Vocation Rhetoric – Part 2: What is Vocation?

In the last post I argued that Christians within our American culture seem to view the work we do as individuals through an occupation-centric paradigm. To re-cap, I think that we tend to put emphasis on the work that people get paid for — the occupations/careers that make up the socio-economic system of the country and culture in which we live. As a bi-product, I think we have lost sight of the significance of vocation-minded work, especially if it is unpaid or does not fit into our economic framework for how individuals contribute to society. We do not talk about “vocation” or distinguish it from one’s occupation. In fact, I would argue that most American Christians use the words synonymously, if the word “vocation” is even part of their vocabularies.

We need to reignite an understanding of what vocation is and why it is so much more fundamental to our purpose as followers of Christ than our chosen occupations. To do this we need to first examine definitions and basic etymology.

I have to acknowledge that cultural use of these terms over the centuries has contributed significantly to a vague etymology, but examining dictionary origins of vocation and occupation highlight stark distinctions. The root meaning of the word “vocation” is “a call or summons.” In many cases it has been used to describe a divine call to a specific course of action or religious lifestyle. The term “occupation” carries more of a utilitarian function in describing the “means of earning a living.” In short, occupation describes and categorizes an individual according to that person’s function within society; vocation goes much deeper to philosophically orient an individual’s meaning and purpose according to an overarching worldview. For Christians, an understanding of vocation comes from viewing our meaning and purpose in the world as citizens of the Kingdom of God first and foremost.

But here’s where things have gotten off track. Contemporary Christians, particularly younger protestants, have rarely (perhaps never) been discipled to have a vocational understanding of their place in the world. They have, however, been counseled extensively on bringing their Christian values into the marketplace. There is plenty of emphasis on bringing your Christian values into your chosen occupations, into the economic societal framework. While Christian values and ethics may positively impact marketplace occupations, it is imbalanced to emphasize occupational work as the most significant work a Christian does within the framework of living out the gospel.

One of the main reasons I see emphasizing occupation as problematic is that we tend to compartmentalize personally “living out the gospel” in the context of our chosen career or occupation. In other words, we fit “Christian work” in the already set framework of our career. The outcome, in may occupations, results in basic workplace ethics — the golden rule, honesty and ethical business dealings in general.

But what about the work of the gospel that doesn’t fit into an occupational framework? I fear we lose sight of it quickly. For example, in what occupations is a framework already in place for “caring for widows and orphans” (James 1:27)? In what career setting would the Good Samaritan’s actions on the road to Jericho be part of a normal workday at the office? When we emphasize occupational work (which can be good in and of itself) above our vocational calling as Christians, I believe we mostly lose sight of the kind of work Christ cares most about. I believe we can easily compartmentalize the gospel and make living it out adaptable to our already comfortable lives. We need to recapture — as American Christians — our vocational call. But what is it?

I was recently with Catholic friends of mine at one of their family gatherings in celebration of their son’s First Communion. I overheard a conversation between my friend and his younger brother, and judging from the conversation I would say that this family had a strong sense of a vocational narrative that they grew up with in their Christian culture. My friend said to his brother (who was in college and trying to determine the direction of his life), “You just need to hear from God on your vocational call.” What he meant by that was that his brother (within the Catholic culture) had two vocational trajectories from which to choose: (1) the celibate life of a priest, devoted to living out the gospel in that form of service, or (2) the life of a husband and father, devoted to advancing the Kingdom of God through a faithful marriage and raising children to serve the Lord as well. His brother’s occupation, whatever he may choose (and whatever work comes with it), was second in importance to the work that is part of fulfilling that vocational call.

Obviously, the distinction between those two trajectories would be different in Protestant cultures. However, having a vocational narrative that young people grow up familiar with is vital to every Christian culture. I believe that Christians currently have a view of work and an emphasis on occupation that is not much different than that of most non-Christians. There is little emphasis on a vocational call to live out the gospel. We have to reignite that narrative so that Christian youth preparing for college and life as adults have no confusion about what their vocational call is as believers.

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