In the preface to her recent book on theological education, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier describes some of the repeating patterns that she experienced during her childhood as a member of a Latin@ church in New York.1 In her church, children were drawn into ministry early as ushers, visitors of the sick, assistants with communion, deacons, and Sunday School helpers. They were actively mentored by adults who had gifts in these areas and through summer workshops. Annual festivals were marked by shared food from varied ethnic origins and open celebration of cultural diversity in the congregation.
Sunday school leaders were required to attend a mid-week Bible study at which the pastor pushed them to articulate scriptural grounds for any points they wanted to make, but did not dictate what points should be made, thereby creating “space for theological thinking with the capacity to hold on to a diversity of views.”2 In sermons, the same pastor “always asked where a particular view came from,” so that “we learned to identify contexts with theological and historical differences.”3 When taking questions, “he made it clear that it was fine not to have answers to the mystery of God’s love for all the world.”4 Everything that Conde-Frazier describes here is a repeating pattern, not a one-time intervention, and it is clear from her description that such rhythms were deeply formative for her own approach to Christian ministry. This is not the kind of teaching and learning that happens through explanatory speeches, but the kind carried in the iterative contours of our behaviors.
I did not grow up with any such patterns of church life. I experienced little contact with churches before arriving at university as an argumentative atheist. I had been to a handful of church services, experienced compulsory religious education at school in England that included coverage of Christianity, and been required to attend a daily school assembly that sometimes included a hymn. But when my world broke open and I found myself part of a Christian student group, it was with a sense of having a lot to learn about what being Christian entailed. I was catapulted into a new cadence of prayer and Bible study meetings, missions trips and conferences, Christian books, Christian music, and sermon recordings from prominent preachers. Three years later, as the end of my studies neared, I committed to praying, fasting, and seeking counsel in an effort to discern how I should invest my adult life. Through this process, a clear conviction dawned: I should become a teacher.
I was glad to have an answer, but also found myself somewhat disappointed and disoriented.
As I reflected on this reaction, I realized that I had internalized an implicit theology of vocation that went something like this: Anyone fully committed to God would be called to be a missionary, preferably in a country with minimal modern conveniences. Those slightly less earnest could be pastors (still preaching the Gospel, but on home territory and with an income) or a youth pastor (still “ministry” but with more pop culture). Next came helping professions: nursing, teaching, social work. Faint embers of faith might lead to careers in business, politics, or rock music. I thought that I had been sincere in asking God to call me to whatever God desired. The answer seemed to ask for less than I had been willing to give.
As I learned more theology and questioned the stark dualism of this imagined world, I began to wonder how I had learned such a skewed view of vocation in the first place. I do not remember anyone standing up and saying, in so many words, “it’s best to be a missionary, or you could make do with being a pastor, but you might want to avoid business and politics.” Nevertheless, in my few years as a Christian, I had internalized something very like that picture. If I did not learn it through direct, verbal instruction, how did I learn it? I think I learned it in large measure through repeating rhythms—patterns of representation and absence. I can identify a few of them.
There were regular Christian meetings at which pastors and missionaries were given a raised podium facing rows of chairs and asked to talk about their work. There were special meetings for those considering the mission field, but not for would-be teachers or artists. Apparently, some callings were worthy of focal attention and visible distinction, others were not.
At prayer meetings, we prayed for missionaries and pastors, for evangelism, and for personal needs. I do not recall prayer for scientists, construction workers, translators, or therapists. Some work was worth talking to God about, other kinds were not, conveying the impression that God was less keen to hear about them.
The biographies in my local Christian bookstore (I devoured many) were about pastors, missionaries, and evangelists. Sermon illustrations followed suit. Some stories were worth repeatedly retelling, others seemed quietly forgotten.
The logic of sacrifice in the stories I read and heard typically involved people who abandoned promising careers in law or medicine or politics to become preachers and go to exotic overseas locations. I do not recall many stories about those who leave missionary work or sacrifice to take up other forms of service.
There were—of course—words, stirring calls to consider missions and preach the Gospel, but I suspect that these were at the very least reinforced by such repeating rhythms of practice, the things that always happened and never happened when faith was the focus. When I did hear God call me to significant work, a calling that is proving to be lifelong, I struggled to receive what I heard. It did not fit the template formed in my imagination by the habitual moves of the Christian community of which I was a part.
Thinking back on those processes leaves me reflecting on how it matters for the formation of our students not only whether there is prayer, worship, and exhortation, but what rhythms of presence and absence they exhibit. Our students learn how faith fits into the world not just from our explanations, but from our gestures, rhythms, and silences. They learn from the things we habitually connect and the things we leave unjointed. They learn from the contexts that seem to trigger faith talk and the ones that don’t. They learn from what we consider worth praying for, what kind of people we consider worthy of an audience or a story, which lives and choices we point out as noble, what lived examples we keep in circulation, and what things we pass over in silence. Our repetitions lay down a rhythm that sounds an invitation (to our students, to ourselves) toward particular dance steps. The dance can be freeing, as it seems to have been for Elizabeth Conde-Frazier. It can also be constricting, as it was in my own early Christian experience.
The result is not an iron cage. As I wrestled with my own sense of calling, I soon began to resist the patterns that had begun to shape me. In the end, God proved able to call me out of the constrained circle of my imagination. I still wonder whether it had to be that hard.