It may be time to re-frame spiritual gift assessment tools and inventories. For the past thirty years or more, Protestant congregations have enthusiastically embraced the apostle Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts. In the process, they have affirmed the biblical promise that every Christian has been gifted by the Holy Spirit for service to Christ and His Church. As a result, the ministry of the local church has been expanded well beyond that of the ordained ministry. And this is good.
In the process, the biblical teaching of spiritual gifts has reached hitherto unknown heights of significance. Congregations, for example, regularly invite their members to participate in spiritual gift assessment tests. Pastors and church leaders then inventory those gifts – as well as their own. Church consultants even encourage such practices by labeling the identification and application of individual spiritual gifts as a mark of congregational health. Now it seems that a majority of Protestant congregations regularly ask their constituents to take some kind of test to assess their spiritual gifts. Consequently, countless Christians have seemingly determined their spiritual gifts through assessment tools and, on the basis of their identifiable gifts, have determined how and when to serve Christ and His Church.
I wonder if it is time to take another look at Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts. More specifically, I wonder if it is to reassess the value of spiritual gift assessment tools and spiritual gift inventories. I find them lacking on, at least, four counts.
- First, spiritual gift assessment tools tend to view spiritual gifts as fixed. Once determined, spiritual gifts are viewed as permanent assets in a Christian’s tool kit. It is assume that once you have a gift, you can’t lose it. But is that the case? Isn’t possible that the Spirit gifts you in one way for service in one context and gifts you another way for service in another context? Could one be called and gifted to preach or teach with one congregation but be called and gifted to serve in other ways with a different congregation? In other words, isn’t there a contextual element to the experience of spiritual gifts?
- Second, spiritual gift assessment tools tend to institutionalize the charismatic and thereby diminish the role of grace. It seems to me that the primary impetus behind Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts is to assure the local church that, as it follows the leading of the Spirit, God’s grace will be sufficient to meet every challenge. The local church will be gifted for service in the name of Jesus Christ and, as a church, we need to identify and affirm the spiritual gifts that become apparent in our brother and sisters in Christ. But, as is our custom, we take grace and turn it inward. Plus, in our attempts to control the Holy Spirit, we institutionalize the charismatic.
- Third, as a result of #2 above, spiritual gift assessment tools change the rules of engagement. Instead of following the lead of the Spirit and, in the process, discovering spiritual gifts to meet the challenges before us, we identify our spiritual gifts and determine how and when to serve the Lord. In other words, when we institutionalize the charismatic by determining the gifts of the spirit through diagnostic tests, it seems to me that we have lost one of the most exciting parts of the Christian life – discovering God’s strength in our weakness or discovering that God can do more than we could ever ask or imagine in and through us.
- Fourth, spiritual gift assessment tools make individual that which is corporate. Clearly, the apostle Paul offered his teaching on spiritual gifts to the local church. In the process, he assured local congregations they would discover gifts sufficient for the ministry to which the Lord called them. In addition, each encourages mutual affirmation of spiritual gifts and a passion for congregational unity while assuring each Christian that he or she will be gifted by the Holy Spirit for service in the name of the Lord. Interestingly: Paul never mandates that individual Christians identify their spiritual gifts. He simply assures us that we will be gifted for service. As my former professor of New Testament, Julius Scott, once taught us, get to work and you will discover your gifts
There may be a time and place for individual Christians to assess their unique mix of spiritual gifts in a particular context. I can envision a Christian doing so as part of a testimony as to how he or she found God’s grace sufficient in meeting a particular challenge. But perhaps it is time to reframe spiritual gifts as God’s gift to the local church, a gift that assures each congregation that it can be all God intends it to be, and encourages each Christ-follower to join others in stepping into the future with confidence that, in the process, they will discover that the Lord never leads his people where His grace does not keep them.