Today I want to relaunch a series of posts dealing with ministry in general and pastoral ministry in particular. I’m a pastor. I am the son of a pastor, and I have a great love for those who have surrendered their lives to the call of God in pastoral ministry. That’s why I feel led to begin to share some very practical advice, and insights that I pray will be a help to those serving the Lord as undershepherds of His flock through the ministry of a local church. My plan is not to “recreate the wheel,” or go into great detail parsing words or giving tons of historical quotes or voluminous treatments covering every possible aspect of some particular area of ministry. There are other helpful books – some noted in my posts – that can answer some of the more minute or specific questions that you might have. My goal in the coming months is to share out of my heart and experience. I pray that the Lord will use these practical posts in your life as you seek to serve Him.
THE CALL OF GOD TO MINISTRY
The great need of our day – in fact, the great need of any day – is that of God-called men proclaiming the truth of God’s Word and ministering in His name to the needs of people. However, we are increasingly living in a day where many are downplaying (some even outright denigrating) a specific, personal call from God to vocational ministry.
Now, to be honest, this isn’t something that is new or that’s simply popped up out of nowhere. There have been others through the years that have not seen in scripture, or their own personal life a definite, divine call to ministry. They may believe that there is only a general call to all believers to serve the Lord or at least that there is no justification in scripture for a distinct vocational ministry. Wherever their thought takes them, the root comes from a lack of belief in what is commonly referred to as “the call.”
Men such as Gary Friesen and Os Guinness would be among those who would contend that there is no personal, scriptural, supernatural call that comes upon a one’s life to “surrender to the ministry.” They believe that either we are all called to serve in the ministry – that there is a universal call – or that such specific calls in the Bible are so infrequent that they are the exception rather than the norm, and as such are not to be taken as a biblical precedent. However, from my personal experience and Bible study, I must say that I do strongly believe that there is such a thing as “the call.”
What do I mean by – “the call?” I believe that “the call’ is the undeniable, unmistakable, unavoidable conviction that comes upon a person that God wants him to spend the rest of his life serving in the Lord’s ministry.”
We see this repeatedly illustrated in the pages of the Bible – both in the Old as well as in the New Testament. In the Old Testament men such as Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Jonah, Samuel and Elijah all experienced a definite, divine call to do a specific, special job for God. We see this again when we come to the pages of the New Testament and see Jesus call four fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James, and John. We also read the words of Paul as he gave testimony of the call and commissioning of God upon His life: “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16) The Bible presents us with ample evidence of the call of God upon an individual’s life.
One account that I think is striking is found in Amos 7:14-15. Amos is explaining how leaving his job as a sheepherder and fruit farmer was not something of his own desire or design. Amos simply says that he heard the call of God, and he obeyed it!
“Then Amos answered, and said to Amaziah: “I was no prophet, Nor was I a son of a prophet, But I was a sheepbreeder And a tender of sycamore fruit. Then the LORD took me as I followed the flock, And the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to My people Israel.'”
We also see this in the testimonies of some of God’s great servants. Martyn Lloyd- Jones described the call of God on his life this way. “It was God’s hand that laid hold of me, and drew me out, and separated me to this work.” John Stott, as a seventeen-year-old boy felt ” a definite and irresistible call from God to serve Him in the church.” He summed it up by stating that he had been “separated unto the gospel of God.” Adrian Rogers shares about the Lord’s call on his life, describing how after nearly eight months of wrestling with it he went to a football field one night, dug a small hole in the ground, laid on the ground and stuck his nose in the hole trying to get as low as he could and surrendered his life to the gospel, and stood up with assurance that this was the will of God for his life.
How then can a person know that God is calling them into the ministry? This knowledge is so important because if you’re going to be “successful” and satisfied in the ministry, then you must be as sure of your call as you are your own salvation.
One of the reasons I believe we see so many pastors leaving the ministry is because of a lack of certainty regarding “the call.” You see, it is the call that will sustain you and strengthen you when everybody turns against you. It is the call that will remain even when your friends forsake you. It is “the call” that will get you through the dry times in your ministry and help you not give up or give in when nothing you do seems to be working. Don’t ever forget that “the call” is the most important thing in your ministry, because without a clear calling from God you don’t have a ministry.
So, how can you be sure that God has called you to the ministry? Let me give you two ways you can know you have the call of God on your life.
You will know that you have been called by God when there is an inescapable, undeniable conviction in your heart that God wants you to surrender your life in service to Him. It may start off as a thought that jumps into you mind that you quickly sweep away. But, over time, that thought takes root in your heart and life, and it can not be removed. It’s there when you wake up and when you go to sleep. It’s constantly there as you go throughout your day. It begins to consume your thoughts and desires until you can do nothing else but surrender to it.
Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. A man isn’t called to the ministry because he “can’t” do anything else. In other words, he’s hasn’t been successful in any other job, so he decides to “try his hand in the ministry.” No, a man knows that he has been called to the ministry when he CAN’T do anything else.
My father shared with me when I first told him that I felt God was calling me into the ministry that if I “could do anything else and be happy doing it to go do it.” That is great advice. If you could be happy being a banker, lawyer, teacher, mechanic, truck driver, farmer or anything else, then you most likely have not been called to the ministry. However, if you know that none of these things would ever satisfy you then it is very likely that God is calling you to serve Him in what is sometimes call “vocational ministry.”
After you come to the place where you are convinced that God has placed His call upon your life, there should be an outward confirmation. By this, I mean that others confirm that they have sensed the same thing, and have seen evidence of God’s call upon your life. Sometimes there will be the evidence of a unique gifting. Other times it might be found in a servant spirit that goes above and beyond what other Christians are willing to do in the service of the Lord. But, either way, I believe than an important part of confirming the call in a person’s life comes when other Christians concur and say “Yes, we see that God’s call is upon your life too.”
One of the most encouraging, even surprising things about this outward confirmation is that many times when a person finally surrenders and says “Yes” to Jesus’ call on their life, others will say that they knew it all along. In fact, many times others will sense and see the call of God on a man’s life even before he does.
John Knox was called to preach at the end of a sermon. John Rough was preaching at St. Andrew’s Castle and he looked straight at John Knox and said, “refuse not this holy vocation!” Knox said that he ran to his room, wept and cried, but finally came out surrendered to the call of God on his life.
George W. Truett, the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, had a similar experience. As a young man, a deacon in the Baptist Church in Whitewright, Texas challenged him to surrender his life to the ministry. Truett said, “I was thrown into the stream, and just had to swim!”
I will never forget the struggle that I went through as a young man when God’s call began to come upon my life. I was a Christian, but I had run from the Lord for a couple of years. I had been raised around pastors and preachers, and just to be honest, as a result definitely didn’t want to be one. I knew that it wasn’t an easy, or sometimes even an enjoyable life. There were always petty, personal problems to deal with. You weren’t going to get rich being a pastor in any church I’d ever been around. In fact, you were probably going to just barely make ends meet every month. And then, of course, there were some pastors that I knew to be arrogant or hypocrites, and this impacted my view of the ministry in general and pastors in particular.
As a result, of all of these things, I wasn’t really excited when I first began to sense God’s call upon my life. In fact, I tried everything I could to avoid it, including skipping church. You see, I was convicted when I went to church that I wasn’t doing what God wanted me to do, so the easiest way I found to avoid that conviction was to simply not go to church. However, when Kim, at the time my girlfriend and now my wife, moved on campus at Union University, I could no longer lay out of church on Sunday mornings. In fact, not only did I now have to go to church on Sunday mornings, but now I had to go on Sunday and Wednesday nights too.
It was in one of those Wednesday night Bible studies at West Jackson Baptist Church in Jackson, Tennessee that I had a head-on encounter with Jesus. The call was personal, inescapable and definite. It was as if God was talking to me, and I could hear Him. I don’t remember what Dr. Jerry Tidwell said that night, but I will never forget what God said. He gave me a choice, “Follow me or be miserable for the rest of your life.” When I walked out of the church, that night I knew without a doubt that God’s call had come, and I had to surrender my life to His ministry.
When I got home that night, I called my father and told him that God was calling me into the ministry. He did a surprising, startling, but very wise thing. He refused to talk to me about it. In fact, he told me to call my former youth pastor, Don Edwards and talk to him. I called Bro. Don and drove to his house. I told him how I felt God had called me into the ministry, but I didn’t know exactly where or how He wanted me to serve. I told him that I was pretty sure that it wasn’t as a pastor or preacher. I had sung solos in church and had been a part of youth choirs and ensembles, so maybe God was calling me to be a Music Minister. If not a Music Minister, maybe He wanted me to help churches build strong, evangelistic Sunday Schools as a Minister of Education. I wasn’t sure. I just knew that He wasn’t calling me to be a preacher.
Bro. Don sent me home to pray and think about where and how God would have me serve. A week later I called him and told him that God had called me to be a pastor and a preacher. He told me that he knew that the night I sat in his living room.
God confirmed His call upon my life when the next week Dr. John Adams, then Vice-President of Union University, stopped me in the hall and told me that he was going to be out of town the next Sunday night and wanted me to preach Sunday night at the church where he was serving as an interim. I had sensed God’s call and surrendered my life, and He was now confirming it through the counsel of others and immediate opportunities. That’s the way that God so often works when He places His call upon a person’s life.
So, when considering “the call,” understand that it is not a man that chooses the ministry, it is God that chooses the man for the ministry. God chooses him for His purpose, in His time and place. In fact, as amazing and even unbelievable as it may seem, God has chosen to change the world and those in it through His pastors that He has called.
Dr. Henry Blackaby sums it up with this powerful and practical statement:
“The one God calls, He enables by His presence to fulfill completely His call. Any other assignment offered by the world will always be a huge step down.”
To that, I say, “Amen!” Thank God for His undeniable, unmistakable, inescapable call!
One of my professors at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Gerald Cowen does an excellent job in presenting some of the different views that people have held in regards to God’s Call in the first chapter of his book “Who Rules the Church: Examining Congregational Leadership and Church Government.” I would recommend a close and careful reading of the first part of that chapter if you wish to have a greater understanding of the different views.
Also, Dr. Henry Blackaby and Henry Brandt provide great personal insight and scriptural support on numerous areas regarding the call and ministry in their book “The Power of the Call.” I would recommend it highly for anyone wrestling with the call to ministry.