We’ve probably all heard some version of the “G.P.-call-to-preach” story. A youthful man was standing in a field. When looking up he saw the letters “G. P.” configured in the clouds. Spiritual youth that he was, he thought it meant “Go, Preach!” and left the field and went to the house, telling his father he had been called to preach. “No, son,” the practical father replied, “that meant ‘Go, Plough!’ Get back out in that field and get back to work.”
Awhile back I read a blog post written to remove some of the mysticism surrounding the idea of “the call to preach” – as well as make sure to not add non-biblical requirements for the ministry. The author recommended Do You Feel Called By God: Rethinking the Call to Ministry by Michael Bennett (which I have not read).[i] I applaud as a worthy goal attempting to remove ambiguity surrounding the call to preach, but the article may have added as much obscurity as it took away. The thoughts seemed to run away from any idea of a call to preach. One of the commenters even advised those who think they might want to preach to give it a try and see if they like it. I want to investigate the proposition briefly (and I may also be guilty of adding as much obscurity as I take away, though I hope not).
In Is God Calling Me?: Answering the Question Every Leader Asks, Jeff Iorg asserts that God calls in three ways: 1.) sudden or dramatic experiences, 2.) reasoned decisions, and 3.) the prompting of others.[ii] He also allows that there can be a combination of any or all of the three.[iii] Comparing Iorg’s points with accounts of God’s call in the Bible suggests he has developed a reasonably biblical categorization. We can consider various calls recorded in the Bible and see how they fit within these. Some that Iorg suggest are:
- Dramatic experiences – Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3) and Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-20).
- Reasoned decisions – several events in Paul’s ministry leading up to his going into Macedonia (He was prevented from going into Asia; tried to go to Bithynia; had a dream and through all this concluding or “assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them.” Acts 16:6-10)
- Prompting of others – Samuel going to David (1 Samuel 16:1-13), and God leading the church at Antioch regarding Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-4).
There is the call to future separation recorded in the Scriptures (that is, God announces to a person that he has a future work in store).
- A call through vivid experience and prompting of another: God revealed to Samuel, even when he was still a child, that he had a future purpose or work. 1 Samuel 3:3-4 and ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep; that the Lord called Samuel: and he answered, Here am I. (Cf. 1 Samuel 3:11-14). This call included a dramatic experience as well as the prompting/instructions of Eli the priest.
There is the call to prophetic service recorded in the Scriptures.
- A call through vivid experience: Isaiah’s call from God came through a vivid experience and a dramatic vision (Isaiah 6:1-8). Moses call through vivid experience (i.e., the burning bush) also included the response of community (Cf. Exodus 3:3-18).
- A call through thoughtful response and appropriate decision, including the prompting of others: Elisha the prophet was called by Elijah the prophet (1 Kings 19:19-20) (Cf. also Jeremiah 1:3-16, Amos 7:14).
There is the call to apostolic office recorded in the Scriptures.
- A call through vivid experience: Paul’s conversion and call to the apostolic office both occurred in his dramatic encounter with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-22; Cf also Romans 1:1 and 1 Corinthians 9:16).
- A call through thoughtful response and appropriate decision: The Lord’s call to his apostles during his earthly ministry was direct and specific, yet not obviously dramatic as the burning bush experience of Moses or the Damascus road experience of Paul (Cf., for example, Matthew 9:9)
- A call through community action: Matthias’s call and installation in the apostolic office occurred through the leadership of the apostle Peter and action of the church, fulfilling Scripture and guided by lots (Acts 1:15-26).
There is the call to specific service recorded in the Scriptures.
- A call through vivid experience: Peter was called to preach to the household of Cornelius through means of a dramatic vision (Acts 10), which was also confirmed through the experience of Cornelius (Acts 10:30-33).
- A call through thoughtful response and appropriate decision: Acts 20:28 teaches that the Holy Ghost made elders the overseers over the church of God at Ephesus, but without indicating in what manner he had done so. Oversight is to be taken willingly, according to 1 Peter 5:2. Simply seeing the need might at times compel us into service (John 4:35; 2 Corinthians 5:14).
- A call through community action: The elders ordained in Acts 14:22-24 seems to have been at the prompting of the apostles and church community. Acts 13:1-4
- combines community action and the direct leading of the Holy Ghost. Notice also the community action through Paul and Titus in Titus 1:5.
In addition to the biblical accounts, here are some Baptist historical accounts regarding the call of God.
Morgan Edwards’s instructions in Customs of Primitive Churches
“VII. A man becomes a minister by three operations of God; the first is, his impressing on the partie’s mind a sense of his special designation of him for the ministry, usually termed an inward call; the second is, endowing him with ministerial qualifications; some of which are natural, as good sense, proper utterance, meek temper, & some are moral, specified both negatively and positively in the epistles of Timothy and Titus; some are evangelical, as aptness to teach, spirit of prayer, gospel learning, & the last is, his influencing the church to introduce him to the ministry, styled an outward call, which implies election, ordination, and instalment. These three operations of God are essential to the being of a regular and authoritative minister.”
The call through vivid experience:
In Let the Church Sing!: Music and Worship in a Black Mississippi Community, Thérèse Smith writes of Grady McKinney of Clear Creek Missionary Baptist Church – of whom she says was “an exceptionally gifted preacher. At its best, McKinney's preaching rivals any that I have heard...Rev. Grady McKinney delivers sermons that are compelling, poetic and lyrical.” McKinney, who was 31 years old, married with children, and didn’t want to be a preacher, related his experience of the call to preach this way: “One day I was laid down across bed, and I don’t know was I asleep or awake, and something appeared and said unto me, ‘If you don’t preach, you won’t be here long. I ain’t arguing no more.’ That settled it! I said to the Lord, ‘Now, Lord, you know more than I know.’ And I was ready to go. I been ready ever since, but sometime I feel like quitting I get so discouraged. If the Lord ‘nointed you to do something, you can’t quit.”
The experience of Wilson Thompson is told this way (History Of The Church Of God, From The Creation To A.D. 1885; C. B. and Sylvester Hassell, pp. 630-31.):
“One night after all had retired, and the fire had burned down, and all was dark save a faint gleam from the brands and coals, a shadowy form seemed to approach him, bend over him, and say, “I know your trouble, and your great desire to know what you should do; and I have come to tell you. Read the sixth and tenth chapters of Matthew, and to every sentence answer, ‘I am the man,’ and you will soon come to know your duty.” This was done and said three times. He believed that the appearance was not literal, but a vision (Acts ii.17,18). The next morning he slipped off with the Bible to a secret place, and did as directed, but could not be satisfied. (The sixth chapter of Matthew, it may be remarked, emphasizes the inward, spiritual, filial, heavenly character of true religion; while the tenth chapter contains Christ’s commission to His Apostles to go, fearless of man and dependent upon God, and preach to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.) His mind became greatly exercised on the Scriptures. He finally told his feelings to his pastor, and the latter related them to the church, which at once gave him license to exercise his gifts in any way or at any time within the bounds of the North Bend Association. His first text, Feb., 1810, was John x.2,3.”
The call through thoughtful response and appropriate decision:
“We returned in the spring, and the church called me forward to preach, at which I have continued for more than fifty years...I have said above I could get no satisfactory answer, as to my call to the ministry. My present impressions are, that the call lies in a good man’s motives to the work, and the call of the church. If a christian has preaching talents, and the church says preach, he may go on safely. This is my call, and for no other do I look at present, though in my youth I laboured long for evidences of my call, of which a visionary something would then have satisfied me.” (From John Taylor’s History of Ten Baptist Churches)
The call through community action (in which the church/congregation/assembly sees the need and the gift and does not continue wait for the person to respond to the call):
James Robinson Graves: “There were those in the church who had the insight to descern [sic] his abilities. He was called on to lead the Sunday morning service in the absence of one of the monthly visits of the pastor. He preached―though he did not know it. The church licensed him to preach really without having his consent; and soon after called for his ordination.
“It was a trying time to him as we have heard him say. His idea of a minister was high. His estimates of his own power as a speaker were small. Indeed, with all the heroic fearlessness which distinguished his life, he was always bashful, sometimes to awkwardness when he arose to speak...His bashfulness, often the sign of greatness, made him shrink from becoming a preacher, although within his soul was the belief that God had called him to the work.
“However, his consent was gained and his ordination to the ministry decided upon.” (From Life, Times and Teachings of J. R. Graves, by Samuel H. Ford, 1899)
“Sat. before the 3rd Sabbath in Nov. 1867
“...The church requested Bro. William Sparkman to quit his school room and devote his time to the preaching of the gospel...”[iv] (From Mt. Carmel Church minutes book)
“Mt. Carmel Church Rusk Co. Tex. Feb. 10th 1868
After preaching by “Elder W. M. Sparkman the church came together in conference.”
The combined presence of giftedness, God’s providential opening doors of opportunity, and affirmation & encouragement from others may converge in understanding the witness of the call of God. The call to preach from Jesus Christ through his Spirit can be confirmed with the help of these means:
- The individual’s conscience, through inner desire and conviction
- The congregation’s recognition and affirmation
- The presbytery’s confirmation through laying-on-of-hands
There is a call to ministry. The call to the gospel ministry “is an expression of the divine will that a man should preach the gospel.” There are a variety of calls found in Scripture. The presence of this variety should caution us against laying down rules and ways to which the experiences of everyone are expected to conform (1 Peter 4:10).[v]
[i] The blogger says that “Bennett devotes a few chapters to showing that all throughout the Bible there is no inner-call.” Without reading Bennett, it is hard to understand just what that means. I don’t know what Scripture he is interacting with. There are calls referenced in the New Testament, as well as compulsion – the kind that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 9:16. When Al Mohler wrote “Has God Called You? Discerning the Call to Preach” in 2013, he used the expression “inward call,” indicating even some Southern Baptist academics are not uncomfortable with the terminology.
[ii] Pages 33-44. Iorg’s three ways might also be expressed as called through crisis, contemplation, and/or community. These ways that God calls might also be reduced to two categories: 1.) Extraordinary (e.g., by special revelation) and 2.) Ordinary (e.g., through Divine providence, circumstances).
[v] The tendency in the academic world, in my opinion, is to discount the vivid experience in favor of the thoughtful response. The call comes quietly, the response is reasonable – and they often have academic qualifications to (supposedly) show for their call, and some may disdain those who do not have their qualifications. The farmer-preacher on the other hand may seek (or at least hope for) a vivid experience to stand for the so-called “qualifications” he does not have. Both these positions are extreme, and the call to ministry is ultimately a tale that is told with proof being in the pudding.