Do you remember Ray Stedman’s book, Body Life? Ray 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.