If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?1 Corinthians 12:17
What are the most memorable words anyone has spoken to you? I still recall meeting a South African called Andy: we only really had one proper conversation in the few months we overlapped at the same church, but towards the end of an hour chatting, he said to me, “How many life-changing meetings have you been to? Don’t focus on meetings: be a life-changing person.” Long before I was involved in church leadership, this shaped how I looked at the functioning of Christian community.
Those words are good ones, but I doubt that they have anything like the same effect on you as you read them – and the reason for that is that Andy had a particular gift of pastoral discipleship. He listened to people, kept an ear out to what the Holy Spirit was saying, and spoke the right word at the right time to have a huge impact on someone’s life. As a result, when he spoke words like this, they came with a quiet and gentle authority, and landed on a heart that needed to hear those words at that point in life.
I could equally point to times when someone spoke into my life with the prophetic gift. I think of my friend Neil who sat me down and said (with a touch of British awkwardness) “I think God wants me to talk to you about women” – not knowing that after a few messy relationships, I had just started corresponding with Caroline, now my wife. Or perhaps the three people who didn’t know each other, went to three different churches, and yet all shared with me within the space of 24 hours that they thought God wanted me to move from IT into church ministry.
The church thrives when people like Andy and Neil get to excel in the gifts God has given them, rather than filling whatever the perceived “gaps” are, even if they don’t fit. To put that in terms of Paul’s body metaphor, imagine how ludicrous it would be for someone who was missing a leg to try to replace it with a finger, or one of their ears! We need to let ears be ears, even if we’re missing a leg at the moment – they’re crafted with God’s creative genius and incredible precision to be excellent at hearing, and they hurt if you stand on them1If you’ve tried this and disagree, I’d love to hear from you.
Beyond individual excellence
But there’s a further strength and beauty that can be found in the body of Christ, and that’s when people with diverse gifts work together in harmony. I don’t think I’ve ever met a really gifted evangelist who loved teaching, and I’ve often seen tension between people with those two gifts: the evangelist is so keen on seeing people born again that they just want to give people the basics of salvation, with no barriers of doctrine or “church behaviour” to worry about, and when those people are born again, they want to find some more lost people. The teacher wants to be sure that they’ve really understood the Gospel, that they’re prepared to make life changes, and that the church thrives as a healthy place for those new believers to land. Even if they get to the point of understanding each other, they can often be placed in a church culture where they feel the need to “compete” for the direction and energy of the church.
On the other hand, in places where these two gifts are helped to work together, the results are beautiful: the teacher appreciates the evangelist’s heart for the lost, makes sure they have access to good resources, occasionally challenges fuzzy theology, and ensures that the wider church understands the theology of witnessing; the evangelist appreciates the teacher’s desire to see God’s nature known and His truth proclaimed, demonstrates through regular new birth that the Gospel still transforms lives, occasionally challenges the pursuit of purely academic theology, and stresses to new believers the importance of continuing to learn from the Scriptures.
The same could be said of pioneer leaders2“pioneer leader” or “church planter” is one common understanding of the term “apostle” as used in Ephesians 4, but whether or not that’s your understanding, it’s clearly a gift! and administrators – often they can be at loggerheads, with administrators frustrated at there being new ideas every week with little follow-through, and pioneers feeling thwarted by bureaucracy. On the other hand, with common understanding and goals, the administrator can help the pioneer to bring people with them and to build sustainably, while the pioneer can bring vision and keep the administrator from simply cranking the handle and keeping tired structures alive.
All of this takes effort. A lot of effort. We have to learn to understand people who aren’t like us, and we have to take Paul’s command to think of others more highly than ourselves from a comfortably abstract notion to a practical, lived-out one. So why bother?
The key here is this: God could do it all Himself anyway. That’s right – He doesn’t need us to accomplish His purposes3If anyone wants convincing on this, start with Isaiah 59! but He loves it when we do. Growing up, it was a good day if my sisters and I didn’t spend most of our time bickering or ganging up two-against-one. We have a lot of similarities and very similar DNA, but also very different motivations and gifts. But on the occasional Saturday, we would work together to make breakfast in bed for our parents, or write and act out a funny4well, we thought it was funny play, or some similar project, and invariably our parents would love it. We didn’t have to be competent – I remember one occasion where we thought it would be good to make them nettle soup, and we served it cold because we weren’t allowed to use the kettle – and my parents could have done a much better job, but they loved it because their children were working together. I’m convinced that when people with different gifts in the church use their gifts excellently and in cooperation with each other, it is beautiful to God – and that is surely the highest goal of all.
So, how can we actively pursue this? What can we practically do, to get closer to this beautiful ideal of pleasing God by excelling and cooperating? Here’s some of my considered thoughts:
- Don’t try to fill gaps if you don’t have the gifting and faith to do so. I’m not talking about last-minute stand-ins for someone who’s sick, but rather the guilt-led, “someone needs to do it or it won’t get done”. Like it or not, there are normally people in the wings who aren’t stepping up because someone else always does. Or perhaps God is OK with that thing being left undone for a season. But the “fill-the-gap” mentality leaves us walking on eyes, looking through noses – you get the picture.
- Engage with the spirituality of people who aren’t like you. Where others differ from us in motivation, gifts, demeanour or spiritual practices, we can be quick to judge that difference as immaturity or even lack of orthodoxy. However, that judgment does no good to them or to us, and it’s normally uninformed. If we take time to learn why it is that someone lives and acts so differently, we’ll come to a more accurate picture: and while there’ll often be some immaturity in the mix, we normally find that there’s also a different God-given gift or motivation for us to appreciate.
- Believe the best of brothers and sisters in the faith. This follows on from the previous point: where our feelings towards someone are based on ignorance of what they’re really like and their true motivations, we often default to suspicion and criticism. This is not a call to naivety, but to trust. We must have our eyes open to sin and wickedness in the church, but it should not be our default assumption about anyone we don’t “click” with.
- Think about the strengths and weaknesses of the mix of gifts God has given you. You have been given a beautiful and unique mix of gifts, which God intends you to use in and out of the church to build up His Kingdom. You’ve also not been given the full package – and the areas in which you are not gifted will leave holes. Some of mine are: poor communication, poor administration, being overly abstract in explaining vision, struggling to simplify teaching for younger audiences, understanding younger teenagers, forgetting to care for people with whom I’m not in regular contact. Knowing that, I value and seek to partner up with people who are strong in those ways: in particular, even though I don’t like talking about process and communication strategy, I really value spiritually-minded administrators. Work out your gaps, and look to understand and work with people who excel in those areas.
If you’ve taken the time to read this far, it’s definitely worth another five minutes of your time now to pray and bring those four points before God, who knows us far better than we know ourselves. How can we live this out more perfectly? How can we use what we’ve been given and what we haven’t been given to glorify God in community and cooperation?
How truly wonderful and delightfulPsalm 133:1
To see brothers and sisters living together in sweet unity!
This blog is one of a series on how we use our gifts in the church, which will grow over the coming weeks. The main post and the links to other topics can be found here. As always, if you have any thoughts or reflections, please do comment below – and if you would like to have a longer discussion on a specific area or your personal situation, please do drop me an email.