Called: How God Calls

Originally Posted on August 5, 2021

Webinar Transcript

A call is a profound impression from God, which establishes parameters for your life, which can only be altered by a subsequent superseding impression from God. And then after thinking about that definition just a bit, we focused on three different ways the word call is used in the Bible or the concept of call is described in the Bible. We just started with a universal call to Christian service and growth, which comes to every believer and can be fulfilled through any honorable vocation, but then 95 to 98% of believers receive that call and only that call, but a small number of us receive a secondary experience, a general call to ministry leadership and the qualifying word or the defining word or the important word in that statement is leadership. It’s not the paycheck, it’s not the position, it’s leadership. And then finally, if you’ve answered God’s general call to ministry leadership. Then you will have at least one and perhaps several experiences of calling to a specific ministry assignment.

So, this afternoon what I wanna talk about is how God calls, not the kinds of calls, but how you experience one of these. And then in my last session, I’m gonna talk about some discernment points to help you along the way.

Now, how does God call? Well, I studied all the call experiences I could find and categorize in the Bible. And I looked at how people experienced God in those contexts. And again, I discovered there were about three main categories of how God calls. And before I talk about these three categories, as separate and distinct aspects of how God calls, I wanna underscore that these things have soft edges. In other words, they’re not three rigid concrete silos. There are three categories with soft edges because sometimes our experiences with God, sort of blend together if you will. All right, everybody with me so far?

So, there are categories, but they’re not rigid silos. They’re more like categories to help us understand God’s way of working with us, but then some soft edges, sometimes they blend together, okay? So, there are three ways that I discovered that God calls. They are, first of all, a sudden experience, second, a reasoned decision, and third, the prompting of others. Now, let’s talk about each of these three categories because it’s in one of these categories that you likely became a Christian, one of these categories that you experienced, God’s general call to ministry leadership. And one of these categories is perhaps how God got you into that specific assignment where you are today or where you may be in the future.

So let’s talk about these in much more detail, first, a sudden experience. And I sometimes call this a crisis experience, because oftentimes the sudden experiences, are in the content text of a life crisis. A sudden experience with God is one way that he calls. Now some biblical examples.

First of all, in the Old Testament, there’s an example of a man named Moses, who met God at a burning bush. You probably heard this story, right? Moses is moving along. He sees a burning bush which is on fire, but not being consumed. And God speaks to him in that crisis moment with a sudden experience calling him to take on leadership responsibilities.

Here’s a second example from the New Testament. Paul from the book, from Acts chapter nine verses, starting in verse one. Now, you may remember this story. Paul was moving along through life, persecuting Christians and creating difficulty for the church. And then on a place called the road to Damascus, God intervened in his life with a blinding light and a loud voice and called Paul to leave his former life, became a Christian and start taking responsibility for leadership. Now, that’s an Old Testament example, a New Testament example. Sudden experience, crisis experience. But I also found another one of these that I wanna add to the list because it brings a little different perspective.

That’s the third one and that’s a fellow named Matthew. Now, you may not be as familiar with this story, but Jesus called Matthew, one of his 12 disciples who was a tax collector. Jesus walked up to his tax collection booth. And this is all the Bible says, Jesus, said, “Follow me.” And Matthew, the Bible says I got up and followed him. Now, the reason I add this one to the list is that while it’s sudden and it was definitely a crisis kind of moment because it was a moment of decision for Matthew. There’s nothing particularly flashy about this one. There’s no burning bush. There’s no blinding light, just Jesus very quietly indirectly saying, follow me. And Matthew got up and followed him.

The reason I add this one to the list is that sometimes these sudden crisis experiences can have some pretty strong supernatural components to them. But sometimes they’re just a little bit more like Matthew, a little bit more direct, a little bit more response, a little less flashy. So, the first way that God calls us is through a sudden experience.

Now, this was how God called me to be the executive director of the Northwest Baptist Convention. I was a pastor, that was my specific assignment calling at the time. And I thought I would be doing that for a long time to come. But in the summer of 1994, I got this letter in the mail that said I could get more life insurance for very low expense from what was then called the Annuity Board, now GuideStone, if I went and got a physical. So, I set a physical up with my doctor and I went in and I said, “Hey, I got wife and three kids, “and this is almost free insurance. “They’re expanding the program. “And I need a physical to see if I qualify.” And he said, “How long has it been since you had a full physical?” And I said, “I don’t know.” He goes, “Take off your clothes.” I’m like, “Oh, come on doc. “I don’t have time for this.”

Make a long story very short. I had cancer and didn’t know it. So, that put me on a path of cancer surgeries and recovery over the summer of 1994. I had the first surgery. They didn’t think I would really have cancer. They did it kind of an exploratory thing. And five days later, they call me and said you have cancer. That was a really hard day. I was a pastor, I had three small children. I was very active and busy and committed and all of those kinds of things. And to be told that I had thyroid cancer, I had to have a second surgery in five days and they told me I might never speak again stressful day.

Well, I found out that in the morning, I had to have surgery that night. I went to the hospital that afternoon. I was taken into surgery in the evening. And just before they took me into surgery, they left me alone in a little room as they were preparing for everything. And it was my really first time to have a quiet moment for the whole all day. And so, I prayed this kind of prayer. I said, “Father, why is this happening to me? “I mean, we prayed I wouldn’t have cancer and I have cancer. “And we prayed I wouldn’t need surgery “and now I’m having two. “And we prayed I wouldn’t lose my voice. “And now they’re telling me I’m might never speak again. “Father, why is this happening to me?”

Now understand the tone of voice. I’m not saying, “God, why is this happening to me?” I was really seeking and asking with humility and honesty, “God, what’s happening here? “Why is this happening to me?” Now, at the same time, this summer was unfolding. This group had contacted me and me to leave my church and become the director of Northwest Baptist Convention. That’s like the Alabama State Board of Admission. So, the Alabama Baptist Group, they were wanting me to lead that for the States of Washington and Oregon. And I said, “Lord, I’m too young for that. “I don’t know what I would be doing. “I’ve never thought about a job like that.” And so I was saying no to that. And then I got cancer and then I prayed that prayer.

Now, what happened next, has only happened to me once in my life. But it happened that day and when I said, “God, what’s happening to me?” God answered my question. His presence filled the room in a way that I never experienced before and he spoke to me, I don’t know if it was audible or not, but it sure sounded pretty clear. And he said, “Jeff, you belong to me. “You don’t belong to your church or your family “or your dreams for your future. “You belong to me.” And then I said, “Father does this mean I’m leaving everything “and going to work in the convention?”

And God answered again, “Jeff, I’ll take you into and out of what I choose. “You belong to me.” And then God’s presence left that room. And I laid there thinking, “I’m leaving my church. “I’m going to a new life in ministry. “I’m doing something I never thought of before. “I’m not gonna die of cancer “and I’m not gonna lose my voice.” And I went into surgery thinking about all of that, which I’ve just described to you. That’s what I mean by a sudden experience, where I had a moment with God that I’ve had only once in my lifetime, where God clearly said you are changing directions, a sudden experience.

Now, let’s look at the second one, a reasoned decision. I call this a contemplative process. Now, are there examples in the Bible? Yeah, here’s one. Paul received what’s called a Macedonian call in Acts 16, 6 through 10. And a lot of you know, a little bit about this story. Paul in Acts 16:10 saw a vision of a man from Macedonia saying, come over and help us. And he did that. But you have to read the previous verses to get the full picture because here’s what those verses say.

They say, Paul went to Bithynia and the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let him go there. And he tried to go to Mysia and the holy spirit prevented him. And there are all these stories, about verses about where Paul trying to go and how God wouldn’t let him. And I read that one day and I realized those verses, I can read them in about 30 seconds. They probably took weeks if not months to happen. So, Paul and his team are wandering around Asia Minor, “Where we’re supposed to go?” “I don’t know, where do you wanna go? “I don’t know, let’s try it with here. “They won’t let us go there. “What about over there? “God didn’t want us to go there either. “How about over here? “I don’t see the door opening.” This is going on for weeks before they finally concluded, they were supposed to go to Macedonia. And this is one of those soft edges moments.

There’s this long reasoned process that brings them up to kind of a sudden experience with God in this vision, I get that, but I don’t want you to miss the first part, the reasoned process. The thinking it through, the trying different options and different possibilities and going different places and being turned back and restarted and turned back and restarted, until they finally got where God wanted them to be, a reasoned process.

Here’s another one. Also Paul in Acts 19:21, Paul received a message from God that he’s supposed to go to Rome. And you say, “Well, he probably got on his way to Rome.” No, he did. He got put in prison. And after he was in prison for two years, you know what he did, he appealed to Caesar. He said, what? Yeah, he was in prison for two years. He wasn’t getting to go anywhere. He wasn’t making any headway going getting to Rome where he knew he was supposed to be. And so he had a long time to think about it for two years in prison. And he finally got the opportunity and they said to him, do you have anything to say? And he said, “Yeah, I appealed to Caesar.” They’re like, “Whoa, no, “you don’t wanna do that. “Because if you go to Caesar, “only one of two things happen. “Either you get set free or you die. “And that keeps people “from appealing to Caesar capriciously, okay?” The Paul’s like, “I know that, “I’ve thought about it for two years. “I appeal to Caesar.” Why? Because I have got to get to Rome. That’s where God called me.

A reasoned process. So you say, “Well, God probably picked him up, “evaporated him, moved into Rome “and re-materialized him.” No, God put him on a ship and sailed him. So the slow boat, if you will to Rome, but he got there by reasoned process, he figured it out legally, “I can get there if I appeal to Caesar “and I’ll go on a boat, “they’ll put me on one and they’ll get me there.” Months and months of thinking, leading to weeks and weeks of travel. But he finally got where he was supposed to be. A reasoned process.

Now, an example. For me, I had a reasoned process call, when I became a church planter. Here’s how that happened. I was pastoring a church and I was in a doctoral program in Missions and Evangelism, which is the field I studied. And so I was working on my doctorate and I’m learning about missions and evangelism. And I’m having my mind expanded into all the possibilities of places I could go and things I could do. And over a period of several months of reasoned processing, thinking, praying, reading, studying paper writing, I came to conclude that God wanted me to leave the Midwest and moved to the West Coast and plant what I called a current church in a major city, on the Western Coast of the United States.

You said, well, how’d you come up with all that? Reasoned process, thought about it for about 6 to 12 months, prayed over it, wrote papers about it, read books about it, talked it over with lots of mentors and leaders and possible people like that. But then how did I get to Portland, Oregon? Well, I wrote a letter to the Home Mission Board and said, I wanna go plant a church in the West. And they said, okay. And then they said where do you want to go? And I said I don’t know. And so I’m still writing and working on my doctorate. So, I go to a conference like this one and the speaker is talking about now get this, how do you use telemarketing to find prospects in the process of church planting? This was in the 1980s when telemarketing was not a nuisance yet.

And so I went to this guy’s conference and I heard him teaching about this. And I thought that’s fascinating. So, afterward, I went up to him and I said, “Hey, I’m thinking about planting a church. “And I’ve been working on it for about a year, “just thinking it through “and trying to figure out where I wanna go. “And I think you work in the West, right?” He goes, “Yeah, I’m responsible for church planting “in Washington and Oregon.” I’m like, “Really? “Do you want to have lunch?” I said, sure. So, just like at the conference, we go out there and we get our Chick-fil-A and we were talking about church planting in Washington and Oregon. I’m telling him my story, he’s listening. And then he finally says, “I got the spot for you. “It’s Gresham, Oregon, a suburb of Portland.” “I got a small group that is ready to plant right now. “And they’re looking for a pastor just like you, “would you consider it?” Okay and that was in about October.

I finally went out there in January, February, looked it over, thought about it, came back, and talked to my wife about it. She was nine months pregnant and we’ve both agreed if the baby comes and the baby’s healthy and there are no restrictions. We’re going to Oregon. You say, did you see a burning bush? Nope. Blinding light, no. Jesus comes to you at the tax booth. Nah, it didn’t happen. Like that story you told us about having cancer and in the hospital, did God speak to you? Never did. I spent over a year in a long reasoned process and finally concluded, God wants us in Oregon. Everything I’m studying, everything I’m learning. Every person I’m meeting, everything’s pointing to one place, plant the church in Oregon. So, we moved as a result of a reasoned process. Number three, the third way is what I call the prompting of others or the community initiative.

Now, this one makes me a little nervous. So stay with me. I don’t like people telling me, “God told me,” does that scare you just a little bit? When someone walks up to you and says, “God told me.” That scares me. I don’t like that. So, when I first discovered this in the Bible, I was a little reluctant, but there’s examples in the Bible of God, using someone else to call a person.

An Old Testament example is Samuel. He went to call David to be king. He went to this house and he said, “Do you have any sons? And he said, “I got a bunch of them.” Add them up. I think he went through seven. And he said, “No, he got another one?” He goes, “Well, I got the kid he’s out there, “taking care of the sheep, get him in here.” David walks in young guy, sheep, the last of the sons, left in the field to take care of the sheep. And Samuel says, “You’re the anointed of God. “You’re gonna be king.” What do you think David thought? Me? You’re the anointed of God, you’re gonna be a king.

Then the New Testament, there’s an example in the book of Acts 13, it’s at the Church of Antioch. And here’s what the Bible says. It says, “The church was worshiping the Lord and fasting “when the Holy Spirit said, ‘set aside Paul and Barnabas for mission work.'” Now, Paul and Barnabas were in the service, but God didn’t speak to them. He spoke to someone else. It says, “The Holy Spirit said, ‘tell Paul and Barnabas.'” How’d that go down? Something like this, they’re singing, they’re praying. And the worship leader stops and say’s, “Does anybody have a word of testimony or encouragement?” Somebody stands up and says, “Well, I feel the Lord impressing me “to say that Paul and Barnabas were supposed “to leave our church and go on a mission trip, “whatever that is. “I don’t even know what that is.” There’s never been a mission trip until that moment in the history of the church, okay? And the worship leaders say, “Yeah, thank you for the word. “Let’s sing a little more.” As they sign a little more and he stops and says, “Anybody has another word?” Somebody stands and say, “Well, I don’t know what a mission trip is, “I haven’t ever heard of that before. “But I do know this. “God’s impressing me to tell Paul and Barnabas, “you’re supposed to leave our church “and go plant more churches around the Mediterranean world.” Paul and Barnabas are sitting there like, “What in the world is going on? “How come everybody is hearing from God but us?” But the church was telling them, this is what God wants.

Now, as I said because I’m rather independent-minded. And you probably figured that out already. I don’t like people telling me what to do. And I don’t like people telling me, God told me. So, when I discovered in the Bible that sometimes God sends people to tell us that he’s calling us. I thought last never gonna happen to me. Well, it did. So now, I’ve left the pastoring. I’m executive director for 10 years in the Northwest and Gateway Seminary was a president who has been there a long time and a good friend, mentor for me. And then one day a person says to me, “Hey, I wanna tell you something. “I think God might want you to be the president “of Gateway Seminary someday.” And I said, “Right, they have a president. “We don’t need to talk about that.” He said, “No, I’m serious Jeff. “I think you ought to be praying about it. “I think God may use you to do that someday.” I’m like, “This is nuts.”

Well, fast forward the story, over the next year to 15 months, I had 10 different people come to me and say the same thing. And I started asking them, “Have you talked to anybody else about this? “Is this just your idea, “where are you getting this?” And I’m not talking about just weird, flippant kind of comments. I’m talking about serious leaders in the Western United States. People that I respected and looked up to. One of them even made an appointment, came to my office wearing a suit. And he goes, I said, dude, a suit. He goes, “Yeah, it’s a serious, “I got something to tell you.” I’m like, “Okay.” “I think God wants you to be the next president “of Gateway Seminary. “And I hope you’ll be open to it if they ask you.” And I’m like, “What is going on with this?” 10 people and then one day, the trustees of Gateway Seminary called me and they said, “You’ve been recommended to us. “And you’re one of our leading candidates. “Would you meet with us about becoming our president?” And I said to my wife, “This is the last step. “If this group of trustees, “feel like I’m supposed to be president, “I’m gonna believe the church is saying to me, “this is the job for you.” So,

I never had a sudden experience. Didn’t really have much of a reasoned process. No reasonable person would take this job let me tell you. But I did have a prompting of others, because people that I respected said to me, “You ought to be thinking about this. “I think God’s gonna call you to do it. “You’re the right guy for the job.” And then ultimately the trustees voted, not unanimously by the way but overwhelmingly, there were a couple that were not sure I was the one, but 30 plus were. They voted overwhelmingly to say, “We believe God wants you to take this job. “Will you come and see serve as our president?”

Now, this last one’s tricky, because I’m not talking about your grandma’s saying, “You’d make a good preacher.” I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about serious people that you respect and your grandmother may be one of those, but you know what I’m trying to say here I think. I’m talking about pastors and deacons and spiritually mature people in your life, who come to you and say, “I see something in you. “Have you ever thought about ministry? “Have you ever thought about ministry leadership? “Have you ever thought about serving God in this capacity “of some leadership responsibility? “I see it in you. “Have you ever thought about that? “Pray about it. “Think about it.” That’s what I’m saying is the prompting of others at this juncture in your lives.

So, before we go to breakout, let’s get it in our minds, there are three primary categories of the ways God calls. He calls through sudden experiences like Moses, Paul, and Matthew, and like me. He calls through a reasoned process where you just work on it for a while and come to a conclusion like Paul did on a couple of occasions was in his life. And then third, through the prompting of others, where sometimes people come to you and say, “Have you thought about ministry leadership? “This might be something God would have you do “or something God would want you to do.”

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