One of my favorite church events has always been the post-church potluck lunch. COVID-19 may have paused our monthly parade of 9-by-13 pans, but I dream of the day when we’ll all be back together in the church basement with our favorite recipes.
As a kid perusing the potluck banquet, I always went for the cookies. As an adult, I try to make wiser choices. I pass up the kielbasa to leave room for some salad, and I take a generous spoonful from otherwise-untouched pans so that no one feels bad. But no matter how carefully I make my selections, the offerings themselves aren’t always balanced. Some weeks, in mysterious synchronicity, everyone shows up with a pasta dish. Other weeks, we all resolve to be healthier, and vegetables take over space usually reserved for desserts.
The composition of spiritual gifts in the local church can look a lot like a meal in the fellowship hall. Sometimes, the church has an abundance of preachers and teachers. Other times, it has no one to fill in when the Bible study leader is sick. Sometimes, the church has plenty of people to cook and clean for the elderly. Other times, it struggles to find any. A church may have dozens of ministry organizers to every one person who can make the coffee, or 15 nursery volunteers to every one who wants to do evangelism. And in many churches, it can feel like a few people have all the gifts, and the rest of us barely have one.
For a generation of Christians versed in personality inventories and enneagram numbers, this environment can feel disorienting and even disappointing. Shouldn’t the gifts and graces in the church be more evenly distributed? Shouldn’t we be able to categorize the gifts in our midst? And shouldn’t our local body contain them all?
After decades of watching these questions play out in my local church and elsewhere, I think it might be time to put down the congregational surveys and spiritual gifts quizzes and learn to enjoy the feast the Spirit spreads for us.
In the New Testament, we find five different lists (Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 12:8–10, 28–30; Eph. 4:11; 1 Peter 4:7–11) that altogether name dozens of spiritual gifts. Some of the gifts are familiar—evangelism, faith, acts of mercy, teaching. Some are puzzling—what, for example, is the difference between “a message of wisdom” and “a message of knowledge” (1 Cor. 12:8)?
The interplay of the lists only adds to our head scratching. Several of the gifts are repeated in more than one list, while others appear in only one place. Even the two lists in 1 Corinthians—which we might expect to shed some clarifying light—include both repetitions and distinctions.
As I’ve spent time studying these parts of Scripture, one thing seems clear to me. Our attempts to rigidly classify and neatly identify a precise list of spiritual gifts will end in frustration. And that’s exactly the way it should be. Paul and Peter don’t encourage us to chart the gifts in our congregation or even to spend much time worrying about which ones we possess as individuals. In a sense, they want us to put down the gifts quiz—or at least to think and talk about it way less often.
That’s because an overly tidy approach to spiritual gifts misses this ultimate point: The Spirit gives precisely the right gifts in precisely the right measure at precisely the right moment to precisely the right people for the good of the local church. “All these [gifts],” writes Paul, “are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Cor. 12:11).
We see this idea echoed once again in verse 18. Comparing the church to a body, Paul writes, “But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.”
A few verses later, Paul plainly dismisses any suggestion that some people or gifts are more essential to the body’s well-being than others: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ and the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12: 21–22). Again, he asserts, “God has put the body together” (v. 24, emphasis added).
This simple truth shapes our theology of gifts in three distinct ways. First, it gives us confidence: Our specific gifts have an essential, God-appointed place. Second, it humbles us: Our specific gifts are only one part of the body, and we need other people with their unique gifts (Rom. 12:3).
Finally, this truth should increase our love for the local church. The gifts displayed by believers in our local body are exactly what our loving God knows we need. Their gifts are his gift to us. And however cobbled together they might seem, those people and those gifts are placed there with purpose.
Of course, the church is tasked with recognizing and utilizing congregants’ gifts, and the enneagram and other analysis tools can be useful toward that end. But ultimately, God’s desire is to see us look less toward ourselves and more toward the Spirit’s work in our gathered midst. He wants us to set aside our own ideas of what a balanced church looks like, grab a plate, and come enjoy the feast.
Megan Hill is the author of three books, including A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church (Crossway, May 2020). She serves as an editor for The Gospel Coalition and lives in Massachusetts where she belongs to West Springfield Covenant Community Church.