August 23, 2017

Six Floors of Sunday School….. to what end?

1006553_wood_rasp_3Today’s guest post is by IM friend Pat K, from New Reformation Press.

Way back in the early Eighties, shortly after becoming a Christian, I attended a Bible College in Houston, Texas. It quickly became evident that God’s Church was much larger than the small Holiness sect I was evangelized into, and Houston provided ample opportunity for me to explore what seemed to me to be an almost unlimited selection of denominations.

After sojourning awhile, and being intrigued by a number of different denominations, the theology I held at the time dictated that I couldn’t in good conscience wander too far out of the box. I settled on a very large and prominent Southern Baptist church and joined up.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I still love that church, and my comments here are not meant to take away anything from a great congregation and a magnificent ministry. For years afterward, the now sainted Pastor of that congregation was an inspiration and a role model to me. He embodied an excellence in ministry that has left a lasting impression long after my theology changed.

This was a large church, at the time approaching 15 or 20 thousand members, and had just completed construction on the most magnificent church and ministry facility I had ever seen. A huge sanctuary, a gymnasium, complete with bowling alleys, and an educational wing that contained six floors of Sunday School classrooms.

The model of ministry they subscribed to was an all out push for evangelism, in every Sunday service, and by all members inviting others to church. There were manifold outreach ministries too. Once someone made a proffession of faith they were baptized then ‘plugged in’ to some kind of ‘ministry’. To serve in some capacity in the church was considered an important part of discipleship.

On the surface this seemed to be a good plan. Seemed to be eminently successful.

Until one day I was walking into the sanctuary, in awe of the buildings, and the thought hit me. “To what end?”

Not every church could emulate this model for one thing. And secondly, would we add more floors of Sunday School to keep a never ending flow of converts working in some capacity of ministry? It seemed like a pyramid in which we gain converts to build the church to gain more converts to build the church. Is plugging someone into volunteer church work the only way to ensure the spiritual growth of the newly evangelized?

I was troubled, because this was really the only model of ministry that I had been exposed to and no obvious scriptural alternative was immediately apparent. I wrestled with this for a number of years, never really arriving at a satisfactory answer. I had a nagging sense that if I was not volunteering at church then I was not involved in ‘real ministry’ and was somehow a second class christian. (If I was volunteering at my church, I suspected anyone who wasn’t volunteering was a second class christian. Yeah, I know that’s bad.)

This continued, kind of on the back burner, but would surface from time to time and cause me real discomfort. I was putting in fifteen and twenty hours a week at some of the churches I subsequently attended. After awhile I became exhausted and resentful. I didn’t have any kind of life outside of church, and the supposed spiritual benefits I was told I would receive from this kind of service didn’t seem to materialize.

We ended up completely dropping out of church.

After a hiatus from church for about a year, I resurfaced in the Lutheran Church. It was here in catechism class I was introduced to the doctrine of vocation. When I started to grasp this doctrine, it hit me like a hammer. Here were the answers to my questions concerning discipleship and growth in the Christian life. (Let me say right here that this is one of a handful of doctrines from the Lutheran Reformation that I think can be of benefit to every Christian regardless of denominational affiliation.)

So, what is the doctrine of vocation?

It consists of a couple of main ideas. The first is that God deals with us through means. His presence, for our benefit, is mediated. We don’t deal with God in His naked Glory. We would be consumed if we did. So God deals with us through the incarnation of His Son, the scriptures, through the Lord’s Supper, through baptism, and through each other. These are His means or tools He uses to communicate to us and to bless us.

My Pastor puts it this way. When we pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ loaves of bread don’t fall from the sky.(We don’t see manna or multiplying loaves much any more.) A Farmer plants and harvests wheat. A miller grinds it. A baker bakes it. A truckdriver hauls it to a store and the store sells it to us. These are God’s means of providing our daily bread. These vocations of farmer, miller, baker, truck driver and store owner could almost be seen as masks of God. He is behind each one of these providing bread to eat.

God has placed each one of us uniquely in our vocations, as sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, fathers or mothers, employees, employer, students, teachers, govenors or citizens. Each has specific duties and responsibilities to serve our neighbor, in ways unique to each station in life, outlined in God’s word, that as Christians we strive to accomplish. This is where the rubber meets the road in the Christian life. This is Christ in us serving our neighbor,and it is also us in Christ serving Him.

The second part of the doctrine of vocation is that all true and valid vocations are equally pleasing to God. During Luther’s time the church had developed a two tiered approach to the Christian life. Those who really wanted to serve God and obtain his blessings became priests and nuns,
or attached themselves to one of the monastic orders. These people were considered to be more holy and better Christians than the average guy warming a pew. They also invented a whole list of made up works that elicited God’s favor. Pilgrimages and fasts, taking vows and joining a monastery. These were considered more pleasing to God than doing a good job at work or being a good parent. Luther considered the whole scheme to be hogwash and stated that a mother lovingly changing her infant’s diaper was doing a holier work than anyone taking a monastic vow or going on a pilgrimage. He said any true vocation done with faith in Christ was just as pleasing to God as the vocation of being a priest or monk.
In the Lutheran church today, the vocation of Pastor is held in no higher esteem than any other vocation.

This knowledge has been incredibly freeing to me and a number of friends and relatives. By being a good worker and a good dad and husband I am serving Christ. By voting and paying my taxes I am serving Christ in my vocation as citizen. It is truly good news to those of us who thought that we had to be working in the church to serve the Lord.

Please note that I am not discouraging people from working in their churches or saying that it is a bad thing to do. Becoming a minister or volunteering at your church is also a needed and God pleasing vocation, but it is not the only avenue of service to the Lord.

This is really a very brief introduction to the doctrine of vocation. If any of you wish more in depth study, here are a couple of resources to check out.

God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in all of Life by Gene Veith. This is an excellent and accessible introduction to the doctrine of vocation, and has been instrumental in helping a number of my friends and relatives.

Luther on Vocation by Gustaf Wingren. This is the definitive study of Luther’s doctrine of vocation. Some heavy reading at times but the payoff is well worth it.

Comments

  1. Really excellent essay. That doctrine of vocation I think in many ways has the same effect of lifting burdens as Jesus’ words must have done to those in His day oppressed by rules and regulations. The idea that we’re second class Christians unless we’re serving “to the MAX” in the hardest, most visible, most extreme ways all the time can be very oppressive. How much better (and more honest) to just view whatever work you do as something to be done with dedication, honesty, respect for those around you, etc. We can keep aggressively pushing for someone to “pray the sinner’s prayer”, but if we don’t live every day in our jobs in a way that makes our faith seem real and attractive, who is going to have any interest in getting to that point?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      We can keep aggressively pushing for someone to “pray the sinner’s prayer”, but if we don’t live every day in our jobs in a way that makes our faith seem real and attractive, who is going to have any interest in getting to that point?

      Over at Slacktivist, they call that approach “Say-the-Magic-Words Salvation”.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. I’m sure I will be sharing it with many people.

  3. This is a breath of fresh air! Thank you. I, too, will be sharing this. I’ve been detoxing from church for about 16 months now. God hasn’t called me back in there yet, and I am actually open to it when He does. LCMS is something I’d be strongly open to looking into.

    • Detox…yeah, I get that. God be with as you return to his people.

    • “detoxing from church” — I love that. I’ve been doing that too. In fact, I’m come across a lot of people these days who are doing that. I haven’t lost the faith, I’ve just been focusing on my two vocations: being a teacher in a public school and raising my kids.

      Thanks for the essay! It’s right up my alley right now.

    • You know, I did about a 2 year detox too. There were other circumstances involved in that, but I needed the break from “church”. The one I was in wasn’t benefiting me, and I wasn’t ready for the one I would ultimately end up in 2 years later. God knows what He is doing. He carried me along and still does.

    • ‘Detoxing’ – That’s a great term. I call it ‘declaring a church fast.’

    • Detoxing–yup. I just pointed out to someone I’d been on a 2 year sabbatical from church, and that was long enough. 🙂

  4. Thank you, Pat K. You make excellent points here. I think many of us sometimes think, “If only I could be (fill in the blank) then I could concentrate more on being dedicated to doing God’s will” when actually we can be just as dedicated doing whatever position we find ourselves in at the time. It’s a tough lesson to learn, though, and I am still “working” on it.

  5. David Cornwell says:

    Thank you very much. I’ve known more than one person doing church work to suffer burnout, then drop out. This happens to pastors and church staff members far more than it should. A lot of usl need to re-think our theology of vocation.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    The model of ministry they subscribed to was an all out push for evangelism, in every Sunday service, and by all members inviting others to church. There were manifold outreach ministries too. Once someone made a proffession of faith they were baptized then ‘plugged in’ to some kind of ‘ministry’. To serve in some capacity in the church was considered an important part of discipleship.

    In the Seventies, Campus Crusade was really big into this under the title “Multiplying Ministry”…

    On the surface this seemed to be a good plan. Seemed to be eminently successful.

    Until one day I was walking into the sanctuary, in awe of the buildings, and the thought hit me. “To what end?”

    A pyramid scheme of Sheep saving more Sheep whose only purpose is to Save more Sheep…

    Thus turning the Gospel into something resembling an MLM Pyramid scheme — Christ as Amway Upline.

    I had a nagging sense that if I was not volunteering at church then I was not involved in ‘real ministry’ and was somehow a second class christian. (If I was volunteering at my church, I suspected anyone who wasn’t volunteering was a second class christian. Yeah, I know that’s bad.)

    And if anyone WAS volunteering, they weren’t volunteering ENOUGH and were thus still a second-class Christian. The never-ending game of One-Upmanship.

    My church (RCC) has a technical term for this:

    Clericalism.

    The idea that Clergy are the ONLY ones who matter, and everybody else is second- (or lesser)-class Christians. Whether that “clergy” expresses itself as priests, monks, and nuns or pastors & volunteers. The Laity are scum, get out of there into the much Holier Clergy; pack as many as possible into the other side of the altar rail, acting as if they’re ordained.

    Those who really wanted to serve God and obtain his blessings became priests and nuns,
    or attached themselves to one of the monastic orders. These people were considered to be more holy and better Christians than the average guy warming a pew.

    As I said above. Just that nowadays in American Protestantism it’s Missionaries to Africa, Pastors, Celebrity Evangelists, and Full-Time Christian Volunteers to whom all of us second-class Christians must bow and scrape. (Many years ago, at an “icebreaker”, we were asked the question “If you weren’t you, what would you be?” I was the only one who DIDN’T answer “Pastor” or “Missionary”. My welcome there wore out soon after…)

    They also invented a whole list of made up works that elicited God’s favor. Pilgrimages and fasts, taking vows and joining a monastery. These were considered more pleasing to God than doing a good job at work or being a good parent.

    Soul-winning, Volunteering M/W/F, Sunday-school teaching, Soul-winning, Volunteering 24/7, Creation Museum pilgrimages, Soul-winning, Volunteering 24/7/365, Teetotaling…

    All saying to the Other, “I’m More Christian Than YOU! God Likes ME! Not You!”

    • you forgot soul-winning 🙂

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Yeah. Just when I hear about SOUL-winning, I keep thinking “Where did Resurrection of the Body go?” I don’t remember anything in the original source documents about “Resurrection of the Soul” or the Christian afterlife being floating around in Fluffy Cloud Heaven….

        And I can only remember one line from Mark Twain’s Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the Inquisitor’s “And if I rack him ’til he die, I shall have saved his Soul.”

        • I keep thinking “Where did Resurrection of the Body go?”

          well, ya see there is this HUMONGOUS junk closet where we store stuff that’s true, but not useful in the way we choose to see things; it’s a very big closet, Imelda Marcos could keep all her shoes there if it weren’t already filled with:

          the holistic nature of man that resists being divided down into three or four neat little parts
          suffering and hardship as sometimes used of GOD to bring about a greater end
          salvation being as much or more corporate and historical than merely private and subjective
          you get the idea……like I said, a very big closet…..

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            I’m wondering where the “divided down into three neat little parts” came from. I remember radio preachers of the Seventies talking about “Body, Soul, and Spirit”, apparently one-upping Platonic Dualism into some sort of Trilism. Main application I remember was to denounce thinking and emotions as “Soulish” and therefore “Unspiritual”.

  7. nice one.

  8. Pat, this was brilliant. Through NRP, Dr Rod, IM…I am being so encouraged. Been a long lonely road for the last several years.

  9. I forgot to say, as I am “exploring”, i have a book by Gene V on the way as recommended by Dr Rod.

  10. 1) Mark Roberts has a site called “The High Calling of our Daily Work”: http://www.thehighcalling.org/
    2) Time for a dissenting view. I found the whole post a little unsettling. Unless, like Frank Viola, you want to trash our whole church model, the question “To what end?” strikes me as downright bizarre. Are you against Sunday School? You say you’re not against church volunteering, but a) the tone of the rest of the post suggests otherwise; b) the church will collapse without volunteers. It seems to me that you are (inadvertently) advocating precisely clericalism, because you validate those who sit in the pews expecting the whole thing to just sort of happen. Plugging people into a ministry is a way of fighting passivity, of getting people to fully participate in the life of the church. You can’t consider yourself part of the community when you just walk in, sit for an hour, and then walk out.
    Our church has 1 part-time pastor and attendance of 300-350 per Sunday. Oodles of people have stepped up to help, and in the process revealed gifts that simply hadn’t been tapped, because they saw a need and filled it. They’ve gotten to know new people, and we them. I even got to preach a while back (no lightning strikes noted!).
    As a Lutheran I have to agree that vocation is important, but you seem to say that it’s a total substitute for participation in the faith community. Surely there is a middle ground between the burnout you describe and checking out.

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      I obviously can’t speak for the poster, but “checking out” is not what I got from this. What I took from this post was that the problem was the church making undue demands of its members, throwing guilt at those who did not meet these demands, and setting up (at least tacitly) a hierarchy based on this.

      All churches depend on volunteers. But it does not follow that all church members must be volunteers, and certainly not at all times. There is no need to make the working mother feel guilty because she is squandering her time by working and raising her children and not putting in the hours at church.

      In a functional congregation, people will see a need and step up to fill it. If this isn’t the case then the congregation is pretty much by definition non- or dysfunctional. That working mother might find, once her kids are a bit older, that she has a bit more time to help out. But not if the church drove her away years ago.

    • What Pat K describes is what I think I-Monk would label as “church shaped spirituality”. The majority of our efforts and energy is spent growing the institution. The church becomes an entity unto itself which exists apart from the individual members but must rely on them for its continued survival.

      • “Church-shaped spirituality” is exactly what iMonk would call it. I call it a “temple” mentality, which sees the Christian life and service totally revolving around the organization.

        Fifty years ago, Richard Halverson wrote a powerful little book called, “How I Changed My Thinking about the Church.” In his very large urban church, he did some figuring and found out it would only take a small number to actually accomplish what needed to be done for the organization within the church walls. This shocked him and caused him to realize that we are creating all kinds of jobs that are unnecessary and that we are calling people to do “church work,” when instead we should be freeing them up and equipping them to do “the work of the church” in the world, where Christ is really needed.

        If anything, I think we may have lost ground in the past fifty years, failing to learn the lessons Halverson was trying to teach us then.

    • Kozak,

      It’s not an either/or but a both/and paradigm. Towards the end of the essay I said:

      “Please note that I am not discouraging people from working in their churches or saying that it is a bad thing to do. Becoming a minister or volunteering at your church is also a needed and God pleasing vocation, but it is not the only avenue of service to the Lord.”

      I have continued to volunteer both as an elder and for several terms on the board of directors. I secretly admire how the Mormons have built a huge and effective organization almost completely with volunteer effort. The Church could learn something from them in this regard.

      However,when someone approaches their Pastor expressing dissatisfaction with their spiritual life, there seems to be plenty of encouragement to do something in the church. You don’t so often hear “Strive for excellence in your job, spend more time with your kids, take your wife on a date, have more sex with your husband, help your aging parents, work on your grades at school, etc.”

      Many of our brothers and sisters have never heard of the doctrine of vocation and labor under the false idea that if they are not working in the church, they are not serving the Lord. These people are my intended audience. It was a great help to me when I learned our many vocations in Christ and I wanted to spread the joy.

    • Kozak, what seems to be at stake is that you have a very different view of “church” than many of the commentators. You see for most of the people who would describe themselves as ‘on a journey’ or ‘post evangelical’ and who would probably add that they don’t think labels are that useful, what you described is not The Church, its just a particular set of institutional arrangements, which may be useful, tangential or even destructive of The Church.
      The Church ( and I realise that I am repeating myself) is the businessman who refuses to cheat his customers because of his faith in God to provide. The Church is the family who help out the single mother next door, year after year, long after its gotten tired and she still has been ‘saved’. The Church is two believers going for a walk so that they can pour out their hearts to one another.

      Its hard to measure. There aren’t many books a pastor can write about it.
      But if all the Sunday School meeting stuff and the big building does not contribute to those life giving moments, then its not just not church, it anti-church.

      Its not the value of vocation as mother, sister, daughter, teacher, neighbor that is at question, its the value of the move-the-chairs-ministry to support vocation that is being questioned, as it should be.

  11. I never found a faith community to fit into until I became a pastor. My head did not fit into the boxes provided, and there was little room to individualize our faith. I was tossed out, askd to leave and made an enemy in more than one group.
    Kozak’s comment gives me hope. We all need to be part of the Kingdom work. the task before us is daunting. We must all work to make church part of the solution, not part of the problem.

  12. Just for Quix says:

    When a religious culture / community has the gumption to refer to people as “saved” and “unsaved” — as if they have the right to do God’s work of evaluating faith — then I don’t think it’s too far a stone’s throw to end up with a community defined by Man’s work: rat race volunteerism and spiritual one-upsmanship.

    I agree with Kozak’s dissension: a church community is not self-running. There are needs and a disciple of Christ should grow with God and volunteer in that community as they are guided. A healthy measure of self-drive and self-awareness is also warranted for the disciple to be intentional and committed to finding opportunity to serve.

    However, what I see in Chaplain Mike’s post is counterbalance. If it’s not okay to reject an opportunity to serve because one has a higher priority, is not gifted nor moved by God, then the church community is probably not practicing a healthy service culture. If one feels guilt in serving righteous family and job needs to the expense of some church demands, then things are not right. If a member of a congregation feels that the “best” ways to serve are for the programs only within that congregation, and that serving God outside of that congregation is “lesser” then things are not healthy.

    A congregation is fully is self-sufficient as it trusts and rests in Christ’s gospel of grace. It’s activity for the glory of Christ do not make it more self-sufficient than that. Activities and programs should be monitored by good stewards and leaders to see if they are just occupying time or, essentially, trying to define sufficiency of a church body by virtue of its activities and programs. When they’ve crossed that line those activities and programs should be cut, pared down or redefined.

  13. Amen, Amen, Amen! I agree that Luther’s teaching on vocation needs to be shared. It really is the remedy for the church-centered spirituality that iMonk frequently talks about. I almost came unglued when I found out that our youth were being taught to feel guilty about spending time on school studies and sports, rather than spending all of their time attending church meetings and youth retreats. Being a student is part of their vocation as a child, not becoming a youth groupie.

    On the other hand, I really struggle with Luther’s view of vocation and the implication regarding monasticism. Luther was in favor of closing monasteries and having its members marry and take up traditional secular vocations. I think this reached its ugliest logical conclusion under Thomas Cromwell and what he did to the English monasteries. There is always a balance. I am never sure if the reformation ever came close to finding that point, or merely forced everything to an opposite extreme. The protestant work ethic became the reformed monasticim. The result was more secularism, rather than sanctifying the vocations of the commoner.

    I think there will be a revival of the monastic orders. There are already some protestant monastic groups. But this multi-level marketing scheme that you describe is not monasticism. I think I need to chew on this a little more before I can elaborate. I do believe that the young-restless-reformed call to the youth to marry young and start big families will not save either the traditional family model or our culture. I fear that Luther’s call to abandon the monasteries may have been the undoing of a significant witness and mission of the church.

    • Well Dumb Ox,
      I don’t know that I would create a direct link between anything Luther said and Cromwell did. Lutheranism, was for the most part, regarded with as much suspicion in the English reformation as Catholicism. That is but one thought here.
      Second, I’m not sure what monasticism was doing by the time of the reformation to further any witness or mission of the church, especially in Germany. They did brew fine beer though… But Luther did not recommend that they just be shut down, but turned into schools.
      I am also not sure that there could be much of a balance in regard to Monastaries and convents. What would that be. How would an institution like that survive without giving the impression that to be truly spiritual you have to abandon the world for a life of prayer and fasting?

    • very well said about going to extremes. In fact, one of the triplines, so to speak, that Dan referred to was not church volunteerism, but the next step on making that normative for all believers, and in a package that this mega-church proscribed. This failure to fit the vocational package to the individual makes anything else substandard, and ‘less than God’s best”. New believers quickly learn that this is code for “you won’t be a REAL christian unless……

      Sad that monasteries and monasticism got squeezed out by the same one-size-fits-all thinking. Looks like Luther could be the victim of his own analogy, that of the drunk peasant falling off one side of the burro, climbing up…..and falling off the other.

  14. Scott Eaton says:

    I cannot thank you enough for this reminder today.

  15. Chaplain Mike, echoing Scott’s sentiments, I thank you for this reminder. Although having found a home in the EO Church, my Evangelical Protestant background convinced me at one point of the rightness of this sort of “clericalism,” (to use HUG’s term) which to this day I am working hard to shed. I was encouraged when Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware similarly wrote that monastic vows, at least in the EO tradition, are ultimately no different from the vows taken by laity, e.g.:

    “The monastic vocation and that of marriage – the way of negation and the way of affirmation – are to be seen as parallel and complementary. The monk or nun is not a dualist but, to the same degree as the married Christian, is seeking to proclaim the intrinsic goodness of the material creation and of the human body; and by the same token, the married Christian is called to asceticism. The difference lies solely in the outward conditions under which the ascetic warfare is carried on.” (Ware, “The Orthodox Way,” p. 61)

    This very lack of emphasis on the clergy was refreshing and has done much to help me understand that faith has more to do with living intentionally in the here and now, than gaining some sort of saving esoteric knowledge, whether in the form of copious volunteering or being confined to a monastic cell. There might be something to be said about the Augustinian view of original sin that leads to this sort of difference in viewpoint on the concept of vocation, but this is a guess.

    Anyway, thanks again.

  16. Not that this malady is unique to mega churches, but I tend to believe that volunteer burnout is caused in large part by program-driven church models. More programs require more volunteers to execute those programs, and more volunteers require more staff to oversee those volunteers. Our church is in the same boat – lots of programs, lots of volunteer drives, and a very top heavy staff to keep it all moving. It does seem insane at times.

  17. Great post. I attended a small Baptist college that, at that time (early 1980s), was about 1/4 ‘ministerial’ students (I was one of them). I remember when a young man who had been a business major ‘surrendered’ to youth ministry. He was an instant celebrity on campus since he had joined the elite class of twenty-year-old theologues! (For some reason Baptists seem to have held onto that idea of sacred callings and secular ones.)

    I recently listened to a CD by the pastor of a church we had visited about ‘who they are’. One of his points was about evangelism and repeated that old saw about ‘the only reason God didn’t take you to heaven the instant you believed was so you would win others to Jesus – that’s the only reason you’re still here’. While it is true that we are to be Christ’s witnesses, and as noted above, God does intend for all of us to serve him, primarily through his church, my first thought was: what about raising our families? what about doing our jobs? what about being ‘salt and light’ in a dark world? what about simply living as people thankful for God’s rich blessings? As I look at characters from the Bible, especially men like Abraham and David, they seemed to be used by God in mighty ways doing whatever they did – making a living, raising their families, leading the nation. God’s plan and call on their lives went well beyond just ‘winning others to Jesus’ (if they did any of this at all). That is the idea behind vocation.

    I think that a large component of this is that most evangelicals don’t have a good ‘creational theology’. It’s all about what happens when you die. I think Jesus said something about an abundant life, which should not include a load of guilt because we can’t squeeze any more hours into church work.

    • Greg, it was Dorothy Sayers who said, “The only Christian work is good work, well done.”

      But you just said it too. Good on you.

  18. Mark Borzillo says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. I’m wondering how much the baptist church ‘pushed’ new believers into action. A lot of churches I know of give people a year hiatus before even allowing new believers to become part of the work. It is up to every believer to personally assess his/her gifts and use them within the church. The church is the vehicle for evangelizing the world. I’m cautious of one man’s take on his church experience especially when it causes him to withdraw from fellowship. I’m also cautious of the ‘doctrine’ of vocation. This is not something I would call a doctrine…a principle elicited in I Cor, yes. It shouldn’t be a reason for an evangelical to embrace ‘catholic-lite’, i.e. lutheranism. Many lutherans I know don’t have a clue about redemption.

    • Mark, you might want to brush up on your church history a bit. Lutherans were evangelicals before there were modern “evangelicals,” and every week in worship we confess salvation through faith in Christ alone. The “evangelical” churches you are referring to are those that have grown out of the revivalist tradition and that movement’s history of “doing church” is only a couple hundred years old. It is based on pragmatic considerations and IMHO a horribly deficient theology of creation, salvation, and ecclesiology. Most evangelical churches I know (I’ve pastored in them for almost 30 years) are little more than autonomous organizations made up of people who share common preferences, without any real sense of church history or the way the Holy Spirit has led the church for the past 2000 years. They have a separatist mentality that leads them to pull out of the world into their own little orbits and focus on activities within the organization. They have no theology for daily life in the real world. The doctrine of vocation is an ancient attempt to understand the many, many passages in the Bible that talk about living as God’s people among our neighbors, in the world but not of it. It is a natural outgrowth of the Reformation teaching on the priesthood of every believer.

      • Yes!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        More like a “cultic” version of Church History:

        1) The New Testament Church was Perfect in Every Way (and just like us today, YEC, Altar Calls, KJV, and all).
        2) Then the Church fell into Apostasy (usually Constantine & Romish Popery) almost immediately afterwards.
        3) From then until the founding of Our Church, All Were Apostate. All “Christians” were Satanic Counterfeits.
        4) Then OUR FELLOWSHIP was founded, a return to the Pure New Testament Church, and We Returned To (1).
        5) Nothing existed between (1) & (4). (1) becomes a “holy history” somewhere way-back-when, a mythology completely detached from present-day reality. (4) restarts the historical trace with Our Group’s Founder.

        Resemblance of the above to the initial origin stories of the Mormons, the JWs, and the Salafi movement in Islam (“As It Was in the Days of the Prophet”) is strictly coincidental or worse.

    • A lot of churches I know of give people a year hiatus before even allowing new believers to become part of the work.

      wow…..we live in different solar systems; I think most ev. churches, certainly the ones that I’ve been part of, would glom onto any and all help they can get to keep the institution…..er…..KINGDOM….going forward. Not saying your history is not valid, but I don’t think most ev. churches roll that way.

      Just curious , ever read “Practice of the Presence of God”; if you can get past the author being a Catholic cleric, it’s an awesome , and short , treatise on many topics including vocation.

      Wise men still seek HIM
      Greg R

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        wow…..we live in different solar systems; I think most ev. churches, certainly the ones that I’ve been part of, would glom onto any and all help they can get to keep the institution…..er…..KINGDOM….going forward.

        Especially if the “fresh meat” is a CELEBRITY of some sort — even the local High School Football Star or Big-Name Sinner. They get thrown into fronting for the church as an Official Example, and before you know it it’s Christian Celebrity Burnout.

  19. As a relatively new Christian (just a few years old), my first instinct was to serve God through the actions of everyday living, including my vocational talents/abilities. As I got increasingly involved in the church, I was struck and confused by the “church-iness” of faith: it did seem as if ‘real believers’ were the ones who became pew ushers, prayer warriors, and who were generally preoccupied with church life. I did not see proportional evidence of this, however, in the gospel. Nevertheless, being outnumbered about 500 to 1 in my congregation, I feared for a while that everyone else had it right, but I was never fully convinced, and am not.

  20. I can see both sides of this discussion — there is a danger in Christianity to “checking out” & there is a danger in “burning out” as Kozak said above. The danger I see the most is the “Checking out” . I can see Pastors and leaders getting burned out but they always seem to get burned out because the congregation becomes passive. Evangelicals have been taught that the way of Worship is sit & be “entertained” & sing loud the songs with the good beats & if you really want to give everything in worship —Raise your hands while singing! All the rest of the worshiping will be handled for you. This mentality is the real problem in my observations of pastor burn out. The problems Chaplain Mike talks about just sounds like the bogus Christian Captialism of the Mega-churches that as Mike put it – we scream “to what end!” Instead of mindless “volunteerism” their needs to be “supportism” for the pastor & leaders —–we must take responiblity for our worship of God. we are not just to be entertained, we are to sacrifice for Christ not to be better Chirstians or one ups-manship, but because he sacrificed for us. That is our worship —as Rick Warren says it not about you! there needs to be support or just busyness! Thanks Chaplain Mike for a very relevent discussion.

    • Once more, credit goes to Pat K. Thanks for your input, Brian.

    • I wonder if there is a difference between supporting the pastor through volunteering versus drinking the koolaid of church growth hysteria. Church workers may be burning themselves out trying to put on the perfect worship show or filling every classroom with some Sunday school topic about nothing in particular. I think there is a time to just say “no” to the demands to help prop up the facade. I think we need also to be careful to not be ones demanding this meaningless fluff from the church. Another meaningful lesson that Lutherans can teach evangelicals is the definition of aidaphora: If an activity does not support the preaching of God’s word and the administration of the sacraments, why is it being done? As the famous quality management consultant Joseph Juran continually taught: separate the vital few from the trivial many. Most churches burn themselves out on the trivial-many tasks which accomplish nothing, rather than following Mary’s example in Luke 10:41 and choose the better.

  21. It’s important also to remember that the word “vocation” means “calling”, and presumably a calling by God. Sometimes we do need a boot in the butt to get involved in ministries, but undue pressure from anyone but God is not necessarily a calling, particularly if it leads to burnout. I don’t see burnout as any part of God’s will, having experienced it myself. It’s from the other side.

    In response to Charlie, above, about program-driven models: Our church used to have more of a program model, manned by committees, and some people thought that we were merely stuffing slots in the committees as a formality, ending up with dead-weight members and inefficiency. So we went to a “purpose-driven” model, inspired by Rick Warren’s earlier book, “The Purpose Driven Church” (not “Life”, the later best-seller). Instead of committees we now had “teams” led by “coaches” who in theory would call on appropriate players to get a task done.

    The problem with this model for me, as chairman of the missions team (become “coach”), meant that my committee members were effectively disbanded (even the good ones, and with hurt feelings), leaving me no means of brainstorming and no accountability structure other than the pastor. This led to burnout. Apparently I’m an oligarch, not a dictator.

    After a few years off I ended up on the diaconate, which more resembles a committee (3 men, 3 women) with its monthly meetings, accountability structure, and brainstorming and prayer with the pastor. I like this much better, although the missions team still operates on the “coach” model and seems to be doing OK under new management.

    I’m not sure if either model is better because I think it depends on the individual, but I would certainly shun the pressure toward expansion and efficiency. As Pat K said, “To what end?”

    Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain…

  22. “I think we need also to be careful to not be ones demanding this meaningless fluff from the church.”

    dumb ox, you have hit one of the proverbial nails on the head. Much of this program approach arises from peoples’ expectations and cultural demands.

    Suburban churches in particular have bought into the dominant “full-service” culture around them. Parents demand a full range of age-appropriate activities for their kids. Men and women and singles and college age and every conceivable interest group expect the church to address so many issues through programs and classes and activities, that we have ending up creating a monster by demand.

    That’s why there are some organizations I hesitate to call “churches.” More like “Christian activity centers.”

    • That’s why there are some organizations I hesitate to call “churches.” More like “Christian activity centers.”

      hence the Vanity Fair package that is the evangelical wilderness; the WHAT NOW question is how to cling to and promote ‘the vital few’ in the midst of this circus while keeping one’s sense of balance and sanity. reform this from the inside OR…..??

  23. Pat,

    An excellent article. I will be directing s few of my parishioners to it just to prove that I’m not the only one saying these things. 🙂

    I appreciate your well thought our post and look forward to seeing more from you soon.

  24. Pat,

    An excellent article. I will be directing s few of my parishioners to it just to prove that I’m not the only one saying these things. 🙂

    I appreciate your well thought our post and look forward to seeing more from you soon.

  25. I confess too many crashes into burn-out at one extreme and slothitude on the other. Gradually, through reflection, advice, God’s word, and the occasional message, I am getting sufficient discernment about my best proportions of overt (worshipful, evangelical) Christian activities and subtle (vocational) Christian activities. I hope I’ve learned to respect excellence in working for the Lord, working for the man, and resting in the Lord.

    Regarding the “Six Floors”, I think leaders should consider whether hugeness results from many volunteers careening toward burn-out, or if not that, if the congregation is failing to support willing workers who should branch out locally and globally. If neither of these deficits are significant, then the growth might just be from God.

  26. Love the post. Thanks Pat.
    As a pastor, I wrestle with this all the time. I have a ton of ministry ideas, but I must be very careful not to over burden or guilt our people into involvement. Lately, I’ve found that people will minister in a personally meaningful manner if I don’t push them into it. I normally come up with an idea, float the idea to a few people, and then watch to see who gets excited about it. If there is no response, I put it on the back burner. If someone feels that he or she would like pursue it, we team together to figure out how to make it work. Sometimes these ideas are inside the walls of the church, but mostly I try to help people find fulfillment and ministry through their vocation and “normal” life outside of the church. We still need our Sunday School teachers, youth workers, ushers, etc, but ministry should be creative and broad and deep. For some people, these more traditional in-the-box ministries are not a burden at all, but a joy. For others, these are painful experiences. We simply must stop wasting time running programs and pressuring our people into service so that we can pat ourselves on the back and say “Look at this kingdom we have built.”

    We have to start letting people be who God made them to be. In this, we are only limited by our small imaginations and limited vision of the Kingdom of God. I serve in semi-agrarian community. We have a fair number of farmers. So, I’ve been floating the idea of growing produce to give away to the hungry. A few of our farmers are getting excited about the idea. The lesson is that ministry is not so much a burden if people are allowed to minister through their vocation and giftedness.

  27. jim_claybourn says:

    Dr Rod Rosenbladt has a great Tabletalk post “The Gospel is for the Broken” (broken by the “church”):

    http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/gospel-broken/

  28. It’s really a bummer when there are so many good comments but not enough time to read them all! So I apologize if I am repeating something already said.

    When I was growing up in the Episcopal church, my mother continually fought to have at least 10% of the congregational budget spent on Outreach, that is serving those outside the church. Imagine my surprise years later when my wife started using the very same term, Outreach, to describe the provision of services to the congregation at her Methodist church! When did “reaching out” become about “helping me”? Certainly there are those members who need assistance in all sorts of ways, spiritually and physically, but the focus has shifted entirely inward.

    Whereas I can see the sense, and allure, of viewing your everyday life as a vocation from God, I belief that it is incomplete and dangerous. My mantra is, “Even the tax collectors do that.” If your work in the world is indistinguishable from the pagan in the next cubicle over then, I’m sorry, you are not following God’s vocation.

    So get out of the church indeed. Most of the activities there are social club stuff dressed in a fellowship suit -or- as IMonk once quipped, theology is whatever we use to justify what we were going to do anyway. So, follow your daily vocation by fulfilling your role in society but also be a mirror of God’s love and peace to everyone you encounter. If you hide your light under a six-story Sunday School building, who will see it? A light can be hidden under a day planner just as effectively. Rather make people say, “There is something different about her. I wonder what it is?” If you can’t then why would anyone turn to God? What does He have to offer other than sub-standard contemporary music and lost sleep on Sunday morning.

    Pat’s pyramid analogy got me ruminating. The reason that those churches require so many volunteers is because they keep coming up with activities to keep everyone in the building. If a church turns it’s focus toward the outside of the building, then suddenly those volunteers are no longer needed. They can spend their time raking an elderly couple’s leaves or playing basketball with some kids on the block, loving their neighbors, tithing their LIVES instead of their income.

    • Scott,

      You said “Whereas I can see the sense, and allure, of viewing your everyday life as a vocation from God, I belief that it is incomplete and dangerous. My mantra is, “Even the tax collectors do that.” If your work in the world is indistinguishable from the pagan in the next cubicle over then, I’m sorry, you are not following God’s vocation. ”

      If you have a wife and/or children, then you are called by God to be a husband and a father. That is one of your primary vocations. The Apostle Paul said that anyone not providing for their family is worse than an unbeliever.

      The scriptures urge us to serve our earthly masters as we would serve Christ Himself. So being a good worker is another of our primary vocations from God.

      If you have parents, then God has called you to the vocation of son or daughter, and tells you to honor your parents. Jesus had choice words for those who put “church work” over the well being of their parents. I am not ‘making up’ the doctrine of vocation. It’s not a ‘new’ teaching.

      How will a Christian being a good son or daughter, or being a good parent look any different than an unbeliever doing the same thing? Short answer- they won’t.

      This idea that unless you are working in or for the church in some capacity you aren’t following God is the truly incomplete and dangerous view. Even the most pious Christian outwardly can be matched by a serious Buddhist or Muslim in love and works of mercy. You bind on the backs of Christians a burden that God’s people have never been able to carry.

      I sometimes find that those most immersed in church work are usually fleeing some area of life or responsibility in which they are struggling or failing. Ask any pastor about this. Be prepared for an earful if the pastor is even halfway competent at his job.

      Again, I am not discouraging participation in your church’s outreach or administration, I’m just saying there is a whole lot more to the picture that is often overlooked and often dismissed.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Even the most pious Christian outwardly can be matched by a serious Buddhist or Muslim in love and works of mercy.

        Or be matched or surpassed by a Jihadi Muslim in Acts of Devotion and Acts of Faith. (And I’m not talking about 9/11 or Fort Hood or suicide bombings, but lesser acts of Islamic One-Upmanship. A lot of Jihadi mug shots show a badly bruised forehead in lieu of the “prayer bump” caused by touching the forehead to the ground during Islamic worship. Extreme Jihadis literally crack their heads against the Mosque’s floor to show everyone else how they are More Islamic Than Thou.)

      • “I sometimes find those most immersed in church work are usually fleeing some area in life or responsibility in which they are struggling or failing.”

        I couldn’t agree more and have witnessed this over and over again. One young mother comes to mind. She had four children and hauled them with her to the church every day while she did what she did…her children were neglected by her, and ran wild and totally undisciplined the many hours she was there each day. I was a brand-new Christian and it was totally obvious to me that she was avoiding being their mother. What I want to know is this…Why does church leadership condone this? Is church service so sacred that anything goes? My belief is that you should not be given church responsibility if you can’t handle your life’s responsibilities first.

  29. Great post!

    Nobody seems to have discussed situations in which the church is actually doing something worthwhile, not associated with its own aggrandizement, but still pressuring unwilling members into participating. That’s a more difficult issue.

    Yet if we don’t allow people to admit the hard things about themselves — like the fact that they simply don’t care about something worthy and important (I prefer the ‘don’t care’ statement to the ‘not being called,’ because it sounds less self-serving) — we’re not teaching them to know themselves and how to figure out what they do care about. And it’s very easy for church leaders to give the impression that neither they nor god cares what the parishioners are really like, or really care about.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that this essay makes the picture too pretty for my taste. It’s easy to sympathize with someone whose vocation is to care for her children rather than teach sunday school. It’s harder to deal with someone whose vocation is to care for her children rather than donate to the poor, save somebody’s life, etc. The church I burned out on didn’t waste my time on any pickayune social activity stuff. It was all vital important stuff that was saving lives, and I didn’t give a rap about any of it and only did it out of guilt until I was so miserable I was willing to admit how I felt and run away.

    • Pat: your post is kind of sketchy, to me, that is I’m not sure I understand your main points, but I thot I’d respond as best I can. I don’t think the point being made changes that much if the church agenda is totally on target or trivial: more to the point is that vocation often takes us to a different “hot list” than the one given by our church, many of the same issues but a different package. many are made to feel as if they are somehow “missing out”. They are not. It’s a question of following the Spirit’s lead, and quite often, IMO, the Spirit’s lead is somewhat at odds with the church agenda (life saving or not) and hence this post.

      Hope you are feeling HIS healing touch this Christmas season.
      Greg R

  30. This was a great post and I was so happy to read it and the responses, as I have been “detoxing” from church for over three years now. I had some of the same experiences…being shoved into ministry as soon as I was saved, at some point looking around me and wondering why so much ministry was happening in (and for) the church and not out in the world, and after a time becoming so burned-out and deeply resentful (and yet so judged for trying to place a firm boundary and say “I can’t possibly handle doing any more!”) that I had to leave. My faith is still very strong; in fact I believe God used this time to strengthen me in many ways. I would like to start attending a church again, yet am feeling aprehensive about being able to find one that doesn’t buy into being a “Christian Activity Center”. It’s comforting to know I’m not alone and I thank you again for the post.

  31. Great post! I’ve been trying to sort through this whole vocation/ Christian ministry dichotomy for some time. I constantly feel guilty that I should be able to quit my job and do Christian ministry full time. It’s great to finally start to have some freedom in this area! Yeah for the doctrine of vocation.

  32. Good stuff, Mike.
    I know from experience how church leadership and hyper-performance-driven Christian service can give you a nervous breakdown and leave you blasted, burned out, and cynical toward anything church-related. I’ve come to discover the importance of having an identity in Christ that is not based on or dependent upon official church activities, services, programs, or pre-paved avenues of ministry. And I think it’s important for church bodies and congregations to develop a relational identity that exists independently of the church building and all the official church stuff that happens there.
    In the same way that many work-a-holics justify neglecting the emotional needs of their families in the name of providing for their physical needs and wants, I think churches often miss the relational center of the gospel in the course of trying to advance the gospel through organized hyperactivity.

  33. hre is a link to a sermon by martin Luther that the Lutheran confessors considered to be the genesis of Lutheran thinking on all this. It might be helpful to amplify what pat Kyle and the good dr vieth say on vocation by reading this wonderful sermon.

    this is really about the place of faith and works in the life of a christian. it is the answer to the constant question: ‘ ok what should the ‘christian life’ and ‘christian good works and outward righteousness” LOOK like visibly. OR “how do we differentiate between how the life of a christian should look versus the life of a righteous pagan?”

    The scandalous Lutheran answer is that visibly there is NO difference between the outward rghteousness of a christian and that of a righteous pagan. None.

    Make no mistake. THIS is what pat kyle and dr vieth are saying.

    here is the Link to the Luther sermon that explains exactly why Lutheran christians believe this.

    http://www.godrules.net/library/luther/129luther_e13.htm

    enjoy! this isTHE go to place to learn about what Lutherans think christian piety should ‘look ‘ like. by the way, this is the sermon that forms the basis for the Lutheran teaching on the 3rd use of the law (executive summary: the 3rd use is a special use of the law for christians that tells them that there is NO special use just for christians, of the law.)