Some people knew what ministry God called them to very early in life–I was in high school when I first began to believe that God was calling me to s specific type of ministry. I had been a Christian only for a couple of years at that point but was aware that God wanted me for something particular–and began to fight against that calling at the same time.
I know other people whose call to a specific ministry came much later in their lives. Some of the became believers later in life so the lateness of their call can be understood in that context–God can’t really call someone to ministry if they haven’t first answered the initial to come to him. But there have been others whose calling seems to have been delayed until much later in their lives. Although he was in a very different situation from Christians seeking a call, Moses experienced his call to a specific ministry when he was 80.
This raises a question for me about when God calls people to their ministry, a question that is a bit complicated by a quotation from Jeremiah 1.4-5:
The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart….” (NIV)
Theologically, this verse does reveal a reality that I believe–God knows what is going to happen in every life and so he not only knows who is going to be called to what but also how they will react to that calling. That doesn’t really answer the question of when people are called though. It does form part of the background in my thinking though.
I would suggest several factors are involved in the answer. First, we remember that God calls every believer to some form of ministry. Those who don’t know or believe this may not recognize God’s calling, somewhat like Samuel in I Samuel. He was called but didn’t recognize the call until it was explained to him by Eli. There may be many believers who claim not to be called who actually don’t recognize they are being called.
Some people who are called may recognize the call for what it is–but as happened in my case, the called one resists that calling. My personal resistance didn’t last longer than a few months, although it flares up now and then even today. But others I have talked to report resisting for years and years. To them and others, this could be seen as a delayed call–but the reality is that the answer is delayed, not the calling.
Another part of the answer is that we sometimes conceive the call to ministry in the wrong way. There is a tendency to see it as a lifetime commitment to teaching Sunday School or being the church treasurer or becoming a pastor. I and others have been known to joke that the only way to get out of a job in the church is to die.
But I have realized that the commitment we need to make is a commitment to following God and answering the call to ministry as a general commitment rather than a commitment to a specific ministry. God can and does change the specifics of the call to ministry. We see that clearly in those called to paid ministry–very few pastors spend their whole ministry in one congregation. As well, those of us who are wise in ministry realize that no matter how well what we did in one congregation worked, we will probably have to do something very different in new congregation. God calls us to ministry in general–but there may be several calls to different specific ministries.
I have also realized that some of the ministry I have been called to I like more than others. Some people may feel that being called to something they really like is their first call, while in fact they have been answering the call but just in a ministry they weren’t as excited about.
For all these reasons, I think the answer to the question of when God calls us is simplified. If we are believers, we are called to ministry. We may resist but that doesn’t mean there is no call. Our commitment as believers needs to include a willingness to answer God’s call to ministry and seek to serve him as he leads.
May the peace of God be with you.