This post originally appeared in the Winter 2010-11 issue of “Youth and Christian Education Leadership.”
I remember the first time I sensed a call to ministry. It was in the Fall of 1997, and I was an awkward junior high student attending my very first church retreat. Around fifty of us were huddled in an old cabin at YMCA Camp Greenville in South Carolina, and our youth pastor had just delivered the final altar call of the weekend. I don’t remember what he said, or what the invitation was, but I left that altar at the end of the night confident that God had called me to spend my life working with teenagers.
It was a pivotal moment in my life. Afterwards I thought of myself differently, and I re-arranged my priorities. It affected the friendships I developed, the mentors I sought out, and the college I attended. Like many, late adolescence was tough on my faith. I struggled deeply with doubt, but my sense of calling carried me through. I stuck around in large part because of my deeply-held belief that God had called me to take part in the work that He is doing in the world. That one moment at the altar provided a brand new narrative for my life that changed everything.
At the time, I could only think about what that moment meant for me: “What do I do now? What if I’m making this all up? Am I really good enough to be called to ministry? Wow, I must be pretty special if God has picked me above everyone else.” But as I look back today, a different set of questions comes into focus. What about the dozens of other students in the room? Were they not called to do God’s work? What did God want them to do with their lives?
As we endeavor to make life-long disciples of our students, we all must come to terms with the truth that most students will never experience what I experienced on that retreat. Most Christian teenagers will live their lives without realizing that God has placed a calling on their lives. So how do we open their eyes to this invitation?
We first have to take a fresh look at our theology of calling. Recently, on one of the last few days of an international mission trip, a student said to me, “I’m still not sure if God really called me to be on this trip.” I was astounded! She had just spent nearly two weeks doing ministry in a third-world country. She had presented the gospel, prayed for the sick, and met the physical needs of people living in poverty. She was living out the Great Commission in a way that most teenagers never will, and yet she still was not certain of her calling. I believe this is an issue of theology.
We tend to think of calling from the perspective of the prophets of the Old Testament: one man, called from the masses, to perform a specific task. We reinforce this perspective with the stories we surround ourselves with: The church planter who, through his own talent and charisma, grows his small community into a nationally renowned mega-church; movies where Neo, William Wallace or Frodo single-handedly save the world from the evil; the self-made entrepreneur who elevates himself from poverty to fantastic wealth because of his hard work and determination. I have to confess, these are all pretty attractive personal narratives. But is this really what Jesus had in mind for us?
In the New Testament, Jesus presents a very different idea of what it means to be called. In a familiar passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”
God’s call is not for a few select individuals who were chosen to perform specific tasks for God. It’s not a call for larger than-life heroes to beat the odds through fantastic feats. It is a call for all of us to participate in the same task: God’s mission to redeem the world. While we certainly have different gifts, the call is the same: make disciples, and teach them what Christ has taught us. This is not a call for a select few teenagers who will pursue a full-time career in ministry. It is a call for each and every one of them. Before we can help students recognize their role in the Kingdom of God, we must recognize that God’s call to minister has already been opened up to all of them.
Once we have re-examined our theology of calling, we have to commit ourselves to giving students an opportunity to do the work of ministry. Most of us, whether we care to admit it or not, probably consider teaching to be the fulcrum of our ministry. All of our worship services, classes and retreats are engineered to draw students into an experience that unfailingly funnels down to a message. How often, though, do we actively seek out ways for our students to act on our messages? By maintaining a relentless cycle of teaching, while at the same time not giving students an opportunity to act on what they have heard, we unintentionally teach students that they are not really expected to respond to God’s call. We imply that it is acceptable to hear God’s word and do nothing in response.
If we want to accept Jesus’ invitation in the Great Commission, we have to be willing to let our teaching share the spotlight. This means more than just a monthly local outreach, annual mission trips or student worship bands(though they may be a good start). This means committing ourselves to the difficult work of helping students re-imagine their lives based on the messages they hear, and then doing something with what they find.
Finally, we have to commit to being intentional about seeing what God is doing in the lives of students, and then telling them about it. When I was an adolescent, there was no good reason for any reasonable youth worker to mark me as an “influencer”. I wasn’t popular, accomplished or even particularly well-behaved. I had not started a successful Bible study or led students in my school to Christ; but a handful of leaders and staff members were able to look through all of that and see something more in me. I’ll never forget the first time I was told that I had leadership potential, or the first time someone told me I would be a good youth pastor.
Our contemporary circumstances make that kind of attentiveness difficult. We are busier and more distracted than ever. Our family obligations and to-do lists are demanding, and the pressure to focus on easily quantified metrics (our Sunday attendance, number of students led to Christ, the quality of our programming) can be suffocating. But, as we endeavor to help students discover their call, we must become keen observers of the Holy Spirit at work in them, quick to encourage the good traits we see.
In the cult classic television show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, a teenage girl is supernaturally called and equipped to fight evil forces. The Slayer, as she is called, has superhuman abilities, and an obligation to protect the innocent. Throughout the series, the protagonist struggles with her burden of responsibility. She knows the stakes are high, but the work is simply too much for one person.
In the show’s climactic series finale, Buffy and her friends change the game. They release the power of every girl who has the potential to become a slayer. Now, instead of one slayer standing alone to fight, there is an army of teenagers, all with the same calling and power.
What if you were able to make that transformation happen in your community? What if, instead of investing in a few charismatic students or a student leadership team, you opened the floodgates by letting every student know that, as Chap Clark says, “God has redeemed them, called them and equipped them to be chosen representatives of his Kingdom”?
When we recognize that all students are called to do God’s work, give them meaningful opportunities to participate in that work and encourage them when they respond to the call, we have the opportunity to give to all of our students the gift I received at that retreat so many years ago: a hope-filled, sustaining narrative that forever transform the way they see themselves and their relationship with their Creator.