If you had asked Diana and I ten years ago if we wanted to plant a church we would have said a hard no. Church planting was not even on our radar. We knew it existed and that some people were doing it, many overseas but an increasing number in the West, but we had no ambitions to be church planters ourselves. We did not even know what that involved, and yet now we would tell you that church planting is what God has called us to, and that the Alta Vista ward in Ottawa is where God has called us to plant. How did we get here? Before I get into the details of our journey and what we have learned along the way, it seems necessary to explore this idea of the “call of God” because I feel like there is so much misunderstanding and anxiety around it, especially for young people, and yet it is a very real thing that needs to be understood, embraced, and enjoyed. The Christian life is an exciting adventure full of courageous risks.
The Call of God
In church circles we often talk about the “the call of God” or “God’s calling on your life”, but what does it mean to be “called”? God has called every Christian to many of the same things (loving neighbours and enemies, forgiving, making disciples, marital fidelity, holiness etc…), but there is also, I believe, a unique call that God has for each of His children, the thing that He made you to do for His glory and good pleasure and the advancement of His Kingdom. We see this everywhere in Scripture, judges being called, prophets being called, Paul being called as a missionary to the Gentiles and to plant churches in many major urban centres around the Middle East and Europe. Unique callings are everywhere, but how do you discern what your calling is? How does God call someone to something, and how do you know you’ve been called and you are not just following your own personal passions and interests?
I know a lot of people who would say that God does not speak anymore outside of the pages of the Bible illuminated by the Holy Spirit, but then I talk to some of those same people and they seem to know God wants them to write, sing, lead this ministry or launch that initiative, be in medicine, law, education, social work, or architecture. They sense that this is where God wants them and this is what He made them for, but how do they know? Clearly God is guiding people, prompting them in certain directions to make certain choices, but these directions are not coming from the pages of the Bible. You cannot ask the question, “should I study philosophy or neuroscience” and expect to get an answer from the apostle John or Paul or Peter. God calls every Christian to make disciples, but no one can read the Bible and say “I feel like I need to make disciples in Nigeria or Toronto.” Yet many Christians feel called to make disciples in certain cities, countries, and amongst certain people groups. There is a general call, “make disciples”, and then there is a specific, unique call, “you make disciples here.” Where does that come from? Does God speak to people in an audible voice? Should we look for signs? Can God give prophetic words through others to share with us? Does He communicate through inner promptings, a gut feeling that we should do this or that? Does He reveal His will through dreams and visions?
I’ve heard people say, wherever you feel most alive or wherever your passions lie, where you ache for more, that is where God is calling you. But not everyone experiences that clarity. For instance, one of my closest friends is a very skilled doctor, but he is also a talented musician, a creative, a natural leader and pastor, a gifted preacher and teacher, and an aspiring writer. He has varying degrees of passion for each of these things. Which is his calling? Or is it all of them?
I just met an Australian who felt God audibly say to him 15 years ago, “go to Canada”. He had no idea why, no idea when, no idea how, and for 15 years God clarified for him what he and his family were to do and He did this through visions, prophetic words, opportunities, experiences, encounters, and so forth. The call was revealed over 15 years by various means and about 2 years ago he felt a real urgency to “go now”, and by God’s enabling and miraculous provision, he, his wife, and his kids are in Ottawa and he is the pastor of a small church that has been praying for a pastor for the last, you guessed it, two years. That is wild!
I say all of this because I am not convinced God calls in a formulaic way. Nor do I believe that God only calls you to one thing, or that the thing God calls you to is what you are called to for life, or even that God reveals the whole of His call for you in a moment. And quite honestly I am not convinced we can always know in a moment what next step God wants us to take with our lives. Sometimes we end up doing something and we look back and see how God guided us to where we are and we just sort of find ourselves in the will of the Lord. Sometimes we have multiple good options in front of us and we just need to weigh the pros and cons of each, pray, ask, talk to trusted friends and coaches, listen well, and then make a choice and do something. Far too many young people are paralyzed, unable to commit to anything because they are not getting any clear directives from God, but is that how it is always supposed to work?
Growing up I always had this view of God’s call that went something like this- there are five options in front of you. None of them is an overtly evil choice, but only one of them is God’s actual will for your life and you have to discern, with minimal help, which one it is. If you choose wrong you are messed up for life. Yes God can redeem your poor choice and bring good out of your decisions, but you will go through the rest of your life not really experiencing God’s best, the life He really wanted you to have and now someone else has because God still needed to do that thing and so called somebody else who was clearly more discerning than you.
I have come to realize, thankfully, that this is absurd. This is not how it works. Some people do receive visions, are given prophetic words, hear an audible voice, have an overwhelming prompting to go here and do this (and I think God prompts us to do a lot of things every single day if we are sensitive to it), but I think for most people we pray and listen and think and make choices, and oftentimes it is not until we make those choices and step out in faith that we experience the kind of confirmation we have been looking for that this is where God wants me and this is what He made me for. Proverbs 16:9 certainly seems to confirm this: A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps. God knows where He wants us to go and He is going to get us there, but we have to make choices along the way.
God will get you to where He wants you
For many years my ambitions were all over the place. When I was a kid I wanted to be either a preacher, a farmer, or a comedian. Odd combination I know. When I was in high school, I wanted to be either a writer or a lawyer or somehow both like John Grisham. When contemplating my university education I thought about journalism, photo-journalism, law, and politics. I dabbled in religious studies, literature, and philosophy, but eventually settled on history (science tells us how life works but the humanities make life worth living they say). Initially I wanted to be a high school history teacher because history is absolutely fascinating and necessary but most youth hate it because it is taught so poorly (probably why most young people are completely ignorant of history and it seems to be repeating itself). But then I wanted to be a history professor, because I got pretty excited at the thought of being able to not only teach but also research and write, and for an introvert like myself a professorship seemed ideal, spending my days locked away in a room full of old books. Dreamy. But then I went to a conference in Toronto and heard John Lennox, the Oxford mathematician, philosopher, and ethicist give 3 life-changing, for me, talks on the beauty and veracity of the Christian faith and I wanted to become, first, a professor at a secular institution who could encourage Christian students in their faith and use his credentials to talk to academics, influencers, and change-makers who would otherwise never engage with the church, and then second, a full-time vocational apologist defending the coherence, integrity, and truthfulness of Christianity on university and college campuses and wherever.
As you can see I was all over the place. My wife is a saint, her future changed almost every week in those days and she was, and still is, tremendously patient with me. The only thing that stopped my plans to become an apologist by studying at Oxford with John Lennox, Ravi Zacharias, Alister McGrath, and others, was that my wife was not able to work in the UK as a nurse because she had not had enough domestic experience yet. As a result I had to figure out, do I go for my PhD in history (I had my Masters at this point) or do I dream something else up? It was in this season that I felt God moving me into vocational ministry in the church. What that looked like and how it started us down the road to church planting is the content of my next post, but I share all of this to show just how messy our journey towards God’s call has been. There was no audible voice. There was no moment when we just knew, but rather through a series of decisions made over time, with many mistakes along the way, God has given us greater and greater clarity and an increasing sense of peace and confidence and courage, and now I can look back and see how God brought my wife, my family, and I to where we are now.
I am 34.
Take courage. God will get you to where He wants you. Pray. Listen. Keep your eyes open. Make choices. Trust.