Acton Institute Powerblog

Beyond vocational hierarchies: Evangelism, social justice, and Christian mission

Throughout my conservative evangelical upbringing, I was routinely encouraged to follow the call of the “five-fold ministry,” whether from the pulpit in weekly church services or the prayer altars of summer youth camps. The implications were clear: entering so-called “vocational ministry” was a higher calling than, well, everything else.

Later, in my college years at a leftist Christian university, I witnessed a lopsidedness of a different sort. Instead of being prodded into global missions, I was now encouraged to “make a positive change in the world” and “give back to my community.” The tropes were generic enough, but here, too, the implications were clear: working at a non-profit, volunteering in Africa, and engaging in political activism were all higher callings than, well, everything else.

In each case, I saw plenty of positive fruit, not least of which was a profound stirring for areas that would, indeed, become a part of my vocational journey. Yet each also suffered from a mix of false dichotomy and cramped imagination—neglecting the breadth and depth of what it actually looks like to love and serve our neighbors across the social and economic order.

In an essay for FULLER studio, Matthew Kaemingk unravels some of these same “vocational hierarchies,” exposing the theological shortcomings and painting a bigger picture of the scope of Christian mission.

“The narrow vocational visions of both progressives and conservatives betray a troubling lack of theological imagination,” he writes. “Reducing the vast complexity of the missio Dei to mere ‘evangelism’ or ‘social justice’ misses what it means to be called by God to serve in a multifaceted creation and its kaleidoscopic restoration.”

On the surface, it may appear as if these activist niches are specific to the “spiritualized”—that a passion and zeal for “others-oriented” evangelism and social justice is unique to a Christian ethic of service and sacrifice.

Yet as Kaemingk observes, it’s actually a close reflection of our culture’s wider emphasis on excitement, adventurism, and self-discovery as the paths to meaning.

American Christianity has, by and large, bought into the world’s understanding of what it means to live a life that matters. Scale and excitement are key. Vocations that truly matter in American Christianity, ones that receive recognition, need to be exciting, exotic, and immense. Because of our obsession with heroic Christian vocations, callings that are by design small, ordinary, repetitive, and mundane are on the outside looking in. In our worldview, finite callings have limited access to infinite meaning.

For all their rancorous debate, progressive and conservative Christians have largely agreed to accept the world’s extremely narrow understanding of what it means to live a life that matters. On both the right and left, the list of jobs that truly matter to God is distressingly short. Progressive Christians lionize careers in social justice, activism, and race relations. Conservative Christians lionize careers in missions, evangelism, and church leadership. Where does this leave the 99 percent of Christians who are not professional evangelists or activists? How can they participate in the mission of God?

Progressives and conservatives commonly provide answers that are both theologically simple and discouraging: If you are not in these fields, your ultimate purpose will be found in paying for those who are.

Unlike the broader culture, Christians needn’t rely on the false hype and empty excitement of hedonistic “adventures in meaning.” We, of all people, should realize that joy comes in the making. Just as our Creator “exults in monotony,” as G.K. Chesterton puts it, we are made to delight in the small and simple steps of creation and cultivation.

“More than simply the product, God’s process of making is joyous,” Kaemingk writes. “It is joyous in its repetition and diversity, its care and color, its infinite scale and finite detail. Moreover, the maker-God delights so much in this (micro)cosmic process of making that God does not want the making to end, and fashioned the creation itself to continue the generative process. The whole creation is therefore invited—no, commanded—to continue the process of cultivation and craftsmanship.”

In all that we do, we are co-creators and co-laborers with the most high God. In turn, our works of “ministry” and “justice” extend to far more places than we realize, from the changing of a baby’s diaper to the sweeping of a floor to the coding of an app to the tilling of soil to the selling of widgets.  The call to evangelism and social justice endures, but the manifestation of that calling is far more rich and varied.

As Kaemingk concludes:

Like the budding flower of a tulip, the creation itself was uniquely fashioned to continue unfolding and revealing its complex beauty as petal after intricate petal opens up and displays its color. Every time the daughters of Eve and sons of Adam investigate a molecule, design a violin, build a home, or wash a dish, they are plunging their hands into the fertile soil of God’s garden. The computer scientist, the carpenter, the neurologist, and house cleaner are all a part of that garden. None of them “create meaning” in God’s garden; the meaning, value, and purpose are already there. Divine glory is already present in the justice they seek, in the products they design, and in the children they raise. It is the maker who infuses meaning and value into the earth they cultivate…

A child carefully draws a picture for a sick friend, a software engineer creatively develops a new application enabling businesses to coordinate, an orderly in a retirement home joyfully plays cards with lonely residents, a biologist painstakingly investigates a new algae, a poet patiently wrestles a stubborn couplet to the ground, a manager skillfully cultivates a working group marked by trust and collaboration.

My conservative church and liberal college each had plenty to contribute, but they didn’t complete the picture.

When we see that the meaning of our work comes largely from right relationship, we begin to see the need for “social justice” in every corner of our culture, from the family to business to politics and beyond.

When we see that the joy is in the making and the serving—no matter our station or sphere—we begin to understand the true reach of “full-time ministry,” imagining new ways to weave together word and deed, spirit and nature, the “here and now” and “not yet.”

Image: Public Domain

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.