I met a man years ago who possessed the true spiritual gift of evangelism. He shared faith in such an authentic and unguarded way that even atheists listened to him with respect. More than any words he said, any actions he took, he simply exuded an assurance and a non-anxious presence. People responded to him in exceptional ways. He wasn’t a biblical scholar, nor was he a studied theologian. He spoke openly from his heart. He shared his convictions and he offered others an invitation to meet his Savior. I have never known anyone else who introduced more people to Christ. He wasn’t overly persuasive, charismatic, or influential, but when he shared his faith it was as if there was a spiritual-chemical reaction. His spirit touched other spirits and lives were changed.
Spiritual gifts tend to work this way. They defy simple explanation. When used well and wisely, the results exceed any rational expectation. An acquaintance from Texas with the gift of giving has made and given away three fortunes, and he is just fifty. A woman in St. Louis with the gift of compassion rallied a community to feed over 500 people each week. A teenager in Colorado with the gift of leadership organized a recycling movement that employs dozens of low income residents. A gifted teacher is named by over fifty successful former students as both the source of their effectiveness as well as the source of their faith. One man with the gift of apostleship sold his business and his home and moved to China, where he serves as a Christian missionary. In so many cases, when people live from their spiritual gifts the result is transformation.
When Barbara and I were doing the research for our spiritual gifts discovery process, Equipped for Every Good Work, we discovered that only about 5% of laity and 7% of clergy were aware of their spiritual gifts. If the biblical admonition to be good stewards by serving one another with whatever gift we have been given is valid, shouldn’t we at least know what those gifts are? It is impossible to use well what we don’t even realize we possess. And yet, if we can trust the apostle Paul, each of us has gifts empowered by the very Spirit of God. Each of us is equipped with standard spiritual equipment to do amazing things.
But gifts seem to lie dormant in many people. Hundreds of people have said to me over the years, “I don’t have any gifts.” Don’t believe it. To the extent that we are created in God’s image and as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, we ARE gifted. It cannot be otherwise. Discovering, exploring, developing, improving in our use of, and sharing our gifts is at the heart of the life of Christian discipleship. It isn’t ever that we don’t have gifts, only that we don’t understand how to use them (or don’t see our gifts as we use them). Often in the process of gifts discovery someone will say, “My highest gift is x, but I don’t see that as my gift.” Immediately, others in the group will begin to argue with the person, affirming that indeed they do have a particular gift. So discovery is important, as is understanding, but there are a couple other important factors as well.
First, gifted people are most effective when they are grounded in prayer and spiritual reflection. Prayer is the energy source that fuels our spiritual gifts. Like tools intended for specific purposes, spiritual gifts are most effective when employed to do God’s will. The best way to discern the will of God is in prayerful community, seeking together a vision of what God calls us to do and be. Spiritual reflection helps us to clarify what we believe God calls us to do and how we can best work together to achieve success. No spiritual gift is adequate unto itself. We need the gifts of others to maximize the impact and value of our own. Teaching is much more effective when linked with knowledge, wisdom, discernment, and leadership. Healing is more powerful when linked with compassion, faith, servanthood, and administration. Evangelism is more effective when linked with prophecy, discernment, exhortation and shepherding. Together we are always greater than the sum of our parts. We are much more successful as the body of Christ, instead of a bunch of disconnected body parts.
Second, we need to practice. As with anything else we want to get really good at, using our gifts requires active, intentional engagement. And not just AT CHURCH. The gifts have not been given to us so that we can serve the needs of the local church. The local church exists that we might be equipped with our gifts to BE the church for the world. Certainly, we may be able to use our gifts to support the mission and ministry of a local congregation, but our gifts don’t belong to the church with a little “c” — they belong to the “Big C” church. Spiritual gifts define us as the body of Christ. We live most effectively from our gifts when we use them at home, at work, at school, driving down the street, when we’re out shopping, as well as when we gather in our church buildings. Our gifts allow us to witness to our relationship to God in the normal, ordinary things we do each and every day.
Third, we need to value and celebrate our spiritual gifts. Ours is a culture that devalues “soft” skills. Wisdom, compassion, discernment, prophecy, helping, exhortation (encouragement), and faith are often ignored or taken for granted because they are less tangible or obvious than other gifts. We rarely make as big a deal over the gift of time or energy as we do money or material goods. Many gifts work “below the surface” — they are not noticeable, even though they are critical for success. Unintentionally, we may show preference for leadership, giving, teaching, healing or administration, simply because they are more visible. To study, discuss, explore and investigate spiritual gifts helps us recognize the gifts in everyone — offering the whole congregation something to celebrate.
Every person is gifted. Beyond spiritual gifts, we possess unique knowledge, experience, wisdom, skills, talents, and abilities. Additionally, we each harbor deep passions and interests that help define who we are. At its best, the congregation is a place where we can explore, develop, and combine our gifts to achieve amazing results. And what is true of individuals is also true of entire faith communities. When one gifted congregation joins other gifted congregations, the whole world can be transformed. A vision for such unity is well worth pursuing, and the catalyst for such global conversion is already within our grasp — gifts from God given to us all.