Clarifying the call
In summer 2005 Generation Next conducted a survey of 400 men who were either in or contemplating the gospel ministry. The results showed significant confusion about what constituted a ‘call’. This is a practical and important question – how do I know that Christ has called me to ‘prayer and the ministry of the Word’?
Rather than start with ourselves, let us begin with the Lord Jesus Christ. He has promised to build his church (Matthew 16:18). He has died for her and been raised. As the ascended conqueror he distributes his victory gifts to his people, that his church might be built up (Ephesians 4:7-16; 1 Corinthians 12:11).
Every gift is needed and none must be despised (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) but ‘word’ gifts have a special place because they equip the people of God for their ministries.
The first important principle to bear in mind is stewardship. When the Lord has given us a gift, we must use it to build his church (Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:7). On the last day Christ will ask us, ‘What use did you make of the gifts I gave you?’ So the question is not, ‘What do I want to do?’ but rather, ‘What am I gifted to do?’ We often want to do what we ought not to do and shy away from what we ought to do.
The New Testament says little about the feelings or desires of those set apart for word ministry. Paul does speak of those who aspire to be pastors (1 Timothy 3:1) but he doesn’t make it clear whether they should be encouraged or discouraged in their desire.
Probably it should be a bit of both. Some had wrong motives – a love of power, prominence or money, perhaps. Others may have held back because the work is hard. We cannot trust our desires.
Rather than asking what we want, therefore, we should ask what gifts we have been given. So the question is not, ‘How do I discern whether I am called?’ but rather, ‘How may I discern what gifts I have been given?’ The answer may be summed up in three statements – others will tell you, church leaders will tell you, and don’t expect instant answers!
Others will tell you
All believers are called to ministry. We are to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into doing what needs to be done. I should not expect some prior revelation of my gifts, but rather be an active servant in whatever falls to hand.
But as I serve, the fellowships in which I do so will recognise what are my gifts and what are not. The negative side of this coin may be painful, but this is usually a part of the process. I remember having to lead the singing at a school assembly – unaccompanied because the pianist hadn’t turned up. It became rapidly evident that this was not my gift!
On the other hand, we do not want ‘prima donnas’ who will not volunteer to help on the excuse that ‘this is not my gift’. Rather, we want servants who will have a go. So, if you are asked to help in some form of Christian service, say ‘yes’ if you possibly can.
As we serve, our fellow believers will help us recognise our gifts and ‘think with sober judgement’ about ourselves (Romans 12:3).
So if you have opportunities to lead a Bible study, to give a talk, or preach in church, have a go. Ask a mature Christian to listen critically and to give you some honest feedback – not to crush you (if you did badly) or flatter you (if you did well) but to help you see whether you have in bud a gift for Bible teaching.
Church leaders will tell you
As an extension of this, church leaders are specially responsible for recognising gifts within the body of Christ. They watch our character, listen to our efforts, and see how we relate to others and respond under pressure.
This is why the responsibility for the leaders of the future lies with the leaders of the present. Leaders appoint elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). When Timothy was set apart it was because they recognised his gifts (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6). And Timothy in turn was to look out for faithful people to whom he could entrust the message (2 Timothy 2:2).
As Christian leaders seek the next generation of ministers of the Word, they will look for four qualities and one disposition.
A godly character
They will look first for people of godly character. ‘If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be …’ (1 Timothy 3:1ff). The logic of the ‘therefore’ is that because this is a noble task, godliness is vital. The ‘checklists’ in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are overwhelmingly moral in nature.
Others will judge this better than the aspiring minister himself – for if we think we are godly, it is a sure sign we are not! The judgement of others may be needed to counteract our own reluctance (cf. James 3:1-12).
A clear gospel
Allied with godly character leaders will look for a clear and tenacious grasp of the gospel of the Lord Jesus. It is not enough to understand the message. To be a pastor, we must hold to it tenaciously, being willing not only to teach it positively but also to correct those who teach in error (Titus 1:9). In doing so we must be prepared to face opposition and suffer for the name of the Lord Jesus (2 Timothy 1:1 – 2:13).
The ability to teach
Twice Paul mentions one quality that stands out from the rest – the ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24). The other qualities listed should apply to every Christian, but not this one. Every godly believer does not have this gift.
Yet it is disastrous to enter pastoral ministry without this ability. Only those who can understand and handle words can exercise the ministry of the Word!
A love for people
Leaders will look for a love for people. Teaching is more than explanation. No Christian teacher will be heard unless he loves the people he teaches. A pastor-teacher must be gentle when provoked, prayerful when opposed, and driven by a longing to win his hearers back to God (2 Timothy 2:14-26). Without this love for people the cleverest Bible scholar in the world cannot teach the Word.
A willingness from the heart
Finally, it is essential that we be willing to do this work, and don’t do it ‘under compulsion’ (1 Peter 5:4). For some this willingness comes by way of a strong and growing inner sense of being called by God to this work. For others it comes more through the prior initiative of others, which meets an answering willingness in our hearts to do this work by the grace of God. Whether this willingness comes first from us and is subsequently confirmed by others, or first from others and subsequently affirmed by us, we must be willing in our hearts.
Don’t expect instant answers
Modern culture demands instant answers. But the gifts and character for Christian ministry must be tested over time. A church leader who lays hands on someone in haste will often have to repent at leisure (1 Timothy 5:22).
An encouraging development in the UK in recent years has been the growth of ‘testing paths’ by which Christians can, as it were, dip their toe in the waters of word ministry. I see this week by week in the Cornhill Training Course, and ‘9:38’ apprenticeship schemes also have this advantage. If you think Christ may have gifted you for word ministry, pursue one of these trial options if you can.
And then, if leaders affirm that your gifts and character are suitable for the ministry of the Word, and you are willing to do so, then go for it (1 Peter 5:2).
Free to decide
Finally, remember that the decision is yours before Christ. You must neither let yourself be pressured into pastoral ministry by pushy leaders nor dissuaded by worldly motives. Pray for purity of heart. Listen to wise leaders who know you. And then decide.
It is before your own Master that you stand or fall – and he is able to make you stand. The rest of us will not sit in judgement upon your decision. No principles set out in this article will make your decision for you. And as you decide, the Lord Jesus Christ is building his church. The glory will be his alone.
Abridged from Workers for the harvest field. The author is Director of the Cornhill Training Course (www.proctrust.org.uk) and a member of the ‘9:38’ Executive Committee (www.ninethirtyeight.org).