Several years ago, I received a knock on my office door. One of the young women in our college-age ministry was standing outside with a perplexed look on her face. I invited her in, asking her what was troubling her, noting her obvious frustration. “I think God is calling me, but I have no idea how to answer him,” she said.
She had moved home, realizing that college may not have been her path. She quickly went to work for her parents and grandparents and had helped me organize the college-age ministry that she was part of. It had been a few months, months where she had been content to sit in Bible studies and show up at my house for cookouts. Now, however, something was gnawing at her. She felt a call from God come upon her. However, like many who are Christians but not called to vocational ministry, she had no idea what to do next.
Not everyone can be a preacher, missionary, or small group leader. However, all Christians are called to service. Each of us, as recipients of the Holy Spirit upon baptism, are called from benchwarmer to the active duty roster. So how can we tell when God is actively calling us to serve in our local congregations?
Stage One: Listening
Let’s start by accepting that we are all being called to some form of service. That could be serving communion to shut-ins, leading singing, caring for children in the nursery, or serving food at fellowship meals. Whatever it is, God is calling us to at least one form of service. But how will we know which one unless we are listening?
Although it has to do with a more formal kind of ministry, the calling of the prophet Samuel provides a good three-stage structure. In 1 Samuel 3, we find the young Samuel trying his best to get some sleep. Temple cots can be so uncomfortable. As Samuel rolled around, he heard a voice call his name. He assumed it was the old priest Eli, his guardian, calling for his help. Samuel went to Eli, who sleepily informed Samuel that he was not the one calling him. This happened a couple of other times before Eli realized that it was God who was calling out to Samuel. He recommended that the boy answer this way the next time he heard his name: “Speak, for your servant is listening” (3:10). God now had Samuel’s attention.
It may seem like strange advice, but when people ask me what I think they should do when they think God is calling them to service, I encourage them to run away from it. I will admit this is more Jonah’s style than Samuel’s, however there is also a significant time-jump between 1 Samuel 7:17 and 8:1. There is a lot of Samuel’s life that we do not know about, a lot of time I am sure he wrestled with what it meant to be the spiritual and political leader of Israel. If you think you are being called to some form of service in your local congregation, I would encourage you to run away from it for a while. If, after a period of time, the desire and opportunity are still there, then pursue the calling.
Stage Two: Discerning
Once we have listened to the call from God, we need to discern the specific call that God is making upon our lives. We find this, too, in the story of Samuel’s calling. Immediately after Samuel responded to God’s call, God gave Samuel a prophetic message to deliver to Eli. It was not a positive message. It was one of sorrow, one that Samuel had to find the courage to deliver to Eli (3:15-18). In doing so, however, Samuel learned the discipline of discernment, the ability the judge well.
We, too, must learn to discern God’s call. Simply answering it and jumping into service only perpetuates the never-ending “warm body” approach that has plagued local congregations for decades. We must take the time to ask ourselves some hard questions: Why do I want to be in service? What are my abilities? Is there a confirmation? Is there a lifestyle of longevity? This may require going through a spiritual gifting assessment, like StrengthsFinder or the classic Church Growth.org survey (see sidebar for web links). If you can honestly and fully answer these questions, then you are ready to get involved in the service that will have an impact on the community where your church is located.
Step Three: Obeying
According to author Robert Fischer, the phrase failure to launch commonly describes “the difficulties some young adults face when transitioning into the next phase of development—a stage which involves greater independence and responsibility.” Realistically, this could also be said about a great many Christians who listen to and discern God’s call, only to do nothing with it. In Samuel’s story, he could have chosen not to tell Eli what God had said. He could have chosen not to serve faithfully in the tabernacle. He could have chosen not to anoint Saul and David as kings. However, to do so would have been to disobey the call God had given him.
In his book, I Am a Church Member, Thom Rainer writes, “We who are church members are all supposed to function in the church. The concept of an inactive church member is an oxymoron. Biblically, no such church member really exists.” If we are going to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ and faithful members of our local congregations, then we must obey the call that God gives to us. Sign up to lead the middle school Bible class. Offer to take communion to people in a nursing home. Learn how to prepare and operate the worship presentation. Join the volunteer pastoral care team. Whatever it is, seek out the appropriate training needed and then sign up to serve.
Go Get ‘em
You may be wondering what happened to the young woman who came by my office. She asked me to perform a diagnostic on her personality, interests, and spiritual gifting. She matched well with the volunteer description for our youth ministry, where she quickly found a place as an activity sponsor and confidant for our female students. She remained active in our college-age ministry as well because she knew that she would still need to be shepherded. This is the final thing about serving: if you are serious about answering God’s call, God will provide the opportunity. And it will challenge you, so be sure to maintain an outlet to receive teaching, coaching, and pastoring so that you can serve to the fullest.
Interested in gifts assessment surveys? Check these out!
Dr. Rob O’Lynn is assistant professor of preaching and ministry and director of the graduate Bible program at Kentucky Christian University, as well as a lecturer at Johnson University. Rob is also the senior minister for the Beech Street Church in Ashland, Kentucky.