Spiritual gift tests were popular in the 80’s and 90’s. Over time, however, interest in those tests declined as various secular tests became more popular, focusing on personality, strengths, or people types.
In this blog I’m not going to get into an explanation of why testing became the go-to discernment method for the popular view of gifts. I’ll just say that testing is part of the modern, mechanistic understanding of gifting that I refer to as the popular view. There’s a lot more about that in Spiritual Gifts Reimagined (SGR). But here I’ll discuss some pros and cons of using such discernment tests, and how that compares to the Scripture’s ideas about discerning our gifts.
I’m not an anti-test person. We just need to understand what tests about gifts, strengths, and people types can and cannot do, and seek biblical insights about discerning our spiritual gifts. Let’s look at three areas in which we can see contrasts between a testing emphasis and the priorities Scripture points to for discerning our gifts.
First, in SGR I present that gifting is not an automatic, one-time event. Christians agree that, in the NT Epistles, we learn a lot about the progressive process of spiritual growth. For reasons I explain in the book, I believe that gifting itself is a process that is one of the dimensions of our spiritual growth.
Even popular view teachers about gifts sometimes acknowledge that a person’s growth or lack of growth affects spiritual gift discernment and use. My point is that a spiritual gift test provides a snapshot that claims to tell you what your gifts are, but doesn’t take into account where you are in your journey of growth. The snapshot can be helpful, but its narrow focus should be kept in mind.
Second, of necessity, tests clarify categories of people, missing the uniqueness of individuals. When Paul and Peter gave us lists of people categories in Christ’s body (see SGR for an explanation of that), they did not intend for us to give those categories more prominence than the foundational truth that every unique person is given a manifestation of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7). But a test is only a test, so it has no choice but to stop at categorization (even though some categories are more fine-tuned than others).
If we’re talking about spiritual gifts, we might refer to categories like administrative people or mercy-sharing people. If we’re talking about personalities, we might talk about extroverts and introverts. Of course, there are lots of other categories mentioned in many books and tests. These people categories are useful for us in various ways. But who are you? Who am I? A test can’t go to that level of uniqueness. When we use a test, therefore, we must keep in mind that it’s an intermediate tool.
Third, most spiritual gift books and tests have focused on gifts as added abilities that are functional for doing tasks of ministry. In line with that utilitarian thinking, they major on teaching information about the gifts and their use. The Journey View of gifts, taught in SGR, presents that Scripture is not telling us about new abilities we’ve received, but is teaching us about the diversity of people we are by God’s creative grace. We should be talking about unique whole persons, not simply task functioning.
What we need, therefore, is not head knowledge about added gifts, but help to discover our true, potential-filled selves. That suggests our need for one another in our journeys of growth. This is one reason why an emphasis on love (agape) is always intertwined with spiritual gifts in the NT. This is why, in SGR, we take a deep dive into love—especially “listening love”—as what we need among ourselves as we discern together our gifts for serving God and others. Love discovers uniqueness; tests do not.
Check out SGR for more on these subjects because all I can do in this blog is skim over their surface. But if we will remember that gifting is part of a growing process, test categories are intermediate, and that gift discernment needs to focus on whole persons in loving relationships, we can go ahead and use testing instruments as long as we’re honoring these more important priorities.