Talking with J. I. Packer, Professor in Theology at Regent CollegeVideo / Produced by The High Calling
J. I. Packer is a Board of Governors' Professor in Theology at Regent College; Vancouver, BC. He is author of many books, including the bestseller Knowing God. Additionally, since 1966, J. I. Packer has worked closely with Howard Butt at Laity Lodge—where the message of TheHighCalling.org originally began.
In this special interview, we sat with J. I. Packer on a porch at Laity Lodge and asked him questions about faith, work, vocation, and daily life. Portions of this interview are available as online videos as well. We embedded some clips below for fun.
What does God say about vocation?
The word vocation means "calling." And right at the heart of vocation is, I believe in every case, the sense that God has called one to do what one is doing. The sense of being called comes out of thinking and praying about what one has been gifted and so fitted to do and which of the options for life activity is the best one. Never let the good be the enemy of the best. And then, as one thinks about these things and prays about these things comes the sense, "Yes, this is what God has called me to do." And all honest work is worth doing for the glory of God, and we may find ourselves called to do any honest work that we're fitted for.
How do we offer our everyday work to God?
The first thing I think is to make sure that the work we're doing is honorable work that can be offered to God. Smugglers, so they used to say in the 18th century, and drug dealers, so I say in the 21st century, can't really offer their work to God because it isn't honest labor. But assuming your work is honest labor, think of the glory of God as you plan it and perform it. God made us for honest work. And we glorify him by doing honest work. And pray that God will enable us to do it well and that he will accept it and use it. Use it to make the world a better place than the world would be without it. Then we've done what we can.
How can Christians view their daily work as worship?
Worship is honoring God in every appropriate way. W hen one's labor is labor that one feels called to, then one is fulfilling one's vocation as one pursues it. I think it's a matter of conscious, deliberate prayer. "Lord, I offer you this. Make what you can of it. I'm doing it the best way I can to serve you and to honor you. Help me to do it as well as I'm capable of doing it. And make it a blessing to other people."
How can Christians view their daily work as ministry?
Ministry means service to other people. And all work, it seems to me, is oriented to the welfare of other people—directly or indirectly. The answer to your question, I think, is to be conscious of your work as service to people by asking the question, well how does this work serve and help people? Once one sees how the work is going to help people, then pray for their blessing through the work. I think that's the way to go.
What is the greatest challenge facing the Church today?
I think there's no doubt that the greatest challenge facing the church of the west in 2007 is that the culture is being secularized all around us. We're living in an era of post-Christianity. And we are losing younger people. Which means that we do need to make a special effort to project the Christian life of wisdom and truth and—well, what should I call it?—contentment, really, Christian contentment to younger people. There's a quality of life in Christ that the world knows nothing about. And it makes life infinitely richer than life would be without it. Young people today have mostly been brought up in homes where the Bible isn't read and taught. They don't say grace. They don't have family prayers. There's no religious component therefore in the upbringing that the children get. And all the influences of school and the community projects in which young people get involved, all those influences are away from and out beyond Christian concerns. So the church needs to take a deep breath and go for young people, it seems to me. When the church has secured the faith and the loyalty of young people, and Christ has used the church to bring young people to himself, and young people's work is strong. Well, then through the young people, the church must labor to capture families. Family Christianity is something basic to Bible Christianity. And we've got to try and get it back. We'll be swimming against the stream all the way. But that I see as the top challenge.
Then after that, the second challenge is keeping the waters of the stream of Christian faith and teaching clear and not—how shall I say it? I was going to say polluted but that's a hard word, so let me change it. I can't think of a kindly word. Not infected? That's no kinder really. But by other ideas. Modifying Christianity in terms of other religions. Modifying Christianity in terms of secular ideas. This is ruinous and it mustn't happen. So the church has to work hard to make sure that it doesn't happen.
Are you saying the Church should make a space for young people?
Yes, I'm saying that. I'm saying more than that. The church first must get its act together in terms of what used to be called catechesis, catechism work. That is a plan, a syllabus, for teaching young people Christian basics. When you look at the youth work in a lot of our churches, you realize that just about everything is being done except teaching the folk the basics. So much is amusement. So little is teaching. And I do want to see things changed on that point.
Where did your desire to write originate?
I always enjoyed writing when I was very small. And I was asked to write things early on before I was ordained actually. And I wrote them to oblige the people who asked me. I never thought of myself as a professional writer in those days. But I came to think of myself as one who clearly is called to be a professional writer when a book of mine published in1958 became a bestseller—Fundamentalism and the Word of God. It sold 20,000 copies in its first year. And it's still in print as a matter of fact. And its success made me think, "Oh well, obviously writing is meant to be a major part of my ministry." Then, some other books of mine succeeded in the same way, and so the conviction that writing was actually the central activity of my ministry got stronger and stronger. Though I'm not sure I should say the central activity. I should say a central activity because just in terms of the satisfaction that it brings me and I hope the usefulness of it, it is parallel to and on par with the work that I do as a teacher in the classroom at Regent College. Where I just love teaching, and shall go on teaching as long as my mind holds together.
You've spoken at Laity Lodge for many years. What first brought you there?
An invitation to bring my family to Laity Lodge which came from the top man, Mr. Butt, and which was conveyed to me and my wife in England. We were still living there at the time. This was in 1965. And I immediately found myself wanting to come and share with this ministry because I was so completely at one with this vision.
That's encouraging! Mr. Butt has been given a powerful vision.
It's always seemed to me obvious that lay vocation is as important as clergy vocation. And the church is only healthy when the laity are being taken seriously in ministry within the church and in testimony and witness and work outside it. So it didn't take us very long to agree that next year, we would be very happy to come as a family. And I was asked to do four weeks on the trot expounding scripture. And I said, Yes, I will happily do four weeks on the trot. So in 1966, we came and I did it.
And I found that Laity Lodge was just as significant as it had sounded when they had explained it—only more so. It's a beautiful setting with beautiful buildings. And for me a very delightful climate. And Laity Lodge has had my heart really—from 1966 to the present.
What do you remember of your first Laity Lodge experience?
The family came, that's the first thing to say. We were put into Lodestar, the new house as it was then. The first thing when we walked in was that a scorpion fell to the floor out of the ventilator or the light I'm not sure. And there it was wriggling in the contorted way that scorpions do. And that stuck in our minds all the time that we were here.
What do you see as the significance of Laity Lodge's work?
I see Laity Lodge as a pioneer institution. I've sometimes spoken of it as a prophetic institution. Meaning that it has at its heart a potential for reshaping the future in a good way. It spreads something which is right at the heart of Laity Lodge's own sense of its place in the order of things. The sense that in the Christian community, the distinction between clergy and layfolk is secondary. What is primary is the sense that we are all together in Christ. We are all on par in Christ. We are all of us called to serve Christ, and to live in fellowship with each other as we do so. In other words, just putting in terms that Laity Lodge has usually employed, we are here to ensure that the laity are taken as seriously as the clergy have ever been. And to lead if we can, to lead churches and Christian communities everywhere into a way of living in which the contributions of the laymen, the work of the laymen, the ministry of the laymen, the laymen's work in the world and in the church is seen as just as important as the work of the clergy in the church. I think that's a vision that has yet to be caught in the world church. And I celebrate the fact that Laity Lodge carries the flag for it. And I hope that Laity Lodge will continue to carry the flag until the point is taken everywhere.