Photo by Alex Ward.
Helpful insights from Fuller President Mark Labberton
“You must be called to that.”
“You were made for this!”
“Find your calling, and everything will unfold from there.”
Our kids get all kinds of confusing messages about calling, gifts, career, and vocation. What’s more, calling tends to get mixed up with our anxiety about college, scholarships, career, and financial success in adulthood. In other words, my kids’ ability to “find their calling” and launch a career often can feel like a direct reflection on my parenting skills.
I’ve noticed as a parent that I often feel a tension between two poles when it comes to my kids and calling: On the one hand I want to stay silent and let them figure it out, careful not to over-affirm a gift or pursuit for fear it might feel like pressure. On the other hand, I want to point out things my kids are good at, ways they excel, and the sparks I observe that come to life in them.
I’m caught between wanting to affirm and empower, but not proclaim or pressure. Wanting to name what I see, but not force any of my kids into a mold. The other day my twelve year-old said, “I’m not really sure what I want to be yet,” and my first reaction was to blurt out, “You don’t have to know! You have plenty of time to explore that.” In hindsight, I’m not really sure that’s what she needed from me.
But I’m not really sure what would have been more helpful, either.
In the midst of this ambiguity about calling and vocation steps Mark Labberton. A parent, pastor, scholar, and now Fuller’s President, Mark’s new book entitled Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today draws on scripture to give parents a helpful framework for developing our kids’—and our own—sense of calling.
What Calling Is—And What it Isn’t
It might be helpful to start by describing what calling is not. Calling is not just about work, or a specific job. It is beautiful when work and calling line up well, but this synergy isn’t always part of real life.
Call is also not just about “me.” Our American individualism sets us up to see everything through “me-colored” glasses, but God invites us to remove those lenses to see something bigger.
What is call, then? Call is about flourishing, about becoming all we were created to be. But it’s not just for our own good—it’s for the good of all. Call is something that all of God’s people experience, and is meant to be grounded in shared vocation in community.
Most centrally, Labberton grounds his understanding of calling in Jesus’ words to “Come, follow me.” When Jesus makes this invitation, it is not simply about spiritual salvation. It’s much more. “The heart of God’s call is this: that we receive and live the love of God for us and for the world.”
This understanding of calling is also rooted in Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:36-40 about the greatest commandment: ““‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
So at the core, we can help our kids explore call as following Jesus toward loving God and loving others.
Two Ways to Reframe Calling for Our Kids
1. Relocate Call as Real-time Discipleship in Exile
Where are we called? Sometimes those of us who happen to be born into dominant culture in the U.S. (white, educated, middle/upper class) are raised to see our faith as a way to help fulfill our dreams. These dreams are squarely centered in the American Dream of getting, having, claiming, and buying in order to procure happiness. Christian consumers have a hard time awakening to our “Promised Land” approach to faith and life in America. Our tendencies to think of America as the land of God’s blessing and opportunity might actually cloud our ability to see where we really live.
Labberton counters that we are not in fact living in the Promised Land but in exile. Exile is the biblical image for God’s people living as strangers in a strange land. Christianity is not the prevailing influence in the culture in which we are raising our children. This doesn’t mean we need to run away or hide from the world, but instead to love it and seek God within it. The words of the prophet Jeremiah to a people in exile ring out to us, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer 29:7)
This gives us a provocative image of real-time discipleship. Labberton shares, “Every believer and every community of believers needs to recover our identity as followers of Jesus and learn to practice it in daily life, in the context of the real world.” It turns out that this call isn’t about winning or having it all. Instead it is about serving, and about following the humble downward journey of Jesus to the cross. Teaching our children verses like, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11) can disrupt visions of the American Dream, but probably only if we consider their implications for our own lives as well.
Encourage your kids to think about what it might look like at school or on their sports teams to serve others in simple ways. Talk with your kids about the ways faith influences your work and your involvement in the community. Consider volunteering together with your family at a local food pantry, home for teen moms, or a ministry that serves refugees or immigrants in your community. Engaging marginalized people—and the systemic issues that impact them—can open up great conversations about living as Christ’s people in the midst of exile.
2. Refocus Call Within Community
To whom and to what am I called? Young people need to know not only how they can find that out, but where and with whom they can explore these conversations.
For various reasons, our congregation has often become a safe haven for young adults who are tired of trying to figure out their call alone. I asked Sonia, one of our pastors, to share some of the backstory of how we began to create groups that intentionally explore questions of vocation together. Sonia explained that the leadership group began observing a general tendency among members in their twenties to question everything:
They wanted to tear down the expectations that had been established for their lives by American culture, family systems, and evangelical church culture. Their questions were often coupled with depression and a lack of confidence in whatever transitions they were in the midst of—finishing college or graduate school, experiencing broken relationships, traveling (and often serving the poor) abroad and finding their view of the world and of themselves dismantled.
In response, the congregation gathered a group including the pastor, a young professional, a psychologist, a theologian, a college graduate, a stay-at-home mother, and a working mother. These seven grappled with things of vocation. Out of those conversations and stories they developed a 20-week “vocation group” process.
We don't pretend to have direct answers for discerning another's calling, but we commit to journey alongside them. As we developed a curriculum, we found it necessary to bridge together our memories and hopes as persons, the tasks that we do for work, and our membership and participation in the body of Christ. One outcome for us was an articulation that vocation, in the Christian community, cannot be separated from discipleship. So we created these groups to explore vocation together as a shared journey.
Labberton also emphasizes the importance of working out vocation within community. In our culture we often simultaneously seek and avoid community, and most teenagers feel this tension exponentially in that they are constantly wrestling with exploring their identity in relation to themselves and others. This makes “community” a tricky construction, and often ends up being more like a house of cards. Moving from mere connection to true communion with one another is a challenge of our time, embodied in most of our churches in the struggle to move from proximity to actual relationship. Being near one another and being truly known are two very different things.
One of the best gifts we can give our kids, then, is our help in creating a supportive web of relationships with both peers and adults. It’s from within this interconnected web that calling often emerges and begins to be lived out. Parents can become catalysts for this type of community by connecting their kids with adults who share some of their interests, or who live out their calling in varying ways that might inspire kids with contours of call beyond your family. Sometimes “my” vocation can only be discovered in the midst of “our” shared vocation.
Now that we’ve relocated our discovery of call within the context of exile and of the faith community, in Part 2 of this series we will explore three pathways for helping our kids walk in their calling.
- Explore the idea of “exile” with your kids. What does it feel like to live their faith day to day in their schools and other contexts as followers of Jesus? When does it come easy, and when does it feel like a challenge?
- Look at biblical stories where vocation plays in. Jesus’ calling of his first disciples is embarrassingly filled with unlikely vocation changes: fishermen, tax collectors, Pharisees become followers of Christ. Earlier, the shepherd David becomes a king. The exiled Jewish girl Esther becomes queen of Persia. Alongside our love for planning the future, are we willing and open to the surprising disruption God might bring to our call?
- What adults are already in your kids’ lives who could help explore elements of calling? Based on their interests, passions, and gifts, are there other adults who might be helpful dialogue partners for your son or daughter? What next step could you take this week to nurture the extended faith web around your kids?
 Mark Labberton, Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2014), 14.
 Labberton, 55.
 Labberton, 39.