Do you feel called by God? Rethinking the call to ministry
Michael Bennett, Matthias Media: Kingsford, 2012.1
Michael Bennett’s book is brilliant. I loved it. Let me tell you why.
Ever since I became a Christian at age 19 (1989), I have been baffled and confused by the way Christians speak about decision-making. I was always hearing people say stuff like “I feel God is calling me to do X, Y and Z”. They seemed to put an awful lot of emphasis on two words: feel and call.
This infatuation with ‘feeling’ and ‘calling’ really confused me because the rank-and-file Christians I read about in the Bible didn’t speak that way. I kept my mouth shut because I was a baby in the faith, but as the years rolled on I realized that this kind of guidance theology was everywhere. It transcended denominations, demography, geography, and even generations. What baffled me even more was when this language was used:
- It often got used when discussing occupation—“I feel God is calling me to be an accountant.” I remember reading Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne’s book Guidance and the Voice of God, where they commented that it was amazing how ‘middle class’ God was, in that he always seemed to call people into white-collar professions. I’d noticed much the same.
- It rarely got used for godliness—I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Christian father say something like we find in Ephesians 6:4: “I feel called by God to stop exasperating my children and to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord; I really need to regularly read the Bible with them”.
- It often got used to avoid evangelism—“I don’t feel like God is calling me to teach Scripture in the local primary school”. I shudder to think where I’d be now if the guy who read God’s word with me had said that in 1988.
- It often got used by those in paid ministry positions—If I had a dollar for every time a CMS missionary or a Presbyterian pastor or an American church planter used the phrase “that was when I felt the call of God into the ministry”, I’d be one of the richest men in Australia. As a younger Christian I kept hearing this and asking myself, “What do they mean by ‘called by God’? Did God audibly speak to them with a special revealed word to them about going to Pakistan? Or do they mean that all the circumstances seemed, by God’s providence, to point them to Pakistan?”
This had all been percolating around in my mind for years when I picked up Michael Bennett’s book and read the blurb on the back:
When Michael Bennett took the first steps towards full-time, ordained Christian ministry, he dreaded being asked if he ‘felt called’. Because in all honesty he didn’t.
“Hallelujah!”, I thought. “This bloke might have some insights we can all benefit from.”
The book is excellent for the following reasons:
The autobiographical thread
It has an autobiographical thread all the way through it. Although it can be irritating when authors argue their theological position from their life experience, Bennett avoids this and helps you see how this topic really matters in life today:
Before I could be allowed to enter college to study the Bible and theology, I was required to appear before a selection committee; and as I sat nervously in a small room with another candidate, waiting to be interviewed, I asked the other young man the question that was troubling me, and which I was sure was going to be asked of me on the other side of the door.
“Why do you feel God is calling you into the ministry?” I enquired…
His reply rather surprised me.
“Recently,” he answered, “the minister of my church was going to be away on holidays, and he asked me whether I would lead one of the church services in his absence. I had never done this before, but I agreed to help. When I entered the church to begin the service, the whole congregation stood up. Now, no-one had ever stood up for me before, and I enjoyed this so much that I decided I would like to go into the ministry full-time!”
My immediate unspoken reaction was to think, “There must be a better reason than that!” I felt in my bones that there had to be a worthier motivation for considering full-time ministry, but I could not think what it might be. I certainly felt no such inner conviction. (pp. 23-24)
Bennett is hilarious
He is a very funny man. Humour and seriousness are not opposites—Bennett uses humour to say serious things in a pastorally sensitive way.
It is biblical
His exegesis is careful, well-argued, and traverses the sweep of the biblical data. Bennett writes in his introduction, “I have discovered that [the word] ‘call’ is used more than 300 times within the pages of the New Testament, and with at least 11 separate meanings” (p. 6). This bloke knows the Scriptures well.
Bennett pins his colours to the mast
He writes his conclusions on page two—because sometimes you just want to know the bottom line.
Out of this detailed examination I have arrived at two conclusions in regard to the important subject of the ‘call of God’, conclusions that I think can fairly be described as radical within the context of everyday evangelical piety today. The rest of this book explains the process by which these conclusions have been reached. The conclusions are:
1. The often-heard and almost universally accepted expression “I feel God is calling me” is totally foreign to the revealed content of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The continued use of this unscriptural pietistic language may be having negative consequences for churches, missionary societies and other Christian organizations in the choosing and training of future leaders.
2. Without denying in any way God’s ability to call people into ministry by overt and supernatural signs, it is argued here that this is not usually God’s method today. The motivation to serve the Lord, particularly in what is termed full-time ministry, is a human desire to do so and not a felt call. However, this human desire, which must spring from one’s love for Jesus and the gospel and genuine compassion for people, is not sufficient or valid in itself: it must be rightly motivated and rightly tested. (pp. 6-7)
He also repeats these findings throughout the book, so you really feel like you’ve ‘got’ what he’s saying by the end of it.
It is pastoral and straight-talking
You can tell Bennett has a pastoral heart and a deep concern for the glory of God. He wants people to use language in a way that is clear and unambiguous. Why? Because it matters.
Bennett writes (under the heading of ‘To what are we called?’ in chapter 5),
In summary, based on these 300-plus uses of the word ‘call’ as they relate to the church period following the ministries of Jesus and the apostles, you and I are called by God in two ways:
First we are called to be Christians—to be disciples of Jesus.
Second, we are called to be holy—to grow in Christlikeness. (p. 60, emphasis original)
He goes on to show how the common (unbiblical) use of ‘call’ can produce pastoral problems, including laziness, fear, avoidance of responsibility, and even a reluctance to admit or acknowledge failure.
I thoroughly commend this book to:
- Christians pondering how they’ll use their gifts to serve Jesus—“A believer cannot ‘go into the ministry’ any more than a newborn baby can go into the human race. You are in it by reason of your human birth, or in this case, new birth” (p. 99). You don’t need some super-spiritual experience, some angelic tap on the shoulder to be keen to make disciples or become a gospel worker.
- Pastors and Christian leaders—It will encourage you to modify your own speech and to avoid teaching the wrong nomenclature.
- Denominational leaders who assess ordination candidates—Ponder this book’s truth, and stop asking people “Do you feel called into the ministry?”. Ask them biblical questions like “First Timothy 3:1-7 speaks of the desire to be an overseer, having a good reputation with outsiders, and qualifications for the task; do you have these things?”
- Leaders of mission organizations and missionaries—I don’t mean to be rude, but in my experience of life you are the most prolific users of the ‘feeling called to the mission field’ talk. It is so terribly unhelpful. Why not instead talk of life circumstances, personal background, interests, relationships, and everything that God has used to providentially direct you towards proclaiming Christ?
I will be making this book part of the core reading for all Ministry Training Strategy apprentices in Australia. Rooting out a wrong view of guidance matters. Too many people are going to hell while Christians stand back shrugging and saying, “But I don’t feel called by God to make disciples of all nations… I don’t feel called into the ministry.”
- This review of a Matthias Media book was not commissioned by us, but offered quite independently to us by Ben Pfahlert. Nevertheless we think it’s a good reflection on a great book, so it’s our resource talk for this issue. —Ed. ↩