The fallacy of our spiritual gifts: Part 1

Brett and Noelle are busy penciling in 200 dots in the new member’s class at church. They’re taking a spiritual gift inventory. Four sheets of light pink computer circles to be blackened with a yellow HB pencil that asks in descending order, “In situation one, would you more likely A, B, or C?” Nervously concentrating, Brett and Noelle work their way to question 200, hand in their sheets, and anxiously wait until next Sunday to discover their spiritual gifts. This is important to them because they truly want to serve their King.

Next Sunday they reconvene, and eagerly open their manila envelopes. It seems that Brett has the gift of administration. Noelle has the gift of service. Coincidentally, it turns out that Brett is a parts manager at the VW dealership and Noelle is on the cleaning staff at a large assisted living community. Hmmm.

Uninspired and disenchanted, Brett and Noelle trudge somberly toward the parking lot. It looks like ‘spiritual service’ at church is going to look a whole lot like work. Soon, Brett was scheduled for 15 minutes twice a month as an offering counter, and Noelle would be slated on the rotation as a nursery assistant. They now have a sacred obligation of operating within their sanctioned “spiritual gifts.”

Disillusioned? Yes. But they’ll soon get over it.

After all, what’s really wrong with ministering in your comfort zone?

How did we get here?
Was it always like this? Was comfort-zone Christianity what propelled the Church forward through history? Not exactly. But it is the fruit borne from a more recent history.

  • Loss of market share. Since the 1970s much of the evangelical world was losing market share to a new charismatic phenomena that was sweeping the world. These new churches offered worship that engaged the spirit and emotions of a believer. For many this held great appeal over dueling piano/organ combinations separated by an arm-waving hymn conductor. The preaching seemed more free-flowing, more alive, more human. With a constituency that was growing bored of a starched-collared three points and a poem semi-robotic approach to preaching, many were switching brands. But the pièce de résistance of the charismatic wave was an emphasis on spiritual gifts. This charismatic trademark offered something that seemed truly spiritual to many—something that transported their dreary spiritual existences to a higher, unexplainable dimension. To many evangelicals some of these expressions were biblically troubling, but none-the-less, market share was heavily tilting toward the charismatics.
  • Evangelical adoption. As the charismatics pointed the way, the majority of evangelicals reluctantly followed. Worship wars soon erupted. Compromises were struck. Preaching became more personal, less formulaic. And spiritual gifts were discovered. Or, at least a sterilized version of them. Time moved on. A generation passed from the scene, and most charismatic churches moderated from their more extreme positions while the majority of evangelicals imported a little charismatic zing into their services. By the turn of the new millennium, to differentiate between a charismatic and non-charismatic church, one would have to visit their website’s “about” section.

What did we gain? In worship and preaching the evangelical church gained a great deal. We rediscovered a more biblical position, that praise and worship was designed for God’s pleasure, not ours—but designing experiences to employ this can bring great pleasure to honest worshippers. We rediscovered that communication involves a sender and a recipient. Effective preaching always remembers its audience.

But when it comes to spiritual gifts, we gained almost nothing. We simply employed a more spiritual sounding term to sanction what we were already very comfortable doing. We now had objective data to influence congregants toward church-centric service within their own comfort zones. It’s a win-win arrangement. No inconvenience required. Little growth either.

And zero faith.

The church creates bite-sized organizational volunteer slots to move the institution forward. Slots are matched with appropriate servants and the machinery moves efficiently ahead. Churches that became highly proficient at this organizational “match dot com” quickly converted newcomers to volunteers at staggering rates. And what’s best of all, it all can sound so spiritual.

What did we pervert? It seems that we may have formally adopted the world’s operating system (O.S.). over a kingdom O.S., all the while wrapping it in pseudo-spiritual clothes.

What is the world’s O.S.? The biggest, the greatest, the richest, the prettiest, the strongest. These are the values that have driven humanity since our Fall. In order to determine where we stand on the power-ranking pecking order, the business world has developed varied instruments and tools that precisely demarcate our competencies. In our efforts to niche our laity into appropriate comfort slots, we have baptized these “strength-finders” and bestowed on them a far more sacred moniker. With a halo’s glow shimmering on our freshly calculated “spiritual gift inventory,” we declare with the confidence of an Old Testament prophet, “Son, daughter, lead comfortably in your greatest, grandest, most powerful strength!”

And the Fall continues.

Published September 26, 2016