14 Lessons from the crucible – walking with the Lord in the furnace of secular employment
Warning: I have written this in the pressure of intense work situation and am still working through some of the issues raised. It’s pretty raw, be patient with me if you are further along the path my brother or sister, I am just a beginner on this path asking questions. Also, forgive me if it’s more personal than my usual reflections, I believe we need to debate some of the issues I raise in a mature and godly manner, I am seeking to do just that in this piece. I welcome your comments and additions.
Let me cut to the chase: in my early 20s I thought I was going to be a missionary, in my late 20s and early 30s I became convinced I was being called to ministry of the word, thinking that the pastorate was ahead. In my mid to late 30s I have finally realised that God is wanting me to stop planning my future, but instead be his slave in the present, in this place, for his purpose. Whatever might happen in the future it is up to him to use me as he decides, whatever and wherever that might be.
As I grew up I imbibed the unspoken assumption that full-time vocational Christian ministry was God’s best for me, and for anyone else for that matter. I subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, sought to direct my life towards that goal. It was not hard to seek this path, as I have found this principle to be assumed and encouraged by the vast majority of our Christian books, sermons and teachers. However, at each stage of my life I have experienced the various means of God’s guidance to pull me back to the workplace. Sometimes it was circumstances, sometimes it was a growing inner conviction that this was where God wanted me, sometimes it was the conversation with godly Christian friends and family. Yet, through it all, as I spent year after year in the workplace I still had the underlying assumption (and hope!) that one day, in some way, God would finally release me to serve him “fully” and glorify him more completely by devoting some, if not all, of my time to Christian ministry. This was particularly the case as I didn’t “feel” called to the workplace, rather the opposite, I felt called to ministry.
However, over the last 18 months the more I have tried to serve God the less time he has given me to do it. Or so I thought. I had to step back from responsibilities at church, reduce my preaching commitments and dedicate myself more fully, completely to my work. The little time I had left was given to trying to protect time for my wife and young family. I have not been there for friends, I have not been there for the prayer meetings nor the bible studies nor the evening service. I am only at church on Sunday mornings and I wait for them as an oasis of Shalom; the beauty and peace of fully dedicated time to be in the Lord’s house with the Lord’s people. These times have become ever more precious to me.
So, last year I wrote what I was learning about ministry of the word within a mundane job. How things have changed in 12 months! Now I am at the opposite extreme –responsibility, pressure, flat out and exhausted. I have finally started to realise that God has made me a certain way, for a certain purpose and that this is to do strategy and to preach the word. For these two things I exist on this planet.
Slowly, imperceptibly, God has broken this assumption in me. No longer do I see a spiritual vocational hierarchy when I look through God’s eyes. I see people, made in his image, with his variety of gifting and capability, made to serve him in a multitude of ways, across every vocation and discipline. I see those that have searched their heart and fulfilled their calling and those that are yet to find it. I now see that the most menial of tasks, done for the glory of God and in obedience to his call, can be the highest form of service that you or I can offer him (if that is his will for us). I know we say we believe this, but in reality do we?
Obedience is the key, it is the secret jewel of Christian usefulness and confidence. It is better to obey than sacrifice the ancients said and Jesus repeated. It is most blessed to obey – the most blessed path possible, wherever that obedience leads you.
Here are 14 things I have learnt and am continuing to learn, but before you read them please consider what I am not saying. I am not saying that “it doesn’t matter what you do, because all activity is equally worthy”. Neither am I saying that full-time Christian vocational ministry is not valid, needed, necessary and absolutely God’s best for many of us. I have too many pastors, pioneer missionaries and evangelists for friends to be unaware of the mighty responsibility and urgent need of this awesome calling. Don’t think I am wanting to swing the pendulum the other way and say we don’t need anyone full-time. What I am challenging is the assumption that this is always the best way for all of us (particularly those involved in word ministry) to serve him and other paths are second best. Perhaps you never had this assumption – praise God!
- Obedience is more important than any perceived increase or decrease in ministry effectiveness. For some the calling of God can actually mean they move away from opportunities for direct Christian service, for others it will be the opposite. We should not automatically equate either direction with increasing faithfulness, sacrifice or obedience. The meanest and most mundane work can be our most glorifying service when done as an offering to the Lord.
- For the many Christians, their highest calling will be the workplace and home. This should be recognised, affirmed and encouraged. They are as much called to their jobs and homes as the mission field. But it is not a competition between vocations – each in its uniqueness and splendour is treasured by God.
- The calling to the workplace is as valid, important and God-honouring as the calling to the pastorate or mission field. For some their highest calling will be to guard the theological strongholds, translate tribal languages and protect the flock from continuous attacks from without and within. But the calling to the workplace is not a lesser calling, or God’s second best. The workplace can lead to incredible usefulness in God’s hands – e.g. the construction supervisor Nehemiah, the civil servant and administrator Joseph, the beautician and model Esther, the government official Daniel, the politician William Wilberforce, among many others…
- My cross-cultural ministry begins on Monday morning and finishes on Friday evening. I am immersed in a pagan society all day every day, seeking to live counter-culturally without retreating into a ghetto or being weird in order to be noticed. Every religious habit or sacred ritual needs to be examined to see if its essential or a cultural barrier. Every character trait is laid bare, examined and tested in real time by a watching world.
- The best way to glorify God with your life is whatever he has gifted and called us to do. For some this will be vocational Christian mission and ministry, for others it will be the workplace and home. Are we willing to spread wide the application of the challenge to glorify God with our lives? Are we prepared to affirm the calling of those who have little time to give to church meetings?
- The desire and gifting to do Christian ministry do not constitute, in themselves, a call. I believe the internal call of God must be married with an external call from without. Both a calling to be his vessel and a calling to a location, resulting from the right doors opening at the right time.
- There is no spiritual vocation hierarchy. It is perhaps not said outright, but there is no doubting its presence – there are those in our churches who do ministry with a capital “M”, and then there are the rest of us. What does our definition of “ministry” include? Is it restricted to word ministry (preaching, teaching and evangelism) or maybe we also include service to the poor, sick and suffering (pastoral)? Yes, we also include those who serve as professionals abroad in some distant land. But, what if you see yourself as a professional in a cross-cultural, anti-Christian community in your homeland? Is that really ministry? Yes, some vocations require greater sacrifice and others bring greater earthly rewards, but through it all it is the obedience that is important not the activity. However, the majority of the application from Christian books and sermons gives the impression that working for the church or missions (either paid or voluntarily) is superior in God’s sight to working in secular employment. The impression is that service to God begins when one engages on church work in the evenings or weekends.
- Post-Christian countries like the UK will only be reached when this truth is finally believed by the church and impacts how it trains, equips and supports those in the workplace. This generation will only be reached when we intentionally present and affirm the workplace as a valid, important and glorifying to God vocation to our best young men and women – our most promising leaders. We will only affirm it if we really believe, not just say we believe it.
- For secular, anti-Christian cultures, bivocational ministry may actually the best possible model to reach society. I believe that being in full-time secular employment gives greater opportunity for cultural interpretation, insight and engagement than being in full-time Christian employment. New models for ministry training and church leadership are needed to reach, train and commission the next generation of church planters and leaders from those within the workplace.
- There is no such thing as “lay” ministry, no sacred / secular divide, no clergy / laity division. Yes, there is such a thing as people being appointed to a particular role and function within church leadership, nevertheless, uniting everyone is the priesthood of all believers and each believer is a holy temple called to their own role and place of influence.
- The role of a pastor is the absolute highest calling for pastors. The role of a teacher is the absolute highest calling for Christian teachers. The vital thing is to know for sure in our hearts that we are in the calling we are meant to be in.
- There has never been more expected of employees, more asked by employers and more penetration of people’s private lives by the pressure to always be “online”. The training, equipping and encouraging of leaders in the workplace has never been more difficult, with long hours, long commutes and little spare time. Yet few churches really see this as a vital ministry ground or are set up to support and affirm those in this position.
- The prayerful assessment of our true calling and our purposeful obedience no matter what the cost would overwhelm our mission agencies and pulpits with new candidates. There is a desperate need in our nation for the next generation of pastors. There remains an ever-present black abyss of millions of people who have never even heard the name Jesus all over the world. I am convinced that so few really examine their own calling that a wholehearted affirmation of the importance of all our callings would lead to a great increase in those stepping forward for pioneer missionary and pastoral leadership.
- We do not choose our calling – we only choose to fulfil it or not. Our calling may be a fulfilment of our (God-given) desires or it may be a restraining force on our desires – compelling us to submit to the Lord and follow him despite what we would like to do. Like David who desired to build God’s temple, we can have good desires to serve God, but they don’t always mean we will see them fulfilled.
I say all this, not as a dispassionate observer, but as someone who has wrestled with their own calling for so many years. It was CT Studd, that great missionary who said: “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” What does our inner mind say to ourselves when we hear this? Is it only preaching, bible translating, pastoral visits, bible studies and evangelism that CT is talking about here? “Whatever you do, do it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not men” was what the apostle Paul said. Are we brave enough to really believe that this includes ALL of life?
I have been a reluctant servant for so many years, wishing God would free me up to preach, when my time was being soaked up by work. I now see that I must obey his plans for me no matter how much my heart yearns for another path. I am serving him as he wants right now. I can either serve him fully where I am now, or continually fight against it. I do believe one day that things will change, but I am no longer seeing the present as (only) “preparation” or a means to an end. I am resigned, submitted, my will is defeated, whatever path I am led on…I am his slave in the present, in this place, for his purpose.
Father, help us know the path you have for each one of your children, lead us on those straight paths and use us in whatever way you deem fit – not our will but your will be done. Remove our stubborness and pride and self-sufficiency. Make us truly humble and submissive to your Soverign will, for we know it is the best possible journey and leads to the most blessed destination – unity with our maker now and forever, Amen.