Is Calling for Individuals or Communities? Yes!

By David Williamson.

Going through old files, I came across an unpublished paper by Darrel Guder, at one time the Henry Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. The title of the paper is “The Christian’s Callings in the World: Pastoral Formation and Missional Vocation.” I was already working through an almost new and certainly energizing book, Make Your Job a Calling, by Bryan Dik and Ryan Duffey, which stimulated considerable reflection.

Darrel’s paper reminded me of a very important conversation that I had with him a few years ago. I had recently received a diagnosis of cancer (treatable and not gone!). I observed to a few people that I was surprised at not having the spiritual reassurances I expected after nearly 40 years of pastoral ministry. I remember clearly Darrel saying to me, “Dave, let the community carry you, and give the spiritual response you expect and need.”

Conversations on calling typically focus on individuals discovering and expressing their callings. Dik and Duffey’s book is no exception. But Darrel’s paper and his comment made me wonder about a communal calling. Today’s church in America (and most of the West) is very focused on individuals and their response to God. Can groups or communities experience and express a response to God’s “calling”?

The paper was written for conversation in seminaries, as part of a Lilly Endowment initiative, but I wondered more broadly about calling and community. Can a local church or a denomination discern God’s particular call? Are particular communities “called” and gifted to respond to particular problems, needs or opportunities? Can individuals find meaningful participation in such a call? Can seminaries develop curricula to equip future pastors in discerning and equipping or responding to such a call?

We participate in Holy Communion as a community. Can we also respond to and participate in the mission of the community, or discern a calling for the community?

Just perhaps, maybe I can let go of my “tough it out by myself” attitude, feeling spiritually ill-equipped or unprepared to bear a physical (medical) burden, and disappointed by my own lack of faith. I can recognize that I am part of a caring community that can help me carry the burden, or at least share the load. Do I trust the community that I am a part of, trusting that God can use the community to do the spiritual work on my behalf?

“Ecclesia” suggests a people called by God to do God’s work in the world. Referencing the 1910 Missions Conference in Edinburgh, Darrel states that the church exists as a result of God’s action through the people, the “ecclesia” – people called to do God’s work. He implicitly asks: how can seminaries help prepare pastors to lead a community with such a call in mind?

He refers to this as a “missiological ecclesiology,” the church called to continue Christ’s ministry to and especially through the church, the community of God’s people. This can be done through existing church or denominational structures, or a responses in a particular place or at a particular time, witnessing to God’s very current and particular purposes.

Luther Seminary expressed this as “God’s call to all Christians to participate in the creative and redemptive mission of God in the world.” Princeton said it this way: “To bear witness to Jesus Christ in everything, to everyone, in every way.”

Guder also calls us to recognize that God’s call is corporate before it is individual. Perhaps finding out what God wants me to do, my particular calling, involves responding collectively to God’s corporate calling. This includes church participation in or on behalf of the community, or my particular activity in the ordinary and everyday settings circumstances of my daily life, and my particular “sentnesss.” All of his suggests the “priesthood of all believers” – a historic affirmation since the beginning of the church’s history.

A theology of vocation becomes a theology of everyday life, men and women together in community, and hence a theology of community. This calls for the question of what can and should the church do to prepare and equip its people for this calling in their daily lives. We are “called to Christ” and “sent into the world” to do Christ’s work – simple and profound, expressing God’s work in action. “The culture of the gathered congregation,” Darrel writes, “needs to be transformed so that its members recognize that what they do together is directly related to how they live their lives when scattered in the world.”

The goal is a congregation equipped to be “Christ’s letter to the world.” This is a community called and sent, making members’ daily job a place where they pursue their callings and making the life of the community a response to God’s call. We are the church, each and every – often ordinary – day.

  One thought on “Is Calling for Individuals or Communities? Yes!

  1. Nick Shepherd
    August 25, 2022 at 11:26 am

    Another really helpful blog – if David Williamson has it can you email the paper from Darrel Guder…would be interested to read it.


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