Is Calling a Thing?
The answer, of course, is yes - calling is a thing.
(Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that calling is several things).
In fact, the Bible has a lot to say about calling, and it isn't always talking about exactly the same thing. When we speak of being 'called to plant a church', it is important to know the different types of calling the Bible refers to and exactly what each of them is all about in order to know what to do with any callings that we may or may not have.
Types of Calling In the Bible
Type A - Called to Christ
The most fundamental calling that any Christian has is our call to Jesus Christ. This is our top level calling (for now we will call it 'Type A') and it is from here that any other calling that we may have derives. In Acts 2:39, Peter describes the promise of forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit as "for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." and in Romans 8:30, as Paul describes how God works for our good in all things, he reminds us that God has already called us. "And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified."
In this sense of the word 'calling', every Christian has been called.
Type B - Called to God's Mission
Not only is every believer called to Christ, but we are also all called to play a part in God's mission in the world.
Throughout the Bible, God has called his people both to enjoy being with him and to join with him in his global mission. Through the call of Abraham, all the nations of the earth would be blessed and Israel was called as a light to the nations.
When Jesus called his first disciples, he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." (Mark 1:17). Right from the beginning, the call to follow Christ and the call to mission go hand-in-hand. Later, he appointed twelve apostles "that they might be with him and his might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons." (Mark 3:14-15) As the risen Christ taught his disciples before returning to heaven, two key themes emerge - he will be with them by sending out his Spirit, and they have a mission to do.
One example of this is found in Matthew 28:18-20, where Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Included in the command to 'teach them to observe all that I have commanded you' is that the calling to mission is passed on to all disciples.
We are all called to Christ, and we are all called to God's mission.
Type C - Called to a Particular Ministry
Sometimes, God may call us to a particular area of ministry. We have already seen that Jesus called Andrew and Peter to follow him, and to become fishers of men. We also alluded to the fact that he appointed them as 'apostles' and in doing so he gave them a specific calling that is not the same as the calling that all believers have.
In a similar way, we read in the Old Testament that Amos was a shepherd who God called to the particular role of prophet. He writes, "I was no prophet nor a prophet's son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'" (Amos 7:14-15)
Working out this kind of call can be wide-ranging and can look different in different phases of life. Upon being called to apostolic ministry, Peter's next three years were spent being trained and equipped as he joined Jesus in his travelling ministry. This was followed by a season of leading the thriving Jerusalem church and travelling to other places. As time progressed, it would seem that James began to take an increasing level of responsibility in Jerusalem and Peter set up base in Caesarea (see Acts 12:19). We also read of Peter having spent time with the churches in Galatia and Corinth, and tradition has it that he was eventually martyred in Rome.
Peter's call to this particular ministry did not constrain him to a single place or role, but rather provided a framework and direction for a life of serving God that encompassed many different things. This kind of call isn't necessarily given to every believer (though we all have 'good works which God prepared beforehand' to do) and when such a call is given, it remains with that individual for their whole life, and significantly shapes everything they do.
Type D - Called to a Specific Place
This is the kind of call that Jonah received when the Lord said to him, "Arise, go to Nineveh..." (Jonah 1:2), and also that Ananias received, as the Lord appeared to him in a vision and said, "Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul..." (Acts 9:11).
In both of these cases, God had a particular thing for that person to do in that place at that time. Neither are asked to stay there forever, but they are expected to go, to obey what God is saying, and then to either return home or go somewhere else to continue living out their more general callings.
When we talk about calling in terms of church planting, this is often the kind of calling that we have in mind. We look for specific words from God about the plans that we have and the places that we are considering going. Sometimes (but not always) God does give such a calling to church planters, and when he does it is very helpful because it guides us in specific ways that we can work out the more general callings that we have to particular ministries and to God's mission.
Paul: A Case Study In Calling
One of the clearest ways to look at the idea of calling is to look at the story of the Apostle Paul.
As Paul shares his testimony in Acts 26, he recounts the words that Jesus said to him as he apprehended him on the Damascus Road. "I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles - to whom I am sending you..." (Acts 26:16-17)
In this short sentence, Paul outlines several different aspects of his calling. Firstly, he is appointed to be a servant of Christ (this is what we have called 'Type A Calling'). Secondly, he is called to be a witness to Christ (this is what we have called 'Type B Calling'), and thirdly he has been sent to the Gentiles. In view of this calling, Paul describes himself in Romans 11:13 the 'apostle to the Gentiles'. This is the kind of the 'Type C Calling' that we have discussed and it determined the shape of Paul's life and ministry.
Based on this calling, Paul knew what he was about. His whole life story from that point forward is about fulfilling his calling to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Within this calling, there was a great deal of flexibility about how Paul conducted his ministry. Sometimes he did receive specific 'Type D' callings to a particular place, such as the vision he had of a Macedonian man in Acts 16. On these occasions he did just what God had called him to. Other times he didn't receive such specific direction but was instead motivated by his strategy to work out his calling (as outlined in Romans 15:19-20), by personal desire to got to particular places (such as Rome and Spain - see Romans 15:23-24), or even to be where his friends and team members were (2 Corinthians 2:12-13 is a fascinating insight into how Paul lived out this calling).
Church Planters & Calling: A Few Thoughts
Do Whatever You Are Called To
Whatever callings you have from God - do them.
You are called to follow Jesus, so follow him. You are called to play your part in God's mission, so play your part in it. If you have received more personal callings to particular ministries and/or specific places then do those ministries and go to those places. It is God who called you, and he knows best.
Seek God's Calling
Whilst they 'Type A' and 'Type B' callings are for all believers, and so we already know exactly what we are called to in this regard, 'Type C' and 'Type D' callings are much more personalised. It is a great practice to take time in prayer, asking God what he has for you, and as you do this be ready for him to speak to you about the callings that he has for your life, both in terms of particular ministries to perform and of specific places to go.
Understand the Relationship Between the Different Types of Calling
The different types of calling operate in a hierarchical relationship from the more general to the more specific. The call to follow Christ includes everything that we do in life being done for his glory. One part of this is the call to be part of God's Mission, so we could say that our 'Type B' calling is always included as part of our 'Type A' calling.
Similarly, if God calls us to a particular ministry, then doing this ministry is a part of what it looks like to live out our call to God's mission. Our 'Type B' calling will include our 'Type C' but will also include many other things (e.g. evangelism, prayer, acts of loving service).
Likewise a 'Type D' calling is a particular task that sits within our 'Type C', 'Type B' and 'Type A' callings.
It will usually be the case that as we obey a calling further down the hierarchy that we are simultaneously living out our higher callings. Obeying God's call to move to a specific neighbourhood is part of fulfilling our ministries, furthering the mission and following Christ and we should always see the smaller scale things that God asks of us in this light.
If we are in a scenario where there is an apparent contradiction between different callings, then the higher callings must take precedence. If going to a specific place presented a conflict with following Christ faithfully then becoming a Christian comes first. If planting a new church would ultimately hinder God's mission, then God's mission is the priority. God's calling will still be fulfilled, but perhaps you need to return to the drawing board and look for a different way to fulfil that calling, or to try again at a different point in time when there is no longer such a conflict.
Go With Whatever Calling You Have
As we read about the growth of the church through the book of Acts, we see something that is at the same time highly spiritual and highly pragmatic. It was commonplace for God to speak and direct his people, and whoever he did they obeyed and followed his call. It was also commonplace for them to quietly get on with the job and advance the mission with or without specific instructions.
Whilst 'Type D' callings are very helpful, they are not the only game in town - and when we have a clear idea of what ministry we are called to ('Type C' calling), or even more generally what God's mission is ('Type B' calling) then we already have plenty of reason to plant churches and make disciples.
Personally, I have a strong sense that God has called me to church planting in Manchester, but I haven't received any particular words from God about where in Manchester I should be focussing in at the moment, so I am just getting on with it, helping a new plant get started in the South of the City and being part of a group preparing to plant again in the City Centre.
Based on whatever level of calling we have, we can get on with the mission at hand. 'Has God specifically spoken about it?' is one good question to ask in determining whether to go, but it is not the only one: 'Is there a need?', 'Have my leaders asked me to go?', 'Am I qualified?', 'Do I want to?' and 'Is there an opportunity?' also factor into the decision.
God has not left any of us without a mission to fulfil, and the call on us all is to obey whatever specific callings God give us, and in the mean time to get on with the mission at hand.
We would love to hear about your experience of calling as a church planter? Why not tweet us @broadcastcp and let us know?