We became too modern in our thinking about spiritual gifts.
Years ago I read a biography of Henry Ford, the first person to mass-produce cars for sale to the public. In order to achieve that goal, Ford and the industries that developed from his efforts and example embraced certain values of modern society.
They prioritized being utilitarian: workers were assigned to repetitive tasks using specific skills in clearly limited roles. They deprioritized unique outcomes: millions of identical vehicles to increase production efficiency and achieve standardized results. And they sought to build their companies bigger and bigger: reach as many customers as possible for maximum impact and benefit.
This modern business model, of course, became pervasive in our society. These values of workers successfully performing tasks, high quality repeated outcomes, and reaching more and more people are very appealing. And it has its place. But it doesn’t and can’t help people know themselves, develop their unique potentials, and build true and loving connections with one another.
What does all this have to do with spiritual gifts?
There have been a lot of good results from the explosion of interest in spiritual gifts that happened in the last third of the twentieth century. Christians were guided to identify and use their specific abilities to serve other people, particularly within the church.
But some features of that recent emphasis on gifts seem to have a modern feel: it’s been stressed that gifts are about what you do not who you are; each gift was clearly defined as an added-on ability, drawn from a list and discerned by testing; and sometimes the goal of discerning and using your gifts was focused on bringing more and more people into the church.
Those are not bad things, but they don’t prioritize knowing who you uniquely are, learning how to develop your potentials, and building truth-in-love relationships. Of course, if God’s Word teaches that gifts are new utilitarian abilities you’ve been given that are useful for helping churches grow, I should stop critiquing that view and we should all get back to teaching people about the lists, administering the tests, and tasking people to ministry assignments.
But I wrote Spiritual Gifts Reimagined because I saw a different picture of gifts in Scripture.
I saw metaphors, like “gift” and the “distribution” of gifts. I saw lists of gifts that are not about things we get but about people displaying God’s grace in so many variegated ways. I saw still more metaphors, pointing to the journey of retrieving our potentials that are muted by sin’s damage and becoming the unique servants of God we each are. And I saw loving community as the scripturally prescribed environment for gift discovery and development.
But I didn’t just gain these insights through studying the Bible. I saw these values fleshed out in lives: people I walked alongside in ministry and friendships, as well as in my own life. People whose gifts grew and blossomed as they walked their journeys of growth.
Thank God for the benefits from all the books and classes and tests on gifts over the last several decades. But they may have been unknowingly influenced by our modern thinking. It’s time for some fresh insights on spiritual gifts: biblical insights that integrate gifting with who we are, how we grow, and why we need one another in the gifting journey.