Christians in North America used to speak frequently and with great respect about those who “went into full-time service.” Evangelists gave public invitations calling for such commitment.
Going into “full-time service” meant someone gave up the normal means of livelihood to serve Christ and the church 24/7 as a teacher, evangelist, missionary, pastor or volunteer. God would provide physical subsistence. But in most cases it would be just that — subsistence. It was an embrace of poverty for the sake of others.
Long ago, the term went out of vogue. I am just old enough to remember how.
We were uneasy with the honor. “All of us are in full-time service,” we said. “Let’s not make a distinction between church vocations and others.” So we reaffirmed all vocational choices.
First we used phrases like “every Christian a missionary.” We graduated to talking about “24/7 Christians.” Now we lionize the Christian entrepreneur, the lawyer who works for justice and the businessperson in mission. We professionalize church vocations. We bless the value of meaningful, honest work in all its Christlike expressions.
It seems good and right.
Yet perhaps we have lost something. Last month I was among Anabaptists in Ethiopia, and I heard them freely using our old term, “full-time service.”
My first impulse was to pass it off as quaint. “It’s old English,” I thought. “They’ll soon catch up.”
But as I heard their stories, I suspected that it was I, not they, who must catch up. What I judged old-fashioned was true to Jesus, though it sounded like something from a century ago.
“I graduated from university with degrees in education and business,” said Ahmed. “I prospered, and my future was rosy. I employed many others.
“But my life was empty, and everything fell apart. I fell victim to my addiction to alcohol, and my wife left me. Then in the midst of that terrible aloneness, I met Jesus. He changed my life, my whole world. Now I’m here at [Bible] school to get ready to serve him full time. He led me here.”
As I got acquainted with Ahmed, I sensed the joy of Jesus oozing from every pore of his being. This was not some ambition to a higher rank in church, making a comfortable living. He had lost his perks when he said yes to Jesus. For him, “full-time service” was a costly embrace of financial insecurity.
Will he again become a full-time entrepreneur serving Jesus? Perhaps. Whatever the outcome, he is answering a call to a radical new way of life in which Jesus is Lord.
If my Ethiopian encounter with Ahmed had been the only one of its kind, I might have forgotten the quaintness of his words. But there were others.
Abera said, “Yes, I’m a university graduate, and I worked for 10 years as a teacher in the public schools. But now I’m here in Bible school because Jesus called me to serve his people full time.”
As I heard the stories, I knew that each had embraced a life of poverty in response to a call from heaven. No climbing the ladder, but a simple, costly “yes” to Jesus. And I knew that our old-time honor for “full-time service” had the same roots.
I hope that sacrifice never dies, however we name it. It was there in Jesus and his first disciples. It was there in the foundation of the Catholic and Orthodox missionary orders. It was there in the unregistered churches of the Reformation. It is alive in Ethiopia.
It belongs in every part of the 21st-century church.
Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.