Spiritual gifts: Why we should stop worrying what we've got and start using them

The gift of hospitality doesn't necessarily mean going on the coffee rota.Flickr/Bellezza87

"I suspect I have the gift of hospitality – but if my church realises they will put me on the coffee rota. Help!"

"We don't really do spooky gifts at our church so let's hope I don't get 'words of knowledge' or 'prophecy.'"

"I have the gift of teaching, but my church doesn't allow women to teach except in Sunday School, and last time I tried that it was a disaster."

"My church pastor says I have the gift of evangelism and that I should run Alpha, but I already have multiple evening commitments as chair of Governors at our local primary school."

"Someone at a summer festival told one of our young people that they have the spiritual gift of 'feeling other people's pain' and now they don't want to help with crèche any more as it is 'not their gift'."

"Many years ago I used to love drama but haven't done acting for several decades. Now I am told I have committed the sin of allowing a spiritual gift to die. What can I do?"

Who knew handling spiritual gifts would be so complicated?

My Facebook feed offers me a myriad ways to understand my personality, whether its analysing which Lord of the Rings character I am most similar to, how old my brain is, where in the country I ought to live, or even what my jeans tell you about my reading habits.

Just like the expectant students of Hogwarts who put on the Sorting Hat to discover which house they naturally belong to, many of us love these apps that help us work through the huge number of decisions we have to make about how to live in the world today.

There will always be people who love to "discover their spiritual gift". With the variety of ways we can serve in our churches of today, it is quite handy to have a little questionnaire, course or tool to point us in the right direction. And certainly they are handy for our church leaders to help allocate and delegate appropriate jobs to appropriate people with just cause.

But there will also be people who react against this labeling and boxing in, who struggle to see the links between the passions God has given them and the positions available in the church. Many people are scared that they have supernatural gifts they would rather not unwrap in public. Others are nervous of those Christians practising the more 'charismatic gifts' and keep their distance, hoping their church won't become too 'freaky'. There are those who vociferously claim that God's one gift to them – playing the recorder, maybe – needs to be utilised on a weekly basis with due amplification, and those who feel woefully inadequate even to welcome others into the building. Spiritual gifts can sometimes feel more like a curse than a blessing.

Ever since the day of Pentecost and the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, the Church has received spiritual gifts from God in order to accomplish her mission in the world. And right from the beginning there were those who were amazed, and those who were confused. The confusion has lived on among Christians, especially regarding the question of which gifts mentioned in the New Testament continue on today and which are valid in the 21st century Church.

Those theologians that believe spiritual gifts began and ended with the apostles are known as 'cessationists', and often justify their position by citing 1 Corinthians 13: "Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears... For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."

Scripture promises that spiritual gifts will cease, so all Christians should really be "cessationists" in one sense. But the controversy comes not in whether giftings will cease, but when. Is it with the completion of Scripture and the revelation of God through his written Word? Or is it when we see God "face to face", fully known and knowing fully, at the end of time when Christ comes again?

There is also a line sometimes drawn between the so-called miraculous gifts (such as prophecy, tongues, healing and words of knowledge) which some churches prefer to believe ended with the apostles, and the other gifts (such as pastor / teacher, evangelist, administration and hospitality) which they obviously believe continue today.

It's a strange dichotomy as, for example, scripture teaches that people are "dead in their transgressions and sins" and yet through the gospel can be resurrected to spiritual life – and if that's not miraculous I don't know what it is! Yet those that argue that miraculous spiritual gifts have ceased tend to agree the gift of the evangelist continues. And so I find the segregation of gifts into these two categories arbitrary and difficult to justify on a biblical basis. Personally I believe that Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 is talking about the continuation of gifts alongside faith, hope and love and that gifts cease only when Christ returns, which is when we will know as we are fully known.

Therefore, in my view, we should expect to see a variety of gifts at work in our local churches.

Wherever you stand on the continuance of spiritual gifts, and the relevance of particular gifts for today's Church, there remains the difficulty of identifying and utilising those gifts amongst our congregations. Furthermore, there is the problem of ensuring that the encouragement of spiritual gifts is empowering and not enslaving.

So here are five landmarks to keep in view while orienteering the landscape of spiritual gifts.

1. Gifts are by grace, not by works

The Bible clearly teaches that when God includes us into his family by faith, we join him in the family business of building his Church and demonstrating his kingdom. God equips us with spiritual gifts to help accomplish his work. As we seek to follow God and become more like Jesus, we will see our unique place in the church and in our community develop naturally. For the most part they will suit our personality, our passions, our skills and our circumstances, for these have also been given to us from God.

They may not be perfectly labelled, honed, recognised and developed from the outset, but God's timescales are different from ours. The important thing is that we recognise God's grace to us in including us in his work, and we seek to glorify him daily, not because we must, but because we want to draw closer to the one who has saved and adopted us.

2. Gifts do not define you

When I see one of our regular preachers sweeping the floor at the end of a service after a visiting preacher has done a bland job, or a young person struggling to strum the chords while our professional musicians sit in the pew having a "week off", it sometimes makes me grumble at the inefficiency of church life. But I also recognise that we are more than the spiritual gifts we have been given. Being a gifted pastor and teacher does not negate our calling to be a good servant to the needs of others. The gift of healing does not preclude you from showing hospitality by washing up at the end of a service.

Philip was a man recognised to be full of the Spirit. This was the primary qualification the apostles were looking for when selecting someone to do the very practical task of the distribution of food to widows, an area where there had been some controversy. But the New Testament's account of Philip focuses on his work as an evangelist, not as a waiter. It is Philip who sees many in Samaria come to faith and then is led by the Spirit to the desert to witness to the Ethiopian eunuch, who seems to have been the springboard for his nation's coming to faith.

In the wrong hands Philip's identification as someone with the gift of hospitality might have limited his ministry and stopped him from obeying God's call in other areas. Whatever our gift, we are primarily defined as God's children, filled by God's Spirit, and as such we should be open to the Spirit to lead us into all sorts of ministry opportunities.

3. Gifts are for the benefit of the Church, not for your ego 

Being identified as a prophet can give you a lot of kudos in the church. Your words carry more weight than they used to. Similarly the gift of teaching may open doors for those who like to stand behind a microphone. It may be tempting to see the gift of hospitality as a bit lame in comparison, as there is often very little public appreciation for this on a Sunday morning service. But this would be to misread how gifts work and whom they are for.

Firstly Christ has distributed the gifts as he sees fit, so belittling our gifts dishonours Christ himself (Ephesians 4:7). Secondly, the gifts are not there to honour the operator of the gift but rather for the building up of the church and the glory of God. And thirdly, gifts are supposed to underline the indispensiblity of other people, not as a way to magnify our own importance (1 Corinthians 12) . Perhaps this is why the more public gifts often come with cautions – prophets are warned not to lead others astray, and teachers that they will be judged more strictly. Plagues and curses are even threatened for abuse of those positions. Whatever our gifts, they can easily become misused for personal ego building and so we need to remember that in the end they are not given for us but for the benefit of the Church.

4. Gifts are for the sake of the world

What happens when your main gift is not really that useful on a Sunday morning – administration, mercy or evangelism? There is a danger, particularly as church leaders are struggling to find people to populate rotas and run ongoing ministries, that gift surveys and courses are a slightly mischievous means to assign people to jobs that need doing at our services. Instead we should try and spot spiritual gifts in people and alongside their character, maturity and passion seek to nurture them to grow in these areas. This might mean some important Sunday morning ministries get dropped for the sake of equipping and releasing people to serve God in their workplace and neighbourhoods. It may mean that we regularly publicly affirm the calling of our teachers, carers, evangelists, as well as recognising how much we are blessed by those in our churches who have an ability to crunch numbers or willingly open their homes, wallets or hearts.

5. Gifts are about mission

A games console needs all the parts – but then it has to be played.news.xbox.com

Spiritual gifts are a way of rooting us to one another in church. Despite the individualism of our culture, the church is supposed to be a family, a community, a relational network of people who love each other deeply and serve each other sacrificially. In his wisdom God has made the role that other people play in your spiritual life indispensible.

Perhaps I could try a similar strategy when deciding gifts to give my family at Christmas. Imagine I wrap up an Xbox console and give it to my wife as her present. I then give the controllers to my daughters and the cables to my sons. Each gift, though generous, is on its own virtually useless, but once everyone contributes their part suddenly the whole thing works together.

But there is still something missing. With no games, the whole gift is pointless. Similarly, even if we recognise the different gifts that God has given the members of the church, unless we have worked out how to use them for God's mission we are wasting our time. Once my family is embroiled in working out how Lego Robin can help Lego Batman on the screen achieve the next power up, suddenly it isn't as important who put which cable into which port, or who owns which controller.

Discovering our spiritual gifts and making sure they operate is only the first stage. It is only when we recognise the grace of God and our identity in Christ, and we join in the Spirit's purpose to build the Church, save the world and equip us for mission, that things really begin to take off.