Resilient disciples: Why we need vocational discipleship

Editor’s note: This is the second part of our interview between David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, and Matt Rusten, executive director at Made to Flourish. Barna recently released a new study, Christians at Work, which explores how Christians relate to their workplace lives, and how their faith intersects with the rest of their lives. One main theme of this research centers around vocational discipleship. If you missed the first part of the interview you can find it here.

MR: So are pastors and churches changing the way they equip people to live out their faith and their daily work? Is it on the typical pastor’s radar? Are they making any significant adjustments in what they think of as “ministry” or “discipleship”?

DK: The data shows a mixed bag. There are a lot of good signs and green shoots of effort that are popping up through the brown dirt. I think those should be watered and nurtured and carefully tended. I think we see a lot of places where, because pastors are so focused on the particular moment or the particular issues of their lives, we see in the state of pastors today about seven out of 10 pastors say the most rewarding part of their work is preaching. So it’s sort of like, to a hammer, everything’s a nail. There’s a sense in which they are willing and able to address it if it’s presented to them as something they could be preaching about, if it’s something that can be preachable. But the degree to which someone in the workplace were to do vocational discipleship, and to do it well, is much more than what you talk about. It’s the structures of pedagogy of instruction and development and formation that are so critical to that. So I think churches give a mixed result when it comes to be being effective at vocation and vocational discipleship across the whole life span. The other aspect is that there’s quite a disconnect in the sets of skills and gifts that pastors come to ministry with and for. They haven’t experienced life in the workplace, their connection to the kinds of dynamics — even though many churches have a workplace dynamic as well — they don’t always understand the dynamics happening for the typical work or worker and the decisions. Like what does it mean to be in finance or to be in construction or to be working a blue collar job? So I think their imagination for the work lives of their communities is somewhat stunted.

MR: If you were to give churches some diagnostic questions to help evaluate how they are equipping their congregation for daily work, what would they be? What are the kinds of questions they could ask themselves to evaluate this?

DK: There’s a couple different ways to do this. In the book, Good Faith, that Gabe Lyons and I wrote, we proposed four questions that are helpful for Christians in engaging their culture: “What’s right?” “What’s wrong?” “What’s missing,” and “What’s confused?” You might use those four questions in evaluating your church’s ministry when it comes to faith and work integration. So what’s right about it? Do more of those things. What’s wrong about it? You try to correct those things that are wrong. What’s missing? Try to add those things that are missing. And the things that are confused, you try to clarify them. For example, if that is the theology of work, or as a pastor, your experience relating to the workplace is maybe one dimensional. We hear this a lot from people who have shifted into ministry careers from the workplace is that the kinds of things church staff deals with are different. There’s more spiritual warfare, to use an old term, and there’s more conflict that’s beneath the surface. But the kinds of things they deal with are different than the workplace, so I think sometimes, a pastor might believe that the workplace dynamics of a mainstream business are just the same as what they experience on their church staff. That’s one way of looking at that. Certainly, taking full stock of using an assessment and Barna comes alongside churches at times to do a deep dive on “What are the industries your attenders are employed in?” “How well are we doing at vocational discipleship?” Doing an audit of your work and trying to think about a more objective external assessment is an important part of what the church could do. But those four questions are a good place to start.

MR: We live in a changing world and we can’t predict the future, but what do you believe churches should be paying attention to in the coming years to help form faithful disciples of Jesus?

DK: One of the big themes of the work, when we try to interpret the context in which we’re discipling today, is “digital Babylon.” Digital trends have added a level of complexity and they make things so much easier. The opportunity to do a video interview or do things digitally aids and empowers our work in so many places, it makes healthcare and education and communication better because of technology. But they also make it a lot more complicated, and it speeds things up. So the levels of anxiety are increasing. The levels of isolation are ironically increasing, and the degree to which people have mental health issues, especially in the next generation. So how can a church contribute meaningfully to the kinds of healthy sets of relationships, feeling human-like in the areas of relationships and sexuality and work and money and neighborly-ness and civic engagement and on and on?

There’s a lot of data now coming out about the negative impact of excessive screen time for young people, children, and adolescence, including mental health challenges. The long term impact of access to pornography at the swipe of a finger is something we’re going to have to pay attention to. The fact that we’ll have so many compromised leaders and families and others. Just to put that in context, at a Christian university, in the past, not that pornography was non-existent, it was something that Christian students as well as non-Christian students would have dealt with. But the steps you would take to get access to pornography were so much more difficult. You had to be intentionally seeking out the drug. Now, it’s just so pervasive and much more easily accessible. So how we develop people of resilience in the midst of those pressures is a critical question for the church to address. We’re not going to go back to a pre-digital age. The question we have to ask ourselves is: Is the gospel strong enough to help us deal with those complex sets of questions? And of course, it is. But in what way will our churches help to provide those kind of antidotes — relationally, sexually, financially, vocationally. We actually see a lot of research in our data about resilience, that the clearer you are about your end goal and what you’re trying to achieve in your life (and work is a huge part of that) it actually helps you to be more resistant to the things that would cause you to compromise in other parts of your life. So that’s an important set of insights that the church could wrestle with.

MR: Why do you believe the work you’re doing is important, and how do you see it serving the church and the broader Christian sphere?

DK: What drives us is trying to understand cultural change, and then helping people to understand that, and helping people understand themselves in that picture. We’re realizing that to understand the times, we have to have a really clear vision of who we are, and who our Christian community is, who our brothers and sisters are in Christ. So when we get a clear picture of that, we’re much more capable of being effective on mission for Jesus in the world. What drives us is for people to be really clear on their present reality, about what God is telling them to do, about how God is revealing opportunities and challenges in our context. It’s one of the hardest things for us as human beings to have a clear sense of what’s happening around us and having a clear sense of what’s happening inside in order to have a healthy, godly response to our times.

MR: As you look across the landscape, what are you most encouraged by? What are you seeing that gives you hope?

DK: I think these resilient disciples we’ve been interviewing as part of this digital Babylon Project has been really interesting. So about 10 percent of young 18-29 year olds reflect a level of resilience. That’s unbelievable. It’s small, it’s only 10 percent of people who have grown up as Christians, but that still represents hundreds of thousands of people in our culture today. You interview them and you see they’re so passionate about Jesus, and they’re interested in taking their faith into their work and into their lives. They are showing up for prayer meetings at 7:30 a.m. and they’re so passionate about Scripture. So I’m inspired, in particular, by these “young exiles,” I call them. They’re learning how to do faith in a new context and a new way, just like all of us are trying to figure out. The conversations happening around vocation are so important, and that’s another area I’m hopeful about. Vocation is incredible in that it’s a discipleship-oriented conversation. It’s also an evangelistic conversation. It’s an opportunity to grow people in their faith, but it’s also an opportunity to talk to people outside of “our tribe” about things that matter to them: calling, work, meaning, molding the culture of your workplace, being made for something. These are all sets of language that transfer into our world in a way that a lot of the things that we do inside the church, the language doesn’t translate as well. It doesn’t matter to people If you’ve chosen not to be a person of faith, for whatever set of reasons, that’s who you are today. Being a part of small group or reading the Bible or praying, it’s just all words. But figuring out issues of a meaningful life, of pursuing your calling, of living a life well of working for a higher cause than just a paycheck. I think these are all things that really relate to our culture. So I’m really encouraged about the vocation discussion. I’m encouraged by pastors who are at it for a few years, or 10 years, or 50 years who are, despite those headwinds, really trying to be students of culture, and students of human nature, and students of the Word. Their efforts to try to bring the church in and through these times are laudable.

More information about Barna is available at barna.com.

Topics: Christian Life, Millennials, Vocational Discipleship

About the Author

Matt Rusten serves as the executive director for Made to Flourish. Rusten received his master of divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and has served in churches in North Dakota, the Chicago area, Kansas City, and most recently as pastor of spiritual formation at Blackhawk Church in Madison, Wisconsin. He and his wife, Margi, and their daughter, Olivia, and son, Owen, live in Kansas.