How will I find my ministry calling? Will I find it internally, like some impulse that will lead me to start a new thing? Or will my ministry calling come from the outside? Will it come from others telling me where I’m needed? This is a great question, and it comes in today from a listener named Caleb.
Caleb references a conference you preached at years back, Pastor John. Here’s his email: “Hello, Pastor John! At a conference, now many years ago, you went to Colossians 4:17 to argue that God gives ministries to his children. We don’t stumble upon our ministry; instead, he decisively ‘throws’ us into them, so to speak. Any chance you’d be willing to expand on how this works, and how it has worked for you in church and parachurch contexts? Thank you!”
First, let me share several passages of Scripture that caused me to say that we are not the decisive cause of being in any particular ministry — God is. And then I’ll step back and ask how that divine work is experienced in our minds and in our hearts so that we can make it more practical for people as they find their way into ministry and church or parachurch.
God Grants the Ministry
First, Paul says to the elders who are gathered in Acts 20:28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you [literally, “set you” or “put you” — etheto in Greek] overseers to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” God put those elders there as elders. They did not put themselves there — God did, decisively.
“We are not the decisive cause of being in any particular ministry — God is.”
Second, Ephesians 4:11–12. Paul says that Christ “gave [to the church] the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” These ministers of the church are the gift of the risen Christ to his body. They are where they are as a gift of Christ.
Third, in Matthew 9:37–38, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” And the word for “send out” is ekballō, “throw out.” He threw them into ministry. “Send out, throw, the laborers into the harvest.” So when the Lord answers this prayer, he does the decisive work and makes sure that the workers are where he wants them to be.
Fourth, Romans 10:13–15:
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
Now, it’s possible for a rogue preacher to preach without being sent by a church or a mission agency. I don’t think that’s what Paul is talking about here. I think Paul is saying that nobody can preach authentically, nobody can preach with integrity for God, with God’s authority, unless he is sent by God. If anyone is preaching the gospel the way he ought as a faithful spokesman of God, he has been sent by God, not by himself. God is the decisive actor in putting them in that gospel-preaching ministry.
Fifth, Luke 12:41. Jesus had just told a parable about being ready for the second coming, and Peter says, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?” And Jesus answers like this: “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set [or appoint] over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?” So when Jesus thinks of pastors and teachers of his people, he thinks of them as stewards put over a household. He has appointed them. They are not there randomly. He has set them there, and they are to feed and take care of his house.
Sixth (and this is the last that I’m going to mention), there’s the text that Caleb referred to — namely, Colossians 4:17: “And say to Archippus, ‘See that you fulfill the ministry that you received in the Lord.’” So Archippus did not put himself in his ministry. He received the ministry from the Lord.
How We Experience God’s Calling
Now, those six passages are the reason that Caleb is right when he quotes me as saying, “We don’t stumble upon our ministries; instead, God decisively throws us into them.” But now, in practice — in the church, in parachurch ministries, wherever — we have to ask the question, How does God work inside of us, inside of people (in their mind, in their heart), so that they find themselves in the ministry where he’s putting them?
What’s the conscious experience of God’s work of guidance, of leading, in getting us to where he wants us to be? And I’ll mention just four things briefly that are typically the way God does it. And I say typically because he’s God and he can make exceptions to these.
Rising Desire in the Heart
First, there is ordinarily the rising in our hearts of a relentless and abiding desire for the work. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” That certainly was true for me. Wow. In the two stages of my calling into the ministry, God exploded in the fall of 1966 when I was 20 years old with a relentless and abiding desire for the ministry of the word. And then he did the same thing in 1979, the fall of ’79, with a relentless and abiding desire for the proclamation of the word in the pastoral role. These desires were not flashes in the pan; they were deep and unshakable, and they overcame significant obstacles.
Fitness for the Ministry
Second, there is ordinarily a God-given fitness or giftedness for the ministry, which is shown both in a cluster of abilities that we have and in the fruit of people actually being helped spiritually by the use of those abilities — and all of that confirmed, not just by our own individual selves, but rather by the community of believers, and especially the most mature and discerning believers.
“There is ordinarily the rising in our hearts of a relentless and abiding desire for the work.”
Paul didn’t just say to the elder, “If you desire it, you’ve got it.” He gave a long list of qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1–7). So the person moves into a ministry role (1) because of a perceived set of abilities, and (2) because of some manifest fruit in people that are really being spiritually helped by those abilities, and then (3) through the mature brothers and sisters recognizing and confirming that fruit and giftedness.
Third, there’s often a specific encouragement from other people that you should do this particular ministry. Paul said to Timothy, “I want you to go with me” (see Acts 16:3). That’s pretty direct. This happens very often. Someone says to another person, “I really think you should do this.” And it proves to be a providence from the Lord, an encouragement that gets them over the hump of hesitation.
Confidence in God’s Favor
And then finally, number four, there’s a correlation between our most consecrated, spiritually intense, wholly submitted moments on the one hand, and the sense of God’s favor and guidance for the ministry in those very moments on the other hand. In other words, when we feel most confident in God’s favor and guidance, those are the moments when we are least worldly, least unspiritual, least indifferent.
There’s a correlation between those seasons of life — when God seems to blow the cobwebs of worldliness and selfishness and greed and pride out of our heart — and it’s in those moments when we sense the leading toward this ministry most keenly and surely. God confirms them not in the carnal, selfish moments, but in the humble, brokenhearted, sacrificial, loving moments.
So, in summary, then, there are practical, relational, subjective experiences that move us toward ministry. But in the end, it is the hidden hand of God’s gracious providence that puts us, throws us, where he wants us to be.