"When There's No Burning Bush: Following Your Passions to Discover God's Call - Pt.2"

May 27, 2007

(Acknowledgment: portions from book of same title by Gary Morsch and Eddy Hall; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004)

Are You 'Off the Hook'?

"Discovering God's call is...a lifelong journey. As we discover and obey God's call, the reward is a deep satisfaction and the joy that comes from seeing God work through us to make a difference in the lives of others." Yet not every churchgoer is aware or even wanting to be aware of God's invitation for us to serve Him meaningfully. The late passionate and popular Christian singer Keith Green said, "The call is already there; the problem is that our phones have been off the hook."

The early church didn't have phones so they wouldn't have understood the analogy, but they were certainly not 'off the hook' when it came to perceiving and obeying God's call. They were very willing, they showed a great receptivity and openness to do what God asked them to. They were receptive, tuned in to God's will, making themselves available after Jesus' Resurrection and Ascension for whatever God was going to put into action next. In Acts 1:14 we read that about 120 of the believers "all joined together constantly in prayer." They were actively seeking to find out what God was up to. At the beginning of chapter 2 we find them "all together in one place" - as a group, collectively worshipping and waiting for the next step in God's plan. They were ready and receptive.

The coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost pushed them out of their comfort zone, into new territory. "What looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each one of them.And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability." (Ac 2:3f NLT) Not your usual church service! But God was re-shaping followers to accomplish His mission. Bystanders from all parts of the Roman Empire suddenly could hear these Galileans speaking in their own language about the wonderful things God has done! They couldn't hold it in - they just had to give expression to recounting the Lord's deeds. A new thing was happening.

This same receptivity and sense of willing adventure is apparent in chapter 4, after Peter and John are commanded and threatened by religious officials not to speak or teach any more in the name of Jesus. The gathered church responds to the threat by first of all acknowledging (vv 24 on) God is in control - He's sovereign, made everything, even superintended the trial and death of Jesus at the hands of the governing officials, as foreseen by prophets centuries ago. What's the church to do in the face of these new threats - recoil in fear? No, they ask for power to be bolder. Vv29-30, "Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." They asked for enablement, boldness; to be stretched and grow even as the Heavenly Father stretched out His hand to perform wonders.

And so it happened. Luke records after they prayed the place where they met was shaken, "and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly." The Greek word means "freedom in speaking, unreservedness in speech; openly, frankly...free and fearless confidence, cheerful courage, boldness, assurance." They Holy Spirit was freeing them up to get the good news out about Jesus' victory over sin and death, that a fresh start was possible for those who turned to God for forgiveness. The Holy Spirit was God's boost jump-starting the church in mission and witness to His goodness and grace. Christianity boomed; the believers were blessed because they were willing to take risks and be obedient to the new thing God was doing; they placed themselves at the service of the Holy Spirit, in terms of their words, their actions, and their material wealth.

As we continue our study of Gary Morsch & Eddy Hall's book about discovering God's call in our lives, we see the authors exploding myths that interfere with saints today becoming similarly excited about what God's wanting to do through them.

Myth 4: Good Christians Never Say No

One such myth is that "Good Christians never say 'no'". Have you ever grudgingly agreed to take on a task because you felt it was expected even though you're sure you weren't suited for it? Some churches think of ministry primarily in terms of church-run programs. Mobilizing people into ministry consists of recruiting people to staff those programs. Morsch & Hall call this approach as "slot-filling": it starts with the program then looks for people to staff it. People may be pressured into filling vacant slots because "somebody has to do it and it might as well be me." You end up with some square pegs in round holes, perhaps due to wrong motivations such as guilt or trying to please people. The person doing the ministry who's not particularly gifted for it finds it to be an energy-draining chore instead of finding joy in the work. Now, it takes 80-90% of the available warm bodies to fill all the slots, most of which serve those already in the church; as a result, few people have time and energy to reach out to minister to those outside the church. Those being ministered to receive uninspired ministry at best; and the people who would have been ministered to are left untouched.

There's a better approach - start by helping every Christian discern God's call; then the church asks, "How can we help you fulfill that call?" As people discover calls that don't match existing slots, don't try to force them; instead, either reshape the holes to fit the pegs, or empower people to create brand-new ministry structures around what God is calling them to do. The goal is NOT to keep all the programs running; the goal is to empower every member of the body to discover and fulfill his or her call. Programs are no longer held sacred; instead, what matters is the church's responsibility to equip and empower members of the body to discover and carry out God's call.

What if this means some of the regular bases don't get covered? This doesn't mean we should never do things we don't enjoy. If the nursery person is injured in a collision, someone has to be in that nursery the next Sunday, even if the next person God is calling to that position hasn't been discovered yet. Someone has to fill in. A servant doesn't refuse to be inconvenienced with the excuse, "It's not my gift." However fill-in roles shouldn't become long term.

The authors advocate a "two-hat principle". Program-driven churches tend to ask people to wear more and more ministry hats until the most willing workers cannot possibly do their 5-6 ministries with excellence. Ministry leaders should hold no more than two ministry positions in the church: one big hat (2-8 hrs/wk) and one little hat (up to 2 hrs/wk). Focus on the 1 or 2 ministries for which God's given you the greatest passion, and do them with quality.

Mark worked as a member of a wilderness rescue team. He loved to teach hiking, rappelling, and other wilderness skills. He and some others in his church had met several times to dream about forming a ministry team called the Outdoor Adventure Club, which would organize group wilderness trips for people in the area as a way of building friendships with people in the community who didn't yet know Christ. Mark was serving as chair of the building and grounds committee - not because God called him to do that but because it needed to be done and he was good at it. He needed to be freed up from that position in order to launch the Outdoor Adventure Club. This was made possible when the church increased a staff member's hours and responsibilities to include facility administration. Mark needed to say "no" to one thing so he could say "yes" to God's best for him - the new thing about to launch.

Myth 5: It's Best to Play It Safe

Fear and faith don't mix. Peter, John and the early church weren't afraid of the Sanhedrin's threats; they dared to go boldly on, whatever the cost. Unfortunately today fear holds back many churches from stepping out in the new ventures through which God would have them minister to people's needs. The authors call this myth, "It's best to play it safe."

In many churches, if someone's interested in starting a new ministry, they're advised to present a proposal to the appropriate committee. If the committee can be sold on the idea, it then presents the proposal to the church's governing board. If the board approves it, the new ministry is given an opportunity. However, most ministries proposed in this way never see the light of day, partly because boards don't want to be responsible for authorizing failed programs. Even in innovative churches, only about one of every three newly attempted ministries actually flies. Also, approval isn't likely in the first place because God hasn't called most of the board or committee members to that ministry.

God warned the prophet Isaiah that his fellow Israelites would be unwilling to receive his message to change their ways. "Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed." (Isa 6:10) Jesus cautioned his disciples that most people would reject their preaching; He likened it to a farmer sowing seed in four types of soil, but the hard path, shallow and thorny soil wouldn't bear fruit - only the good soil. Established religious communities with their traditions may be unusually resistant to new things God would do. This can be fatal. Texas pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell declares, "We will not be able to be who God is calling us to be without change. I'd even suggest that without change the church will die. So either you choose to change, or you choose to die."

When Peter saw Jesus walking on the water, he dared to get out of the boat and walk towards the master. When he saw the storm, he felt afraid and sank, but called out for Jesus to save him (Mt 14:29f). Do we notice first Peter's immense faith - or his temporary failure? If fear of failure paralyzes us, we're likely to think the idea was foolish in the first place; but if we're people of daring faith, we see a man who trusted Jesus for the impossible, and when he fell down, trusted Jesus to pick him up.

Contrast the fearful attitude with the entrepreneurship necessary to succeed in the work world. Gordon Moore, founder of Intel, said: "If everything you try works, you aren't trying hard enough." Can you name the inventor of the ordinary light bulb? [point/pause] A household word, but Thomas Edison was no stranger to failure. He noted, "I recall that after we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed to find out anything. I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn't be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way."

Charles Kettering was the founder of Delco and later vice president and director of research for General Motors. His many inventions included the electric cash register and the electric starter. He was awarded more patents by the US Patent Office than any other person except Thomas Edison. In a 1940 speech, Kettering said: "An inventor is almost always failing. He tries and fails maybe a thousand times. If he succeeds once then he's in...We often say that the biggest job we have is to reach a newly hired employee how to fail intelligently. We have to train him to experiment over and over and to keep on trying and failing until he learns what will work."

God can use failures for His purposes. Gary Morsch heads up Heart to Heart International, which conducts medical airlifts to needy countries. At first it was amazing how things fell into place, for numerous projects. Gary warned his staff that someday they would have to cope with failure. Later, planning an airlift to China, they couldn't find anyone to donate the use of a plane. Since they were unable to take a planeload of medicines, they greatly expanded the medical training offered by their volunteers, making training the focus of their trip. The failure to find a plane led to a new approach that's impacting many more lives. Volunteers are teaching courses on the care of critically ill newborns to thousands of medical professionals across China. These in turn train others in hundreds of Chinese hospitals. In one province alone, an estimated 40,000 newborn lives have already been saved because of this training, and an even greater number of disabling birth defects have also been prevented! Praise God for such 'failures', that lead to life.

Myth 6: God Calling? There's Got to Be a Burning Bush

When God called Moses in the desert, He spoke from a bush that mysteriously burned without being burned up (Ex 3:2ff). When Jesus appeared to call Saul to become apostle to the Gentiles, there was a blinding light that knocked him to the ground (Ac 9:3f). But calls to ministry are not usually so dramatic: no fireworks or fanfare.

When there is no burning bush, the authors describe ways to identify what God's call for you to ministry in Christ's name might be. Look closely at passion, abilities, and timing. "Passion" may be a deep burning desire to do something specific for God; it may take the form of a strong sense of 'oughtness', which the Quakers referred to as a 'burden'. One question to ask is, "What is it that breaks the heart of God that also breaks your heart?" Where in you world is the pain you most long to heal? Is it the pain of homelessness, latchkey kids, teens growing up not knowing God, adults abused as children, unhealthy marriages, the poor? Next ask, "What kind of personal ministry would you love to do, along with others, to touch this pain with God's love?"

Frederick Buechner writes: "The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need must to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren't helping your patients much either...The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

Another clue for exploring call is to ask, "If I had unlimited resources and knew I could not fail, what would I dream of doing in response to this need?"

Next step is to examine your abilities to determine what your role might be in a ministry addressing that need. Your passion tells you which ministry team to join; your gifts and other abilities tell you what position to play on that team. But don't make abilities your starting point. God often calls us to do tasks beyond our ability. (Remember the early church asking God to 'stretch out' His hand - and they were stretched!) God may call us to do something that requires us to develop new skills.

When a calling is truly from God, it is always humanly impossible. God's work can never be accomplished in human strength.

Timing is important; wait for God to bring things together, don't 'force it' like Abraham fathering an heir through Hagar (Gen 16:4). God said to Habakkuk (2:3 NLT), "But these things I plan won't happen right away. Slowly, steadily, surely, the time approaches when the vision will be fulfilled. If it seems slow, wait patiently, for it will surely take place. It will not be delayed."

Immersing ourselves in Scripture helps us develop an understanding of God's purposes and where we fit into those purposes. Performing simple acts of service can also help us discover God's call. The church leadership's role is to clearly define boundaries - its mission, vision, beliefs, and core values - then give ministry leaders the freedom to shape and re-shape ministry within those boundaries. It gives them freedom to experiment and learn by trial and error. Each year, as new ministries are born, others are retired - lest the church spread itself too thin. Don't have more 'slots to fill' than people called to fill them.

Do you have a heart to work with children? Perhaps you're invited to work with second graders on Wednesday nights. But 3 weeks into the program you begin to wonder if you're losing your sanity. Maybe the classroom isn't the right place for you. Maybe try something with a different dynamic, like being a nursery assistant, or Big Sister, or a tutor. Joy inside you and the affirming response of those to whom you minister are big clues you're where God means you to be.

No Hands but Ours

There is a story told (perhaps apocryphal - I couldn't track down a picture) about a small French village with a statue of Christ that stood at the centre. During World War II this statue was shattered in the fighting. Villagers carefully saved the pieces until the war was over, then rebuilt the statue. Once it had been reassembled, however, the people found that Christ's hands were missing. They weren't sure what to do. Should they leave the incomplete statue up, or should they take it down? Only when someone placed a small hand_painted sign at the statue's base were the villagers able to agree that the statue was in fact complete, and that it should stand. The sign read, "Christ has no hands but ours."

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body...and we were all given the one Spirit to drink...Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it." It's the Holy Spirit working in us - enabling us, stretching us, making us bold - that equips us to be members of Christ's body, sharing God's grace in a needy world. St Teresa of Avila wrote, "Christ has no body here on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which to look at Christ's compassion for the world, yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now." Let's pray.