Big C, little c: An Interview with Dr. Niel Nielson

OneWord Journal talks one-on-one with Dr. Niel Nielson

Niel Nielson

OneWord: Niel, thanks, for letting us follow up with some questions we had after you spoke at College Church last month. First, would you comment on your big “C”/little “c” callings in light of Christ saying the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few? (See Luke 10:2.)

Niel: A Christian’s big C calling is, of course, all about being a faithful gospel-driven worker in God’s harvest, in response to his saving grace toward us. Right now, I’m grateful that God’s little “c” callings are taking me where there are huge openings for me—as the person that I am—to be a gospel-harvest worker in places like Indonesia, the largest Muslim-population country in the world as well as in education, health care, business and media enterprises. These are places where there are opportunities to bear witness, in both subtle and overt ways, to the glory and goodness of God in Jesus Christ. These little ‘c” callings have brought me new friendships with people from different backgrounds and perspectives, many of whom have never had a meaningful relationship with a Christian.

OneWord:  But aren’t missionaries and pastors “called” to a specific field or ministry? Would you explain a bit more of how you define the big “C” and little “c” callings, and what difference does that make in my life?

Niel: Yes, of course, pastors and missionaries are called—but so is every Christian called to follow Christ in the particular pathways of his or her gifts and passions and opportunities. Part of our problem is that we often think of calling only in terms of ministry or missions rather than how God purposefully deals with every believer in light of the big “C” calling of the gospel.

One of the first questions I ask a person in a job interview is, “What is your calling?” in the little “c” sense. I want to know how that person understands him or herself as created by  God in specific ways, placed into specific circumstances, given certain experiences and invited to see all aspects of life as specific ways to respond worshipfully to God’s big “C” gospel calling.

OneWord: To be honest, we at OneWord Journal are pretty comfortable with the subtle ways of gospel witness, but you emphasized proclamation—actually speaking the gospel. How can I actually tell someone about God’s big “C” gospel calling if my work environment is openly hostile to that?

Niel: Welcome to gospel witness! One of the great encouragements for me right now is the opportunity to walk alongside brothers and sisters in Christ who are doing just that—proclaiming Christ in hostile environments at work but even more intensely in their communities. Of course, we are instructed in Scripture to be as sly as foxes—reading contexts and situations wisely, asking probing questions, sharing our personal stories warmly and showing genuine love and kindness and hospitality toward those with whom we work and near whom we live.

OneWord: From what we’ve observed, it can appear as if Christians are more afraid of the “marketplace” than they are of engaging it. Any words of encouragement you can give?

Niel: First, what is “the marketplace?” And what would it mean to engage “it?” It’s simply a word for the multiple contexts where people interact on many levels as they live out their lives. In that sense, we all are already, all the time in “the marketplace”—engaging other people at the grocery store or the fitness club or the office or our children’s school or across the back fence.

My encouragement would be to aim for gospel engagement with others by first, learning simple forms of gospel evangelism, and second, practicing under the mentoring oversight of someone more experienced. Ask for help from one of the pastors or someone you know who is a faithful, fruitful gospel witness.

OneWord: You have faced a lot of changes over the years: jobs, careers, relocating to name a few, how have you managed to keep God’s big “C” calling in your life? Has it ever been more difficult or challenging in one place than another?

Niel: Above all else, it’s important to believe—really believe—that the gospel truly is the most important, foundational, motivating thing in your life. Without that, it will always be a struggle to connect work to witness. With it, you won’t be able to avoid it.

I’d say that it hasn’t primarily been a matter of more or less difficult or challenging, but rather a matter of becoming discerning about different contexts, and what path the big “C” gospel witness looks like in those contexts.

For example, in southeast Asia, there is very little secular thinking. Everyone is religious and religious faith is openly acknowledge and discussed. So gospel witness often happens quite normally in casual conversations as I tell people about my faith in Jesus Christ or pray with or for them, using phrases of my faith in Jesus.

It’s helpful to continually remind myself that all the particular events and episodes of my life are both pointers to and parts of the one big story of God’s redemption in and through Jesus Christ.

I recently preached in a service in Jakarta from the Book of Ruth—what a great example of how a particular story (a worthy, faithful man who shows kindness to a needy woman, and according to Jewish law, “redeems” her) points to the big story of God showing kindness to and redeeming sinners. But this story not only points to God’s big story it is also part of the big story. Boaz and Ruth marry and have children, and lo and behold, their great-grandson is David, and we know where the story goes from there!

My final words of encouragement are to seek relentlessly to understand how every event or situation or job points to and is part of God’s big story, and then to live out the particulars intentionally as part of God’s big story, God’s big “C” calling.

OneWord: Thanks, Niel, for your passionate commitment to God’s little “c” callings and his big “C” calling. And, if you missed Niel in October, watch or listen to him.