The gifts [Jesus] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
– Ephesians 4:11-16
Too often, we in the Church ignore or downplay what the Bible says about the gifts of the Spirit that God bestows on every believer through the power of the Holy Spirit. In more conservative congregations, this may be because of a desire to see authority and influence flow through the “official” channels of church leadership rather than according to the beautiful anarchy of God’s grace. In more liberal congregations, gifts may be ignored or downplayed due to a misguided egalitarianism that studiously ignores the fact that different gifts may entail different degrees of visibility and require different levels of accountability and support. Whatever the reason, we seldom recognize and nurture the gifts that God has shared with the body of Christ for the glory of his name.
Of course, there are some exceptions. Most local churches know what to do with folks who love to teach about scripture: get them involved with Sunday school or, if they are particularly passionate and gifted, send them to seminary. As Neil Cole points out in Primal Fire, houses of worship themselves are typically laid out like lecture halls. What does that reflect, if not a particular focus on the teaching gift? And while seminaries are getting better at equipping students for a variety of ministries, teaching and scholarship remain the heart of the experience. At nearly every seminary, students being prepared for ministry are supposed to gain a certain basic facility in reading, interpreting and teaching from scripture, regardless of their ultimate ministry goals. (Pastoral counseling is also part of the curriculum, though notably smaller in significance.) Similarly universal expectations with respect to evangelism or prophetic discernment or launching new ministries in an apostolic vein seem largely absent.
In my own corner of the Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), it is the pastoral (shepherding) gift that is most easily negotiated. We put our most effective shepherds on committees where they pray for us, cook for us and make sure we are all comfortable and happy. This is a beautiful and essential contribution to the Body of Christ, as long as it does not come at the expense of the other gifts. When shepherding is disproportionately emphasized, we lose the sturdy foundation of sound teaching, we stop sharing the Gospel with our neighbors through evangelism, we stop taking risks to start new ministries with the faith and energy of the apostolic gift, and we are set adrift without the prophetic guidance of the Holy Spirit. When we neglect the full range of spiritual gifts, our activities are increasingly stagnant and self-focused, rather than the dynamic and sacrificial ministry embodied by Jesus and the early church.
Even worse, when we routinely marginalize certain gifts, we begin to see their exercise as dysfunctional and their absence as normative, rather than the reverse. When the prophet challenges us with uncomfortable truths, rather than using our discomfort as an opportunity for reflection and discernment, we tell her to tone it down, complain that she is “unwelcoming” and, if she doesn’t get the message, we run her off. We come up with a hundred reasons not to support the efforts of the evangelist, and if he does by grace succeed in bringing new people to our congregation, we quietly freeze them out unless they are exactly like the people already in attendance. And God help the apostle, who is routinely doubted and perceived as reckless, divisive or naïve (or all of the above), rather than supported and guided in the launch of new and needed ministries.
By marginalizing, suppressing or excluding three or more gifts, we drastically limit our ability to effectively share and live the Gospel. Instead of a hand with five capable fingers, we choose a hand with one or two fingers – and one of the two may be sprained! This is not how the church is designed to function and, as the cultural forces that for centuries pushed people toward religious practice fade away, as shrinking budgets lead to cuts to all but the most essential ministries, churches that fail to nurture all the gifts will wither and die. And if they aren’t forming disciples, preaching the Gospel and serving the needy, they will deserve to.
How does your church identify and nurture spiritual gifts – or not? Have you witnessed the dynamic of gift exclusion at work? How can we learn to welcome the gifts God sends us?