Why “I Feel Called” is not Enough
Over the years, I have found it interesting to observe the different understandings or perceptions of “calling” (or vocation) between Western and non-Western Christian communities. In the West, I often hear seminary students say, “I feel called” or “God called me to the ministry,” and they will readily share their personal testimonies about the process and how it came about. However, I rarely hear them mention that their Christian community played a significant discerning process of their vocation.
On the other hand, I often hear non-Western seminary students talk about how the needs of their Christian community have played a significant role in the process of discerning their vocation. As an international student, I fall into the latter category. The needs of my community have even prompted the educational direction I have gone with my major being in biblical studies and even the types of classes I should take.
The Western Christian Communities
There is no doubt that there is a personal dimension to vocational calling and I could share my own story of my call to ministry. However, this is only one element of a larger whole. To put it another way, discernment of one’s calling boils down to answering these two questions:
(1) how do you know the authenticity of your calling?
(2) how do you discern the difference between what you want and what God wants?
To properly and accurately answer these questions, a community is required to affirm (or redirect) and speak into one’s sense of call. Submitting to one’s community also adds a holistic dimension. While we need divine assurance (a very subjective thing) in our call, a community helps us rationally evaluate and affirm (or redirect) our personal judgments. This may include a fair assessment of our gifts and ability for ministry, analysis of the converging circumstances of our call, an invitation to hear the voice of others (including our own family members), and willing submission to the Christian community in the discernment process.
To illustrate my point with an analogy, when we are part of a relatively healthy Christian community, we pray for one another as members of God’s family. Similarly, it is right and healthy to hear how other members of God’s family respond to your sense of “calling” just as a healthy family discusses and cares about its family members’ important life-changing decisions.
If we consider the life and ministry of the apostle Paul, we find that although he had a remarkable encounter with God wherein he was personally called to his ministry (Gal 1:15–16), he still sought both fellowship and approval from the Jerusalem church to situate his calling to ministry within the community (Gal 2:2). Yet, at the same time, he does not hesitate to challenge the community when necessary, such as when he did concerning circumcision (Gal 2:5).
When discerning our calling, “I feel called” or “God called me” is only half of the story. We need the discernment of our community to help us navigate our imperfect perceptions of how we think God is speaking to us. It also helps us avoid confusing our sense of personal calling with a misunderstanding of God or selfish-ambition.
This is harder than it sounds because submitting one’s life-changing decisions requires a mature and responsible community. On the one hand, the church might unnecessarily offend individuals who are either not ready to hear “no” from the community or in the way the discernment is communicated. Both those discerning and community members must be intentional about knowing one another and earning the respect to hear one another and speak into each other’s lives. During this process, God may open doors, nuance our understanding of our calling, re-direct it entirely, or even miraculously intervene in the situation.
The non-Western Christian Communities
Compared to the Western church, non-Western Christian communities are better in their practice of the communal aspect of the calling, but that doesn’t mean that they always get it right. The problem that tends to occur is that non-Western Christians can “lose themselves” in the community or can be forced (implicitly or explicitly) to give up their own vocation and calling for the sake of the community. This is both unhealthy and damaging. I have even seen a community oppose individuals who are not only strongly called but also well gifted for a certain ministry. In this instance, the same question posed to the individual discerning his or her calling—how do we discern the difference between what we want and what God wants?—also needs to be answered by the community.
I see the Western and non-Western practices of discernment to be susceptible to two extremes. Individualism marginalizes the community’s necessary role of the community for Western believers while collectivism risks marginalizing what God is seeking to do in and for the community through an individual’s calling. Rather than idealizing one or the other, we need to learn from one another; both the personal and communal aspects of discerning a calling are two sides of the same coin.
A blessing of global Christianity is the coming together of Western and non-Western believers in service as members of the Body of Christ. Will we take advantage of the opportunities to learn from one another in order to be a better servants and stewards of our callings?