It was a crisp Friday night and I was heading to Avondale College’s Sabbath vespers program. It was a popular spot for worship, winding down from the week and socialising. I was a fresh-faced theology student—and I was utterly convinced I was destined to change the world. That night, the guest speaker was a classmate of mine. I didn’t know him well, but I did know he had a colourful past, so I came expecting a wild tale. I wasn’t disappointed.
I’ll spare you the gory details, as it’s not my story to tell. Suffice to say, his journey from the streets to the pulpit was almost Pauline in its drama. Perhaps you’ve heard a testimony like it: a gang member hits rock bottom, has a close call with death, and as a result reaches out to God—a Road to Damascus experience, leaving them forever changed.
As the months and years went by, I heard many more stories just like that one. At that time, the pastoral staff seemed obsessed with testimonies. At the end of every talk, there was usually an acknowledgement of God’s calling: how He had chosen the individual to leave the dark path they were on and serve Him in ministry. As I listened to these stories, a strange feeling began to grow in me. Rather than the hopeful feeling I had at the beginning, being thankful that God can use anyone to accomplish His purposes, I began to feel more and more insecure about my own calling.
I had a conventional Adventist upbringing. My mum was my Sabbath school teacher growing up, and my dad was my Pathfinder director. I went to church camps, participated in ADRA appeals and occasionally letterboxed “Try Jesus” pamphlets. I never left the Church, nor did I go through a “rebellious phase”. My life was normal; sickeningly normal. So, when I began to hear the testimonies of rockstar pastors, I began to doubt my own calling. I never heard God at the bottom of a bottle, nor did I ever cry out to Him from the gutter. By comparison, my call to ministry was much more gradual, and less exciting. But did that mean that my call wasn’t legitimate? Was I an imposter, just pretending to be like my peers: those who were so obviously meant to be here?
With time and maturity, I’ve come to understand that God’s calling comes in many forms, and that one size does not fit all. Nevertheless, our tendency to emphasise the story of the few over the many has continued to trouble me. Is the story of Doug Batchelor, for instance, more important to God than the story of Jane Doe from a small rural church? Most of us would say “of course not” but it’s an inescapable fact that Jane’s story probably isn’t nearly as exciting as the story of a millionaire’s son who ends up living in a cave and finds Jesus reading the Bible by firelight.
So, what do we do? Should we stop elevating provocative, compelling testimonies and calls to ministry so as not to discourage those whose lives by comparison seem more mundane?
Of course not. To do so would be not just unfair, but also spiritually disingenuous. Just as there are men and women throughout church history who have received a direct, unmistakable call to ministry, so too has God called men and women directly throughout the story of the Bible. The Old Testament, for instance, contains many instances of calling, from Abraham, to David, to Samuel. However, there’s a shift that happens when we get to the New Testament. The call broadens to encompass more than just a few individuals. When Paul writes to the persecuted church in Rome, he tells them that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Is he speaking to just a select few, or is there a broader invitation?
He clarifies this calling later when he writes to the church in Ephesus. In this letter, he spends a significant amount of time casting Jesus’ grand vision for the church. In chapter 2, he expresses joy in how God has now created “in himself one new humanity out of the two, making peace” (Ephesians 2:15). This unification of Jews and Gentiles is not an end unto itself, as God’s plan for this new humanity is grander. Paul uses the analogy of a building: that on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, we are being “built together” to become a dwelling in which God lives, with Jesus as the chief cornerstone (2:20-22). As Paul builds on this foundation in chapter 4, he implores the Ephesians to embrace their new identity: to live together as new creation people, despite their ethnic and socio-economic differences. Then, he poses a brilliant contrast. First, he affirms the oneness of God and our faith (4:4-6), then admits the obvious: though we are a unified people, we’re all different. We have different talents, giftings, and yes, callings. Some are called to be apostles, others pastors and others teachers. All are useful, all are valuable, and none are to be diminished or left out. As Paul says in his letter to the church at Corinth: “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour” (1 Corinthians 12:22,23).
The student whose testimony I listened to all those years ago has gone on to lead a rich and fruitful ministry. I have no doubt of his calling. His story has been an inspiration to countless people, and I can only praise God for it. However, I believe that when we emphasise the calling of an individual, we run the risk of minimising the calling of the many. Take, for example, Abraham. “I will make you into a great nation
. . . and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The point of Abraham’s calling wasn’t for the sake of him and his family alone. God’s plan has always been the restoration of all nations and peoples.
The truth is, we’re all called. If you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re just as called as the charismatic communicator, bestselling author or successful leader. While the ministry of these high-profile individuals certainly matters, your ministry matters to God too. It doesn’t matter how large or small it is. Jesus’ plan is that through the multitude of gifts and abilities present in His church, all humanity will discover their identity as a son or a daughter of the King. All are called, all are included.
So, the next time you hear a testimony as wild and colourful as the one I listened to that Friday night, and you’re tempted (as I was) to play the comparison game, maybe take a pause. Remind yourself that your story is yours, and no-one else’s. Remind yourself that God has given you a unique voice, and a unique calling. Nobody can take that away from you. And then, maybe look to your left, and your right. Notice the people around you and remind yourself that they also have a unique calling. Maybe they can’t see it yet, and maybe it’s your job to help them.