It is fair to claim that most faculties at institutions across the United States once understood these terms, especially before the Civil War. Granted, that was a long time ago, but that doesn’t change the fact that the keepers of the soul of the American college really understood these concepts. Most of them would have agreed with theologian Cornelius Plantinga’s biblical understanding of shalom, which means “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight.” They would have agreed that one of higher education’s main purposes was to cultivate students in such as way that they experience this kind of flourishing in their various vocations. Furthermore, most Christian students and their parents had a basic understanding of what these terms meant, although most would not have been as articulate as faculty in defining them.

Saying that it is difficult for an 18 year old to discern his various vocations is the understatement of the century. I suspect this has always been the case, and yet there is a great likelihood that it is even more difficult now than in the past. I use the plural—vocations—because all Christ followers have more than one vocation at any given time. This includes the vocations of being a family member (spouse, sibling, child), a student, and a worker—and sometimes holding all of those together at once. For the sake of focus, in this post I will limit my use of the term to that of being a worker.

Overwhelmed By Career Options

First, career options have only increased, both in number as well as in complexity. Let me be clear, lest I be misunderstood. It doesn’t follow from the fact that career options have increased in number that the ease of landing a full time career position is easier than in the past. It is more difficult to land a full time benefited position now in the U.S. job market than 30 years ago. Still, the sheer numbers of industries, nonprofits, and small businesses have multiplied. Even if a college senior is able to say confidently “Here is who I am, these are the God-given gifts I bring to the table, and here is what I’m aiming for by the five year mark,” she still has the daunting task of figuring out how many and what kinds of organizations to apply for.

Where’s the Resilience?

Second, students graduating high school who go straight into college are more thin-skinned in general than they were not so long ago. Feedback from college and university leaders as well as formal research is showing that student resilience is in decline. This means they are less able to cope with stressful situations that really shouldn’t be so stressful. In my own experience this ever-thinning resilience is linked to a fear based desire to make everyone around them happy at the expense of figuring out who they are and what unique thing God might be preparing them to do. More than in the past, their locus of control leans more heavily to the external than to the internal. Put differently, they tend to define themselves by the chorus of voices around them telling who they are and what they should do with their lives rather than balancing those voices with their own perspective that is ultimately grounded in the One whose view of them matters most.

A Shift in Plausibility Structures

Finally, the plausibility structures in our culture have shifted drastically in a very short amount of time. Coined by sociologist Peter Berger, the term “plausibility structures” refer to the societal conditions that make certain beliefs and truth claims credible and reasonable. Berger states the following in his groundbreaking work, The Sacred Canopy (1967),“The reality of the Christian world depends upon the presence of social structures within which this reality is taken for granted and within which successive generations of individuals are socialized in such a way that this world will be real to them.”

What Berger means is not that the actual metaphysical reality of God’s world depends upon any social structure. Rather, his claim is an epistemological one. That is, how we as Christians through the generations continue to have knowledge of and confidence in the reality God created depends, to a large degree on these plausibility structures. To be clear, this is a sociological explanation only. As one who believes in God’s sovereignty over all spheres, I am not claiming that we as Christ followers should place our hope and trust in this concept. Our hope is in Christ only and we can have and do have knowledge of him through his revealed Word. That said, it makes sense that our society’s plausibility structures will support Christian ways of thinking and living to a greater or lesser degree.

So what happens when these structures are no longer just assumed by the culture? Berger says this: “when this plausibility structure loses its intactness or continuity, the Christian world begins to totter and its reality ceases to impose itself as self-evident truth. The evangelical plausibility structure in America that was put in place by our forebears is coming apart at the seams, as evidenced by both cultural and legal changes in the United States in the last few years.

What’s an example of the evangelical plausibility structure coming apart? Well, the once taken-for-granted concept of dignity, for starters. As sociologist Mark Regnerus, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has shown, dignity used to mean “the older conception shared by Christians, natural law theorists and others, refers to the idea that humans have ‘inherent worth of immeasurable value that is deserving of certain morally appropriate responses.’” Regnerus goes on to say, “Understood in this way, dignity is an inalienable value. It’s a reality. Human dignity does not become real when you start to believe in it. It remains real even when neglected or violated.”

This view of human dignity is consistent with a thoroughgoing biblical worldview. Genesis 1:26 says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Human dignity, therefore, is derived from the metaphysical reality of being created in God’s image. The prevailing concept of dignity in today’s culture is what Regnerus calls “Dignity 2.0,” a version that is much more closely aligned with hyper-individualism and “the right to define oneself.” In contrast to the biblical concept, Dignity 2.0 has at its center the self, not God or others. The late historian and social critic Christopher Lasch saw an increasing number of instances of this attitude back in 1978 when he said, “To live for the moment is the prevailing passion—to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

What does all of this have to do with the concept of vocation and the challenges of discerning it? If vocation in the Christian tradition is, at its core, service to others and not for self, then we can begin to see rather quickly how Generation Y and Generation Z Christ-followers are already facing a more complex and confusing world than any of us have personally witnessed thus far. If anything, I find that most evangelicals think about their work in the same way as anyone else—namely, with self at the center. Will this career track make me happy? Will it pay well? How likely is it to lead to a fulfilling life for me and my family? In and of themselves, these are legitimate questions. However, when these are the only serious questions that Christ followers are asking with respect to their work, then we’re missing the mark. If we have any hope of really hitting the mark, then we must have a compelling vision for how our God-given dignity informs the way we think about our work. And that vision must be grounded in loving God and loving neighbor.

So, discerning vocation is hard.

But it is not impossible, nor is there reason to despair. As I’ve argued elsewhere, vocation is most clearly discerned with the context of Christian community.

Questioning Your Vocation

If you are a Christ-following college student looking for clarity about your future, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is my life purpose? Can I state my God-given purpose in a single sentence?
  • What are my untested assumptions about dignity as a concept, and how have those assumptions been guiding my thinking and actions as I seek clarity about my future?
  • Why do I want to work?
  • What is holding me back from discerning a God-given vision for my future?
  • In addition to my parents, who are the mentors in my life who are willing to ask me good, hard questions about how I’m going about the process of discerning my God-given life purpose?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how intentional are my efforts at building and sustaining a thriving Christian community in which God might choose to speak clearly about my life purpose and various vocations?

Grab more helpful insights on vocation: