“Vocation” as Fresh Language for “Mission”

Blog Intro Post #4

“The language of vocation and calling addresses some of the most critical concerns in higher education today.” – David S. Cunningham (ed) in Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (2019) p. xvi

Every organization has a “mission” today, and all are focused on transformation of some kind. Even those who critique religious missions movements, quite ironically, have a mission, and their mission involves persuasion techniques and hoped-for “conversions” of some kind. Still, the ethics of the mission is what deserves questioning. Not all mission is equally humane, respectful, and conducive to human flourishing. I wrote about some of this in my last post.

Some say that “sending” is the heart of Christ’s mission from God, that is the basis of the Great Commission and the book of Acts, and crossing boundaries for the sake of the gospel must continue as the foundation of anything that is “missional.” This may not be the call of every Christian, but it is surely the call of some (he calls “some to be apostles—literally “sent ones” and others to be evangelists Eph. 4:11). To be “missional” in orientation is core to being Christian, and thus practising evangelism and service are key to what freedom of religion means for a Christian.

I believe, however, at least in Canada, delving into the concept of vocation may have some advantages that are not as apparent in the concept of “misson.” In a day and age of globalization—of increased interconnectedness where the world is becoming more “one place”—most urban dwellers are in cross-cultural “marketspace” just by walking out their front door.[1] Bearing witness to who we are in our area of calling is not the special gift of a few; it’s integral to the priesthood of all believers–for the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker, as well as the global scholar. Writers in this vocational framework see the language of “mission agencies” and “full-time ministry” as part of a modern mission movement that has passed its time because it assumes Christian ministry is something for overseas ministry specialists funded by churches. The language of vocation is being advocated for as a post-modern alternative.[2]

Painting on my library wall of a Dutch bakery. My grandparents brought this cardboard print with them when immigrating from Holland after World War II. By Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987). My grandfather and great-grandfather were bakers.

The Society of Christian Scholars (SCS) hopes to become a global collaborative network, and the goal is to make it a more diverse, international organization. It also is strategically oriented to cultivate indigenous theological resources, indigenous Christian scholarship, and indigenous networks and institutions in service of the gospel. Paul Hiebert writes about nurturing new global church communities that are self-sustaining, self-governing, self-propagating, and self-theologizing.[3] This is the direction in which we are moving: where local, indigenous leaders are developed–in their own callings as academics–to be of service to community development in their own country.

In effect, a fresh compliment to “mission” and its freighted language would be that of calling and vocation. This means inviting academics to a deeper understanding of their job as vocation, a vocation that is cosmopolitan in focus, multi-faceted in means, yet rooted in bearing witness to God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ—for their own spiritual formation and transnational service. So when we use the language of “missional Christian academics”–terminology becoming central to Global Scholars–we are talking about vocation, for the academic professor, his or her students, and the institutions to which they belong.

In the case of my work, Global Scholar Canada’s mission in higher education focuses on being an initiator, a facilitator, and animator of Christian academic vocation, a catalyst that helps get Christian academics inspired, connected, and mobilized for cosmopolitan ministry. In other words, an imagination stimulator that links academics to their colleagues worldwide, an agent for encouraging a conversation about cosmopolitan Christian vocation. Global Scholars and the SCS community becomes one significant doorway into vocational development, in the broader context of bearing witness to the Lordship of Christ over all creation and his on-going redemptive work. Steve Garber’s work on vocation in Washington, D.C. and the “Vocational Wayfinding” course offered by Gideon Strauss at the Institute for Christian Studies might be tapping into a similar vision.

The language of “vocation” or “calling” has more direct Biblical connections than “mission” at first glance, even as the two are inextricably linked. These terms suggest a primary activity of listening, which begins as an actively passive posture. Vocation also had special elaboration in the Reformation, where vocation as the religious life of a priest was expanded to include “the priesthood of all believers.” Reformational Christian leaders today who draw on the writings of Abraham Kuyper (my tradition), have a strong sense that the Lordship of Christ extends to all human activities. Jesus calls his disciples, and Paul urges the early church “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1). The Greek word for church, ekklesia, literally means “the called-out ones.” A focus on vocation has a rich, deep, tradition that focuses not just on the sending and doing of mission, but on the listening, responding, and growing into a calling—a discernment process for both professors and students. It includes both equipping and sending, but also much more about spiritual formation, a public theology of meaning, purpose, and identity, and a kingdom-based social ethics that challenges the consumer orientation that turns universities into a place simply for career training (career from the Latin, meaning literally “race”).[4]

Delft blue tile from Holland, “De Leeraar” (the teacher)
Jan Luyken (artist, 1649-1712)

To be sure, vocation cannot be isolated from mission. Steven Garber, the founder of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture, in his book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good (IVP 2014) says that vocation is integral to the missio Dei. Every Christian must ask, “Given what I know about the way the world is, do I love the world, and what will I become in light of that?” This summons to a vision and purpose for life is about work and study, indeed, but also about family, neighbours, and citizenship—both local and global. It includes respecting and empowering others in their vocational discernment–meaning students if we are focused organizationally on professors. Vocation exploration is very close to the world of the university, and the gift and task of being a professor and student.

This discussion of mission and vocation begs a question about the role of the institutional church. The church plays a supporting role in terms of emerging leader development, volunteers, theological reflection, accountability, and financial aid. Yet discussions about vocation and mission can quickly centre on an individual’s personal ministry, and if fundraising is done through friendship and family networks, para-church connections can replace the institutional church as the person’s spiritual home. This deserves deeper reflection and discussion.

[1] See Marketspace by Larry McCrary, Upstream Books, 2018 and Andrew Scott, Scatter: Go Therefore and Take Your Job With You. Moody, 2016.

[2] On vocation, see recent Lilly endowment sponsored Oxford University Press books by David S. Cunningham, including At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education (2015), Vocation across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (2017), Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (2019). See also books on vocation by Douglas Schuurman, Os Guiness, and John Piper.

[3] Yeh, p. 56.

[4] Books like The Corporate Campus, University, Inc., Universities in the Marketplace, and Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education all basically say the same thing:  commercial interests are the highest value on campus today. “Credentialing, not educating, has become the primary business of North American universities,” prophesies Jane Jacob in last book Dark Age Ahead (2004). While many universities are governed and funded by the state, they have become subservient to the market.

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