Called: Defining the Call

Originally Posted on August 5, 2021

Webinar Transcript

You’ve come today and you’re looking at me and thinking, oh man, this guy’s as old as my grandfather. What in the world is he gonna teach me today? And how’s it gonna apply to me? And I get that. I’ve been teaching about God’s call for a long time and living it for a long time.

You’re probably looking at me also and thinking well, yeah, because you’ve got it all figured out. I mean, you’re a seminary president. Obviously, you figured out this whole thing of calling a long time ago and you’ve been living with it forever. And that’s absolutely true. But here’s where you’re confused, you’re looking at me and thinking that I’m the person God called. But God didn’t call me, God called this guy *points to an awkward high school picture*.

See, this is what always happens. Nobody laughs out loud, but you’re thinking, oh my word, this is horrible. That’s me. That’s me when I was 16. And I want you to know that the glasses really make the look, don’t you think? But more than the glasses, I want you to notice this shirt. Now, I picked this shirt out that day and I remember very distinctly saying to myself, I’m gonna wear a shirt that the ladies like. And I remember thinking that, I thought the girls are gonna really go for this shirt. I’m gonna wear this one. But I want you to notice the third thing, which is peaking out of the shirt is a little monochrome red t-shirt that goes with it, do you see that? I mean, I worked hard putting this look together. The t-shirt, the shirt and of course, the killer glasses. Never mind the slicked over here and the pimples don’t go there, okay But that’s me.

You see, I didn’t grow up in a Christian family. My family never once has ever been to church together, even up until today. I came to Christ at age 13, at a fair, when someone shared the gospel with me just off the midway in the Exhibit Building. For the next five years, I served the Lord and grew in a church that really cared about me. And then when I was just about this age, I made a public commitment that God was calling me to ministry leadership. That’s the guy that God called. And when God called me, I had a lot of questions about what it meant to be called. And those questions are still prevalent today.

And as I said, I wrote this little book that you’ve been given now longer ago than some of you have been alive, okay? The book came out in 2004 and thousands of people have read the book. Tens of thousands of people who’ve come to conferences like this that I’ve led. And I hear the same kinds of questions and issues that arise over and over again, and that’s what I’m gonna try to address with you in these three sessions today.

You know, one of the reasons that we have so much confusion about the concept of call is how the word is used in so many different ways in our culture. For example, you get called up from the junior varsity to the varsity. Or you get called from the reserves into active duty. That means you get a new responsibility. Or maybe you go to a business meeting and someone calls for the question which means they wanna vote. Are you playing cards? And someone calls for your hand to be shown, which means they wanna see your cards. You’re at a square dance, and someone calls the steps, which means they tell you what to do next.

We use the word call so many different ways. For example, for 25 years, my hobby was umpiring baseball. And when I walked on a baseball field, I used the word call three different ways as an empire on the field. First I called the managers to home plate for a pregame meeting, which meant I summoned them. And then during the game, I made calls out and safe and fair, oh, excuse me, that’s not fair. Foul and fair and all kinds of calls which were decisions about the actions of the game. And then if it started raining, I call the game. Which meant I sent everybody home.

So, in all of these different ways, we use the word call and it means so many different things. I’ve identified about 20 or more different ways that the word call is defined in the English language. And we import this same confusion into the church. We say that God calls us to do all kinds of things, but really?

For example, you might say, well, did God call you to speak to us today? No, He did not. God prompted your leaders to invite me and He directed me to say, yes, but that was not a call experience. Leading prompting, guiding and directing, are also good words, and they’re all things that God does for us, but they aren’t the same thing as a call.

So when I was writing my material and developing my material and later writing the book, the first thing I had to do was define the word call. In order to do that, I looked at a lot of different other books that had been written and I found that many people wrote 200-page books without ever in one sentence, defining the concept. And then I also found that when I studied the Bible, I started to get some clarity about what this subject or what this definition should be.

So I wanna show you now my definition of God’s call.  “A profound impression from God that establishes parameters for your life and can only be altered by a subsequent, superseding impression from God.” And you say, man, you pick some big words for that. It’s because it’s a definition. And I was striving for precision.

In the book, I go through a lot more in detail about this, but this morning, let me just hit three highlights. Three phrases I wanna highlight for you.

First, a call is a profound experience. It’s more than a leading or prompting or a guiding or a directing, it is a profound experience. It’s something that happens deep within you that changes you forever. It’s a profound impression from God.

Now, when I teach this at the seminary at the doctoral level, I like to sort of watch their brains frazzled when I say this, because everyone at the doctoral level, in a seminary, wants it all to be in a footnote, all to be analyzed, all to be graphed. Well, you can’t footnote, analyze or graph God’s call, it’s a profound impression. It’s an inner experience. It is something to put in a phrase that happens deep in your heart. You just know it. It’s a profound impression.

Second, it establishes parameters for your life. Now watch this, parameters are like brackets, okay? So just do this with me. Ready? Here we go. Brackets, around your life, Okay? Now those brackets mean that some things are inside the brackets, meaning they are a part of your life after God’s call. And some things are outside the brackets, meaning they’re outside your life as a part of God’s call. So God’s call establishes some parameters. Some brackets, if you will, around your life. I’m gonna show you this more in just a second.

And then third, it can only be altered by a subsequent, superseding impression from God. So a call experience, once it happens in your life is there to stay until following experience that replaces it moves you in a different direction. A call is a profound impression from God that establishes parameters for your life and can only be altered by a subsequent, superseding impression from God.

Okay, so these three aspects of the definition are crucial to understanding the rest of what I’m gonna talk about particularly in this morning session. Now, let’s look at it in graph form. There are three types of call experiences and I’m gonna go through them all in detail for the next 15 minutes. So don’t worry about getting them right now.

There’s a universal call to Christian service and growth. There is something called, a General Call to Ministry Leadership, and finally a Specific Call to a Ministry Assignment. And I’m gonna go through these in more detail, but let’s just look at it in a graph for right now. Remember what I said? A call is a profound impression from God that establishes what? Parameters around your life which can only be altered by a subsequent, superseding impression from God.

Now there are three kinds of call experiences it is possible for a Christian to have. The first one is a universal call to service and growth. The second one is a general call to ministry leadership. And the third one is a specific call to a ministry assignment. Now, when I use the word parameters, and I say that if call put some things in your life, inside the call and some things outside the call, let me illustrate what I mean.

When you become a Christian and you receive your universal call to Christian Service and Growth, I think all of us would agree there are some things now that you’re permitted to do as a Christian and some things now that you are not permitted to do as a Christian, everybody with me so far? There are also some responsibilities you have as a Christian that non-Christians don’t have. All right, that’s easy. But now what about the second one?

When you receive a general call to ministry leadership, there are some things that are now outside the parameters of your life and some things that are within. And you say, but not every Christian has those parameters. That’s right. Because leaders have a second set of parameters in our lives. Let me give you two examples.

First, who you can marry. If you’ve answered a general call to ministry leadership, you can only consider someone as a marriage partner who shares that same calling. So you can’t just marry any believer, which a person with the white parentheses could do that, but now you have to find a believer who has a general call to ministry leadership. Because apart from that, you can’t fulfill your calling.

Here’s another one, you have to set aside distractions to your call. When I was in college, for example, I was working at a restaurant to pay my way through college. And one day the owner call me into his office. And he said, Jeff, we wanna talk to you for a minute, the two owners. I was a little nervous And they said, you’re doing a great job for us. I said, well, thank you. And they said, you, we think you have a lot of ability and potential for the future. And I said, well, well thank you. And they said we wanna make you an offer. We’ll pay for the rest of your college education. we’ll pay for everything if you’ll commit to managing one of our restaurants for five after you graduate. And I said I can’t do it. God’s called me to be a ministry leader, not a restaurant manager. So I had to say no that day.

And I’d like to tell you some really cool story about how God just poured money in and I didn’t have to work anymore, but that’s not what happened. I worked three jobs in the summers and one job in the semesters for the next three years to put myself through college. But that was outside my calling, I couldn’t take the offer because it didn’t fit within the parameters God had put around my life.

Now, is that making sense to you? So a universal call to Christian service and growth means that there are some things within our lives as Christians that are permissible and that we’re responsible for, and some things that are not permissible and some things that non-believers are not responsible for. Same thing with ministry leadership, when the general call to ministry leadership comes into your life. There are some things that are excluded and some things that are included because you’ve answered God’s call. And then it goes, even beyond that.

God has called me four times to different ministry assignments, that yellow one on the outside, a specific call to a ministry’s assignment like I have right now to be the president of our school. And as president of our school, there are some things that are excluded from my life and some things that are included. I’ll give you a really positive one. For 10 years, I was the chaplain for the San Francisco Giants. You say, how did you do that? How did you devote 18 weekends a year to the ball club plus other ministry time as well? It’s because I’m not a pastor anymore. And so every weekend now I travel and speak and teach and do things like this. And so I just reserved those Giants’ weekends for 10 years and did that response its ability. I couldn’t have done that as a pastor.

So when I was a specific call to ministry leadership as a pastor, there were some things that were excluded, like being the chaplain for a major league baseball team. But when I was a seminary president and a new set of parameters were in my life, now, there were things that could be included that formerly had to be excluded. Is this making sense to you? These parameters put things in our lives and outside our lives, depending on God’s call.

All right, now let’s go through these in a little more detail. First of all, there is what I call, a Universal Call to Christian Service and Growth. Now, there’s more detail about the Bible study aspect of this in the book and I’ll invite you to read that, but let me just show you two examples of the way the word call is used in the Bible. Ephesians 4:1-3, and 1 Peter 1:15.

Again, I’m going quickly, so we’re not gonna look at the texts in detail, but Ephesians 4:1 says, “Walk worthy of the calling you have received.” The context of that phrase is Christian service. Do things for Christ as a result of your conversion. “Worthy of the calling you have received.” 1 Peter 1:15 says, “You are called to be holy as He is holy.” Meaning as God is holy. Call to be holy is a call to character development. To live a certain kind of life. So I move these two things together. This is the word, “Kaleo,” call, in the New Testament. And it’s used to describe Christian service, Ephesians four and Christian growth 1 Peter one. And you can find other passages that parallel these, but these are just two example passages.

A universal call to Christian service and growth. Now, when did you get this call? Well, this call came with your conversion experience. In other words, at the moment that you became a Christian, you were called to serve and grow in Jesus, is that news to anybody? No, we know this. Say, well, I didn’t know what happened to me in the moment of my conversion? Was it possible then a moment in my conversion that at that moment I received such a significant thing as a call to service and growth? Absolutely, yes.

And you were thinking, is it possible to get that kind of responsibility and not even know it? Yeah, it happens all the time. Like in college and seminary, there’s something called, “Syllabus shock.” You sign up for a class to get a degree, and then they into the syllabus, and at Gateway, they’re like phone books. And you start looking through and you see all these dates and all these assignments and all these responsibilities and all these books and all these papers. And you’re like, what just happened? Syllabus shock. You got the responsibility that you didn’t even know you were taking when you signed up for the class, right?

Here’s another one, marriage. So 41 years ago, my wife and I stood in front of the pastor and a church and said I do, and we had no idea what we were doing, no. Now don’t call my wife, she’s heard me say this hundreds of times. Part of the challenge for me is I’ve now been married to three different women. Same wive three different women.

I married, shy, retiring, quiet, Ann who morphed into supermom with a minivan. Who’s now morphed into a speaker leader that kind of makes me go, who is this woman? And where did you come from? I asked her one day, how many more of you are there? And she laughed and said, I don’t know, but maybe one or two more to keep you on your toes. I’m like, I’m on them. I’m on my toes. I’m getting it. You see, I had no idea what it was gonna mean to love my wife 41 years ago and watch her develop and nurture and grow and become the person she is. But that was my responsibility that I got that day.

All I’m trying to illustrate is it is possible for you to make a commitment without fully understanding all the responsibility that goes with it. Marriage and syllabus shocks show that. When you came to faith in Jesus at vacation Bible school, when you were seven years old or at youth camp when you were 11 or at a college dorm and you were at 17 or 18, when you came to faith in Jesus, at that moment, many things happen to you. But one of the things that happened, as you received, at that moment, a universal call to grow as a Christian and serve as a Christian. That happened to everybody.

Now, this call applies to every Christian and finally can be expressed through any honorable vocation. Any honorable vocation. Hitman, drug salesman, sex trafficker, that’s out. You know what I mean by honorable vocation. So listen now, this means that a person who’s come to faith in Jesus and received a call to universal servicing growth can fulfill that calling as an architect and engineer, a teacher, a coach. Can fulfill that calling as a police officer, military service, you can fulfill that calling through any honorable vocation. And get this 95% to 98% of all Christians live their entire lives right here.

Very few Christians get a general call to ministry leadership, very few. Just do the math at your church. Your church has 100 people there on a Sunday. Probably have one pastor, right? 95% to 98% of the people are living here. We have to magnify this by the way and help people understand this is good. We need people living for Jesus and growing for Jesus. As architects, engineers, military people, police officers, counselors, coaches, insurance salesman, homemakers. We need Christians serving and growing and doing all these things. That’s where most Christians live.

I taught this at California Baptist University at a big students’ conference and a little girl I’ve known since she was four years old was there, she’s a college freshman then. She came down the aisle after this session, this first session, with tears streaming down her cheeks. I said, how can I help you? She said, Pastor Jeff, thank you so much. And I’m thinking, well, I’m not so sure I should be thanked, you’re crying your eyes out. I was like, well, why are you crying? She said because I’m not called. And I said, oh brother, she didn’t get a word I said. I said, well… But she goes, no, no, no, no, no, no. She said I got the first one. The first one you talked about. I got that one. I said, right. And she said, and that’s a haul. She was, my dad’s a pastor, my mom’s a worship leader. And everybody always says to me, oh, you’re gonna be like your mom and dad and be in the ministry. And I always say, no, I’m not, I wanna be a music teacher. That’s what I wanna be. And you told me today, Pastor Jeff, that’s okay. And I said, Baby, you did get it. Come here and get a hug You got it.

Look, if you’re here today and you walk right in this conference and you say, you know I have a universal call to Christian service and growth and I wanna express this in architect, engineer, school teacher, coach, I wanna go in the military. Go and be blessed. There’s nothing wrong with you. Not one thing. But you came today perhaps because of the second calling. You’re now investigating whether you have a general call to ministry leadership. What is this?

Well, this type of call is when God calls us to leadership, but we tend to give it confusing titles. Like we say, well, God’s called me to full-time Christian service. Well, duh, I just said He’s called every believer to that. So this is not a good description of this calling. Next one, He’s called me to vocational Christian service. Well, let me tell you what’s wrong with that phrase. It only works in the South. You know, I taught two Sunday nights ago in Thailand. But I didn’t teach in Thailand, I taught from Ontario, California. ‘Cause Gateway has classes in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong. And I was teaching by video conference a class in Thailand.

Listen, in most places in the world, there’s no such thing as vocational Christian service. There’s no salary, there’s no insurance, there’s no expense account. You preach and hopefully, they give you a chicken after the service for payment. Most Christians in the world won’t have any concept of this. So here’s what we say a lot at Gateway, if it’s not true in Singapore and Seattle, you can’t teach it. If it’s not true in Dar es Salaam and Dallas, you can’t teach it. It’s gotta be true everywhere. If it’s a Christian principle that we’re gonna live by. And so it’s not vocational Christian service that defines the call.

It’s not to serve the Lord full-time, we got that. It’s not even a call to preach. Now, I love preaching. I actually teach preaching occasionally at Gateway, and I preach almost every Sunday. But that doesn’t define my call. So what is the defining aspect of this call? Next slide. While all believers are called to serve and grow. Here it is, few are called to lead. And you see that in various passages in the Bible.

In John chapter one, a man named Peter came to faith in Jesus when his brother Andrew led him to the Lord. But he continued as a commercial fisherman for several months after that. Living out his first calling, serve and grow as a fisherman. But then in Luke chapter five, there’s a great story, you probably remember it. Is that story where Jesus is at the end, “I wanna make you a fisher of men.” Remember that story? Well, in that story, Jesus calls Peter to serve Him in a different capacity and to start taking leadership among the disciples, and here’s the part that yet you maybe don’t know, from that story in Luke five until the end of Jesus’s life, Peter is never portrayed, again, fishing, he’s only portrayed after that in leadership responsibilities. So here’s what happened to Peter. His brother led him to Jesus in John chapter one, we hear that story. That was his universal call to Christian service and growth. And some months later, Jesus said, “It’s time to stop fishing and start leading. I want you to take leadership of the 12 disciples.” And he did that.

The keyword in this slide is a general call to ministry leadership. It’s not about, whether you get a check, it’s not whether you’ve got a title, it’s not about whether you have an expense account or get your benefits paid. It’s not about any of that, it’s leadership. That’s why my wife has had a general call to ministry leadership since she was 12 years old. And she’s expressed that throughout her lifetime and only for a short time while we lived in Oregon, did she ever have a paid position of ministry leadership in a church.

For most of her life, she’s served as a volunteer, but she’s always been in leadership. Always been in leadership. Leadership as my partner at the seminary, but also leadership in her own right teaching conferences, leading people to learn how to do preschool ministry, teaching others, how to do children’s ministry. She’s had a leadership responsibility and she sees herself just like me, call to ministry leadership because leadership is the defining issue of this call. Is that making sense to you now?

Then finally, there is a specific call to a ministry assignment. And what is this? It means that ministry leadership is more than a job or a career. It’s an assignment that God gives and these ministry assignments may change several times over a lifetime. So if you’re putting my life on a big, long graph or a big, long chart, here’s what it looks like.

At 13, I received a universal call to Christian service and growth in the moment of my conversion. Five years later, I received a general call to ministry leadership, which I interpreted at that time that I was always gonna be a pastor. I was wrong. My general, the ministry leadership, wasn’t a call to be a pastor, it was a call to be a leader. To step forward as one of the 2% to 5% that are in leadership in the Christian community and give direction to the other 95%. I’ve done that in four different assignments in my lifetime.

I started out as a pastor, and then I became a church planter, then I became a denominational executive, and then I became a seminary president. And each of those times, God called me in a special way by giving me a profound impression that was it a superseding experience that moved me from one responsibility to another. So I guess you could say, in my now almost 50 years of being a Christian, that I’ve had six call experiences. My universal call to Christian service and growth, My general call to ministry leadership. And then four, specific moments when God met very clearly in my life, impressed me that He had a certain job He wanted me to do.

You’re somewhere on that continuum. Most of you who would invest a Saturday in an event like this have experienced a universal call to Christian service and growth. You’re a Christian. But you’re here today to discover if you have a general call to ministry leadership, and if God is calling you to step into a leadership role for Him and to take on that responsibility and that’s what we’re gonna help you sort out today.

Now, that’s just session one for me. In the next session, I’m gonna come back and talk about three ways God calls and show you a lot of different examples from the Bible and in life. And this afternoon, in my last session, I’m gonna just address some practical issues of discernment about this issue of call. Now, you get to go to breakouts and each of your breakout leaders is gonna talk about segments of this aspect of it and build on what we’re saying here today.

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