Sep 23, 2021

ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: Stephanie Shackelford on Vocational Discipleship

On a recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, Dr. Stephanie Shackelford (senior Barna fellow and author) joins host David Kinnaman to talk about vocational discipleship within the Church.

Drawing from recent Barna research for You on Purpose, a book written by Dr. Shackelford and co-author Bill Denzel, Dr. Shackleford debunks the common myths Christians believe about finding happiness and explains why conversations about vocation matters for generations both young and old.

On Discovering Meaningful Work
One of the trends Dr. Shackleford explores from the data looks at how many people focus on vocation as an end goal to personal happiness. In conducting interviews for You On Purpose, Barna collected data that show four in five U.S. adults (81%) agree that their primary goal in life is to be happy. Practicing Christians were particularly in alignment with this belief, with 44 percent strongly agreeing.

Dr. Shackelford reflects, “We can be so caught up in just the present, how we’re feeling, that we lose sight of the bigger picture [and] narrative that we’re all living as part of the family of God. There’s a long history starting all the way back in Genesis!” 

“Do we understand what our part to play is in this larger narrative instead of just looking so moment-by-moment?” she asks. “It’s not bad to want to feel happy, but that’s not something you can ground yourself in.”

Dr. Shackelford reminds listeners that the process of finding your purpose is a long journey. She notes, “Calling is not a static concept. We’re always growing and changing, and our calling is always morphing as we grow. We don’t worship a God who takes us on this linear path. Instead he uses all of the growth, and he can use any of our experiences, to guide us towards more and more of his purpose is for us.”

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On Intergenerational Conversations
Throughout the conversation, Dr. Shackelford emphasizes the importance of vocation as a topic of discussion for people at both ends of the age spectrum, not just those in the middle of their careers. 

In the research for You On Purpose, Barna found that younger generations were less satisfied and more frustrated than older generations about work. For example, three in five Gen Z adults (61%) report feeling stressed about work (compared to 48% of Millennials, 47% of Gen X and 42% of Boomers).

One of the barriers Dr. Shackelford observes in younger generations is a paralysis in decision-making. She says, “[Younger generations are] very afraid that if they choose this major or take this job, it’s going to set them on a trajectory that’s going to determine the rest of their life.” 

She continues, “A lot of the opportunity leaders and parents have is relieving some of this pressure. […] How can you reframe this perspective and look at how God can use all of our experiences?”

Alternatively, Dr. Shackelford finds older generations often feel defeated or that they are too late for self-discovery. For these individuals, she offers, “It’s never too late. God is always writing a story and there’s always more depth and growth to discover. Even if you didn’t feel like your past jobs were your calling, that doesn’t negate how God could continue to use you in the future.”

On Vocational Discipleship in the Church
Dr. Shackelford views the Church as playing a critical role in offering instruction into what it means to pursue a life of purpose, particularly in vocation. 

She says, “[Work] is where we spend so much of our time, and so if we’re going to spend so many of our hours in a place and a context, we need to understand how it’s connected to and integrated into our life as a Christ follower.”

One of the primary strengths the local church has to offer for this journey is a community where individuals can process and discern their calling with others. Shackelford notes, “I think we tend to think this vocational journey is maybe one to do alone or in isolation or it’s primarily self reflective […] but tied to that is this need for community to enter into and to have space to wrestle through these questions with.”

She concludes, “It’s more important to have a general idea of where you want to head and to know that if you are walking in community and really seeking the Spirit’s guidance within you, there’s often not a right and a wrong choice.”

Interested in learning more about vocational discipleship? Order your copy of Dr. Shackelford’s new book, You On Purpose, today!

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About the Research
You On Purpose data: The data shown above is based on a representative sample of 2,108 interviews with U.S. adults. The interviews were conducted online from November 21-30, 2019. The margin of error is +/- 1.9 percent at a 95 percent confidence interval.

Featured image by Lagos Techie on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2021

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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