By Darryl Ford
The Great Commission is clear—Christ commands us to go beyond making converts to making disciples. Because discipleship is so important, American evangelicals spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the topic.
Still, I wonder if something is missing in our approach to discipleship.
I spent several years working for large evangelical churches in Chicago and Atlanta that had growing and transformative small group ministries. I’ve participated in and led small groups.
I’ve benefited greatly from those groups and have witnessed incredible growth in the lives of some of my closest friends through small groups.
I’ve noticed, however, that almost all discipleship strategies focus on the individual believer’s personal or “spiritual” life, often at the exclusion of their vocational life.
We spent a lot of time in groups talking about our marriages, our families, our single lives, our prayer lives, our quiet times, and whether or not our eyes wandered where they shouldn’t. The only time work came up was when someone asked how effective of a witness we were in our jobs.
Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying discipleship doesn’t affect our marriages, our families, and our individual spiritual lives. My contention is that discipleship should be much more than those things, especially when it comes to vocation.
As a pastor, I cringe when I hear people refer to what pastors do as “full-time ministry.” Similarly, I cringe when people refer to their jobs as being “secular.” I believe we need a robust theology of faith and vocation that ties into our discipleship.
Without it, we create an unhealthy and unbiblical sacred-secular divide that neglects or denies the priesthood of all believers. In other words, we are all in full-time ministry, no matter what our job is.
This conversation is not a new one. It has appeared in various permutations throughout church history.
In the 4th century, Eusebius introduced the concept of the perfect versus the permitted will of God. To Eusebius, perfect meant full-time church work, which was the only true and sacred calling and only real vocation.
Conversely, permitted referred to necessary but still secular or worldly jobs like farming, tentmaking, or tending to the home. They were not real vocations in Eusebius’s eyes.
This became the way the church distinguished between these two worlds. Even Augustine made a distinction between the active life and the contemplative life. Augustine affirmed and praised the work of merchants and farmers, but he believed the contemplative life was of greater significance.
Centuries later, reformers like Martin Luther began to reshape the doctrine of vocation to align more with the Bible’s teaching about the priesthood of all believers.
“The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured by God by faith alone,” wrote Luther.
Specific callings to church work weren’t minimized, but all other lawful callings were elevated to the same level of dignity and acceptability before God.
The restoration of the doctrine of vocation continues today, but there’s still much work to be done to overcome the sacred-secular divide that is more assumed than explicitly taught—and for that reason, more difficult to detect.
Work through a redemptive lens
As a church planter and pastor, my goal is to foster a culture of discipleship in our church that encourages believers to view their respective vocations through a redemptive lens.
This means communicating a theology of work born out of the creation mandate (Genesis 1:28 and 2:15) and in concert with the great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40).
I want our people to understand our vocations are given to us so we can work in such a way that provides for human flourishing. For me, that means to work as a pastor to shepherd people into becoming more like Jesus. For others, it will look different.
The questions I’m asking our folks are these: “What areas in your sphere of influence are the evidence of the fall readily apparent?” and “What gifts and callings has God placed in you that enable you to join Him in reconciling some of these areas back to Himself?”
My friends at Redemption Church, a multisite church in Arizona, do a great job of teaching their people the doctrine of vocation. They’ve created something called “All of Life” interviews that are conducted on stage every service.
We are hoping to do the same at our church in Atlanta. In our church, we have musicians, recording artists, business owners, pilots, blue-collar workers, people that work in non-profits, and stay-at-home moms.
At some point, we’d like to conduct interviews with each of them to see how their vocations allow them to image God.
People in discipleship groups will be challenged with questions about their vocations in addition to spiritual growth questions because they are related. The hope is that people learn to see their work as an integral part of their larger mission and calling.
And my prayer is that we grow in our understanding that all of life is an expression of love to God and service to others, that all legitimate work is sacred when offered to God, and that all work is an occasion for worship.
DARRYL FORD (@DarrylFord) is the lead pastor of Ikon Community Church in the East Lake area of Atlanta, Georgia.