent in a dozen well-proven ways, return to being students again, and experience a level of de-skilling. It is not always easy for a professional engineer or tax inspector to become a novice who has to learn a biblical language or church history from scratch. Yet the process can be very important spiritually.
Training for Christian vocation ought to be commonplace amongst believers. We are all called to Christian service so that the Gospel can be heard in every area of our nation’s life, and people can respond to God.
Today, when there are so many issues facing the church and society, we need far more Christians to examine their vocation. The question, ‘what is God calling me to do?’ is one we can all be asking about the next step in our lives.
God speaks to us through our own circumstances, as well as through the passions he has laid on our hearts and the challenges that face our culture. Taking time out to do courses, studying online, or going to theological college, can be part of the process of listening to God, as well as training for a calling we are already convinced about. One thing remains certain in our uncertain times. We need thoughtful, biblically literate Christians who are guided by the Holy Spirit, if we are going to reach people’s hearts, and make any impact on the culture and direction of our age.
Let us thank God that there are resources available, and use them.
We need thoughtful, biblically literate Christians who are guided by the Holy Spirit