Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Missional Church (Part 2): Identifying Our Gifts:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. -I Corinthians 12:1-14
I hope that any given gathering of believers has a wide variety of members that encapsulate what it means to be eyes and ears and feet and hands, and, for that matter, armpits and ankles, and so on and so forth, and I suspect that this is a reality for most churches that have a thriving congregation. With this as a reality, the local church has the ability to do many and varied tasks that promote the kingdom. It is my prayer that we (i.e. each local church) would have a robust and well-rounded view of our mission as the Church (i.e. the body of all believers), and that we would be mindful of all the parts of the body and their talents as we pursue and follow the missio dei. This is certainly a priority given to the local church and its congregants by Paul (I Cor. 12:1-14), and we need to be ever mindful of it.

With our diversity in mind, the local church needs to be well rounded. However, is it the case that each local congregation has to do all the tasks that their neighboring congregations perform, as if we are in a competition? While I believe wholeheartedly in the need for a well-rounded body, I also find myself believing more and more that each local community has its own strengths that others do not. In other words, it is perhaps the case that while one congregation is filled with people of various talents so that we find all sorts of varying body parts within, when these parts come together as a whole within the local body, the whole, which is still a part of a much larger body (the universal Church), might best be described as a body part, having a few great strengths, rather than a lot of average strengths. I hesitate here to give an example because I hope that each church would be able to find for itself its own unique strength that could contribute to the whole, and I in no way wish to influence the discovery of such a call and gifting. 

Certainly, no church should ever settle by saying, “Well, we have this down and not that, and we are satisfied with feeding our strengths and ignoring our weaknesses.” I certainly am not suggesting we ignore our weaknesses. If a church feels it can ignore any facet of ministry that might utilize one part of the body over others, then there might be several people in the congregation that have their unique gifting ignored. Even so, there is nothing wrong with admitting that, as a whole, the church body can be used most efficiently for this or that Kingdom task.  I am merely saying we come to grips with our strengths and try our best to serve others (individuals or other local bodies) in these areas that might not be as strong in that given area. There are certainly varied attributes that should be held by all local bodies, and this is not a denial of this fact. I am merely speaking of those gifts God gives above and beyond the general gifts promised to all who are faithful. Let me see if I can show the practicality of what I am musing about at this moment:

For the past several years now, I have been involved in a project to raise awareness for the needs of the Navajo Nation and its people. Some time ago, I felt God speaking to me and asking me to stop with my normal pitch, which involved sharing with various church and organization leaders all of the various good deeds my organization was able to provide to these people, which was geared to convince others to support our own efforts, and, instead, God asked me to share the overwhelming issues that we (as a small organization) are unable to touch. So, instead of asking for assistance in the form of support for what is already being done, I was commissioned to ask for help for the Navajo apart from what we were able to do. When God first asked me to change my approach, I was a bit frustrated and did not understand why He would ask such, but I reluctantly followed, and I was often met with the same question.

Although in years past I have found this question to be quite ligament and still find it has its place, I have nonetheless found it increasingly strange for a church leadership to only ask others who are looking for missional assistance: “So, what do you want from us?” As one who has been asked this question several times now, I find it somewhat cutting. It carries with it, most of the time unintentionally, a sense of superiority. Once again, this is not to say the question does not have its place, but, perhaps, it could be reworded to be more servant oriented: “How can we be of help?” Even still, I find this question, no matter how it was framed, frustrating in light of the new approach God had given me.

 Before I share why this question became increasingly frustrating, I must make certain I am not heard as saying it is totally without warrant. Certainly, this question might reflect the reality of the reason the person who comes soliciting church leaders is asking for help in the first place. In other words, the person might be coming with a particular need in mind, such as financial support, and it helps to prevent beating round the bush. This question swiftly moves all involved to put all their cards on the table. The Church need not waist its time tiptoeing. But, what I often found is that, while I did my best to convince others I was not looking for direct support, unless that group felt led above and beyond my petitioning to do so, I was still heard as asking, “Support us,” instead of “Support the Navajo in the unique and special way God has given you, if He has indeed given you such gifts.” Much of the time, certainly not all the time, I was speaking past my audience because they had a preconceived notion of what I was looking for.  So, the question should be asked, and if that is what the person is looking for, then the cards are down, but perhaps, that is not what is being asked, and the conversation needs to continue by a discussion that demonstrates the local church’s understanding of its own call and unique gifting to help promote the Kingdom.

So, why was the question: “How can we help?” so unhelpful to the particular pursuit I was engaged in? Simply put, that was the question I was asking them. God was not interested in my sharing what we were doing so that the local body would know what they were supporting if they simply donated. He was interested in me presenting the issues beyond our control so as to say, “Does this church know of a way to move towards assistance in this or that area that we at my organization have no means to assist in at this time?” I would much rather hear the answer, “We do not feel called to help the Navajo, but we will pray that God calls out a group to assist them with their needs,” instead of “We do not think we can help you at this time.” Believe it or not, I was their asking on behalf of a needy people, not on behalf of a Christian organization looking to improve their own efforts in assisting others.

So, what am I trying to say? What was God trying to teach me by having me present these issues to church leaders, instead of giving them precise ways I, and the organization for which I work, planned to help? I think He was, at least in part, trying to share something of a need within the church on local levels: If the church has a very well-rounded understanding of its own strengths as part of a much greater whole, the leaders might best serve other’s of the greater body and the causes they present by being able to truly say: “We cannot do everything, but we certainly can help with this or that area.” Even here I do recognize that churches can become stretched too thin, even in areas of strength. However, if the body being asked for assistance cannot physically or financially support, I cannot help but think they could, if they knew their own gifts well, help those looking for help, by teaching them to strengthen their own body in this area by saying, “While we know how to help, we cannot physically do so without weakening the areas of ministry we are already involved in, but we would be honored to help you think this through and teach you what we have learned in this or that area of which we are very proficient.”

I certainly do not think this is outside the scope of Paul’s purpose for speaking of gifts and our need as local bodies to recognize that God gives us unique gifts for a specific purpose. While I recognize here that Paul is speaking about individuals, his argument is based on the fact that the individuals are part of a larger body. If this is at least one of his premises for arguing for the individual accepting his uniqueness as part of a bigger whole, I simply wish to use that same premise as it applies to the local church, which is certainly a part of a much, much larger whole. Isn’t it likely that He gives us these unique gifts so that collectively we can complete a specific purpose as well? Our church will most certainly be more affective if we know who we are and what we are called to do. This is not to neglect that each local body has callings that are shared by all local bodies, but it certainly is not limited to the general call, and the general call is certainly not an all inclusive call so that each church must do this or that at every turn. It is not as if we are failing in our outreach if we do not have a mission for every single need that exists. How wonderful would it be if local bodies would share one with another, “Here are our strengths so that if one local body was presented with a need that they where not called or equipped to help, they could tell the seeker: “We know where to send you for help!” Could you imagine what a larger community that houses such local bodies would look like? Instead of having ten churches all serving the food bank and none serving the women’s shelter, the community’s needs are met by the larger church working as a body made up of cohesive parts…

 Just something I have been considering…what do you think?