A Few Thoughts on the Gifts of The Spirit
Yesterday, as a congregation, we considered Acts 2:1-21, the first portion of Luke’s description of the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost. That sermon lays out a big theology of the Holy Spirit (or at least the beginnings of it). Last spring, I jotted some thoughts about the interplay of “the gifts of the Spirit” and a normal worship service. Here they are:
The biggest risk of being a church that encourages people to use their gifts is that they might actually take you up on the offer. You see, in our consumer culture, we expect church to be a program, a well-run, entertaining, educational presentation. We want polished speakers, skilled musicians, smooth transitions. And all that goes right out the window when you encourage and make room for people to use their gifts in the corporate worship setting. (Unless everyone in the room is too cautious to do anything… but that’s another post for another time.)
You see, if the charismatic gifts become a central or driving force in your gatherings, you might have that lady get up to share. She’s prone to long, loud “prophetic words” that tend to be about changing your life or receiving God’s love or some looming disaster. You might have that guy get up to share. He doesn’t have a filter, and the second he walks to the front, parents whisk their kids out of the sanctuary. Or you might have those people who collapse whenever someone prays for them - it’s the only way they know how to feel like they are really “receiving a powerful prayer.” Certain people’s visions and prophetic words might seem strangely to suggest that they themselves should have more authority in the church. Others will be wildly convinced they need to pray for that man’s porn addiction (whether or not he has one or has ever shared his struggle with anyone). And if you are handicapped - say, in a wheelchair - you’ll probably grow tired of someone new being confident they’re going to heal you every week. You may even have the difficult and embarrassing experience of someone grabbing your hand and lifting you out of your chair, only to drop you on the floor.
In my experience, whenever the Spirit is empowering people to do the sort of things listed in First Corinthians 12 or Romans 12 or Ephesians 4, those people will mix the leading of the Lord with their own ideas, hopes, aspirations, and more. If it’s really lively, you’ll have some people who are hearing from the Lord in truth, and some who want so badly to be the sort of people who hear from the Lord that they get up and share a “word” which they themselves made up. It’s messy. It’s chaotic. It is usually uncomfortable - especially for people who aren’t familiar with such an environment.
So, churches manage the issue in two extremes. On one side of it, they control the service - every minute is planned out. No one speaks who hasn’t submitted their message to the proper filters. There are professionals, and there are congregants, and the line between the two is impenetrable. On the other side of it, the prophetic word reigns supreme. The loudest people set the tone, and everyone follows along. Services can last for hours. No need for preparation, just show up and let the Spirit lead!
But what about those groups who believe the Spirit works as much (or more) through prayerful preparation, study, even rehearsal but also believe that when the community gets together, the Holy Spirit is free to change and adjust whatever he wants? I honestly don’t have a good answer. We’ve been a community who erred on the chaotic side of things, and we’ve been a community who erred on the controlled side of things.
With all the risks on either side, here’s what we believe, what we encourage: God the Holy Spirit gives gifts, so use the gifts he’s given. How do you know what those are? Don’t go take a spiritual gifts test online or in a book. Just look around the community where you worship asking: “what needs do I see?” You will be able to see needs no one else can see. And then ask “how can I meet that need?” You will be able to meet it in a way no one else can. It doesn’t really help much to identify what gift you’re using… so much as praise the Spirit for giving you the ability to edify your community.
Frankly, I’d rather people take the risk to use a gift of the Spirit when they feel so led and be wrong then people be afraid ever to use the gifts God has given them. And so, the challenge I give myself is for those of us “in charge” of the service to make room for it. We wait on the Lord. We stop and listen if someone has something to say. When it gets messy, we celebrate the risk taken, and capitalize on the learning opportunity while we clean it up.
It’s really important to note that not many gifts of the Spirit are best applied from a microphone in front of a gathered community. Some are best used in secret, and the Spirit moves most powerfully that way.
If the people who gather together, committed to one another, worshipping as one unit, are truly “the Body of Christ,” why would we ever limit the life and expression of Christ to a “professional” few? Our God empowers his people, no matter their educational or theological background.
And at the same time, discovering King Jesus in the Bible and applying the truths of his rule to the present day involves significant study - it’s a foreign book from a foreign time. Well-trained teachers, leaders, and preachers are essential to the life of the church. The same argument could be made for musicians, children’s ministers, and more.
One last thought: doesn’t Paul paint a picture of the Holy Spirit moving in the Corinthian church as “orderly?” What if all this talk about “messiness” is mislead. Perhaps it is. Does the Spirit bring order and life and structure out of chaos? Yes. That’s what he’s done from the beginning. This is one sign of the purity of the Spirit - order. Yet I suspect we measure order differently than the Spirit does. At the risk of a false dilemma: we want the Spirit rather than order. Perhaps the solution is that the Spirit brings order, but we find such order by pursuing the Spirit, not by pursuing order.