Thoughts from the Bi-Vocational Pastor: “The church is NOT your vocation.”

While I’ve allowed a bit more time to go by than I wanted to between posts, Bi-Vocational Ministry is still on my mind. To review, vocation is more about identity and being than economy and task.  If you want to get the “full version” you can read back to my original post.

Let’s move on to the subject of this post. The New York Times published an article stating that families today are more “stressed, tired, and rushed” in their lives than ever.  The writer offers a lot of conclusions from recent Pew Center research: both parents working, pressures of traditional gender roles, and increased activities for children are just some of the many things filling and competing for people’s lives today .  Maybe it’s too obvious to state this, but people’s lives are busy. Now I suppose we could enter into a moral/ethical critique of “busy,” but I don’t see that as very helpful, because “busy” isn’t a problem so much as it is a reality.

The question I’ve heard most church workers and leaders asking isn’t “What does this mean?” But rather “What should we do?”  Is the church part of the problem? How can the church help?

Is the church part of the problem?  My response is yes, but not intentionally.  Most are well aware of shifts in American life in the past 50 years and how that is affecting churches across America today.  There’s much research that’s been done to say that ways of doing church simply aren’t in rhythm with the schedule and pulse of people’s lives.  In short, church simply becomes one more thing on the plate, another item on the weekly and monthly calendar. Churches create programs (ministry), initiate marketing strategies (evangelism), offer education and training programs (discipleship), and offer events and opportunities to gather (fellowship) in an attempt to increase participation in church life.

Let me say that I think churches do this out of the belief and commitment that a life of faith in relationship with God is vital and beneficial for the world today.  That isn’t the problem; that’s a good thing! The problem is that by creating and offering more things to do, the church communicates that for a Christian – “the church IS your vocation.”  Not only should church be THE priority in a Christian’s life, but it is fundamentally the image of who a Christian is: a frequent and regular churchgoer.  The question has to be asked, “Are we as people of God more than that?”  I think so; and that leads church workers and leaders into reflecting on the idea that people are multi-vocational beings, i.e. “The church is not your vocation.”

How can church help? The starting point is asking the fundamental human question: “Who are we?”  For Christians, we look to the One in whom our identity is formed: Jesus Christ.  For congregations, ministry to the people they serve invites them into reflection on this identity, or vocational reflection.  What does it mean that Christ is at the center of who I am as a parent? Spouse? Employee?  Supervisor? What does it mean that God created me with the gifts and passions that drive and fulfill me, that give me life? How do I see my very life as a God-given gift?  The identity of congregations then, should be communities of vocational reflection.

Of course, these questions to lead to the logical question of “what then do these communities do?”  That answer varies with context and dynamics of the congregation’s history, size, and structure.  However, I do think congregations would do best by taking a “coaching” posture – accompanying people along life’s journey, affirming and challenging the ways they live faithfully to Christ in love and service toward God and neighbor. I would advocate for a return to more “traditional” practices and away from intricately organized programs.  Provide devotionals via email or social media. Hold an early morning breakfast/devotional group before the work day.  Provide opportunities for people to discover their spirit-given gifts through Strengthsfinder 2.0, MBTI, or similar inventories. Connect young people with particular work interests with adults in the congregation who work in those areas to do mutual vocational reflection through questions and learning.  Even worship (particularly preaching) should disciple people in the task of vocational reflection as a response to the Gospel.

And my shocker: shift weekly worship/education from Sunday morning to another time.  (I suggest Thursday evening.  I believe it can be done with some creativity.) I’m not just talking an alternative worship service.  Create an entirely separate worshipping community.  For large churches, this is easier.  For smaller congregations, perhaps the challenge is to shift your entire worshiping community to a different day of the week!

For Christians, the church is NOT your vocation.  But the church can help you live out your vocation, and that might be the best gift to offer people desperately seeking a connection with God and meaning for their lives.

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