Why gifts-based ministry is giving people an excuse not to serve

Body Life Do you remember Ray Stedman’s book, Body LifeRay was pastor of Palo Alto Bible Church in California, and I credit Ray with kicking off the conversation about gifts-based ministry.  Then the church growth people at Fuller Seminary and Fuller Evangelistic Association picked it up.  Peter Wagner and others designed spiritual gifts inventories, which thousands took to help them figure out what their spiritual gifts were.  The end result:  those who took the inventory would know where to serve in their local church.  But the whole deal backfired.  Instead of becoming a guide on where to serve, spiritual gifts have become an excuse for not serving. 

The Monster We Created 

Have you ever heard anybody say, “Well, that’s not my gift,” as they declined a place of service in church?  Somehow the idea that we all have spiritual gifts got reinterpreted to mean, if you don’t have the gift you’re off the hook! 


“…Paul never dreamed that the gifts God has given the church would become an excuse for not serving in the church.”


The apostle Paul would find that a fascinating argument for not serving.  Paul identified spiritual gifts, validated spiritual gifts, gave instruction on how to use spiritual gifts, but Paul never dreamed that the gifts God has given the church would become an excuse for not serving in the church.

In our good intentions to make ministry meaningful, we bought into the idea that we are only supposed to work within our giftedness.  But, Paul proudly confesses, “I have become all things to all men that I might win some.”  Paul functioned as a tent-maker, a scholar, a teacher, a leader, a friend, a miracle-worker, a preacher, a missionary, a theologian, and a host of other stuff.  Was he equally good at — gifted in — all those areas?  I doubt it, although I do think Paul was an amazing guy.  I think the primary gift Paul possessed was passion for Christ and the gospel. 

The Real Role of Spiritual Gifts in Ministry

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul identifies spiritual gifts, not as graces that restrict our service to Christ, but as gifts to the congregation for its obedience to Christ.  And don’t you think the Corinthians tried on about every gift they could?  Paul scolds them because “everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.”  But then he adds, “All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” 

So, that’s it.  We have gifts for the strengthening of the church, not to get us off the hook.  Last fall, Debbie and I got to see a couple that had been in our church in Greensboro.  During our catching up on old-times, Barry said to me, “Do you remember when you asked me to serve on the personnel committee, and I told you I needed to pray about it?”  I confessed I did not remember that conversation — I have trouble remembering what I said yesterday, much less 20 years ago. 

“Do you remember what you said to me,” he asked?  Again, no recollection. 

Barry went on, “You said, ‘Barry that’s fine.  But while you’re praying about it, let me borrow you for a while, because we have a lot to do.'” 

He continued, “You know, you were right and I served on that committee for several years.” 

I don’t hold up that conversation as the perfect example of how to recruit volunteers, but sometimes I think we hide behind spiritual gifts, when we should be trying them on.  It’s time to rethink our concept of gifts and ministry, and focus on the strengthening of the church rather than the fulfillment of the individual. 

5 thoughts on “Why gifts-based ministry is giving people an excuse not to serve”

  1. Like you say, Spiritual Gifts are given for the building of the body. They are not given to us but through us, if I read Ephesians 4 right. Your article demonstrates the importance of reading the Bible in context. The Apostle James wrote that faith without deeds is dead. I’d say that confirms that our gifts are not an excuse not to serve.

    As a side note, I attended Ray Stedman’s church for about seven years. He never meant the idea of body life to be an excuse not to serve. His goal was to help the body to connect and serve–together–meaningfully and deeply.

  2. Henriet, when I first read Body Life, I was amazed because it was a breath of fresh air from the “let’s get a warm body” to fill church slots method. Over the years I owned several of Ray’s books, and always found them meaningful. I am sure Ray would never have thought that the whole topic of spiritual gifts would have turned from his intent (and the NT’s) to an “out” from serving. Thanks for your comments. Chuck

  3. I guess anything can be taken to the extreme… I’ve been wrestling with my church here in france that follows the other extreme: a business model of leadership. The church council meets and decides which minitries are “necessary” in the church, then we go out and recrute. We are confused with the meager turnout and lack of motivation of members… I’m more and more convinced that in small churches like ours its the role of the concil to help each member identify a future ministry (Ephesians 2:10), develop thier giftedness and engage fruitful service. All the while understanding that a spirit of service also calls us often to operate outside our giftedness (Timothy asked to do the work of Evangelism for example..). Thoughts?

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