Spiritual gifts and the problem of identity
We spent a month talking about our spiritual gifts as a church. It was a fun way to imagine how God has gifted us and a chance not to feel like we needed to invent ourselves on our own. It is helpful to think of how we are uniquely made instead of making ourselves.
Our primary identity, in my opinion, is God’s created and beloved. I think God has given us certain characteristics as a result, some of those relate to our specific giftings. I think when we imagine ourselves as gifted parts of the body, it gives us permission to be who we are, and lessens the anxiety of being who we aren’t.
Truthfully speaking, our society seems to value certain characteristics over others, certain personalities over others, and also certain giftedness over others. That creates pressure on us to behave in certain ways, instead of discerning what we are given to do. Extroverted, charismatic leaders get a lot of attention—and so even pastors feel pressured to be like them. You might feel like you need to be a winsome evangelist or an eloquent public speaker to be a great Christian. Or maybe you need to make the perfect pie, or be able to recite complex doctrine and theology, or be able to speak prophetic truths in frightening situations. All of those things are wonderful and I think we may be called to do them. But rather than trying to achieve “what the market selects for,” or what is valued in your culture, I think it is better to discern what we are given to do based on who God made us to be.
That framework requires some faith, which can be challenging to have in a postmodern era. Believing that God made us with an essence flies in the face of the postmodern idea that existence precedes essence. That is to say, we have an essence that doesn’t need to be constructed. This idea is complicated these days, especially as we talk about identity. We can’t always sort what God has given us, and what we’ve collected ourselves, or what we’ve been given by the world.
Our essence precedes our existence, and it doesn’t
Let me break this down in another way by asking some questions. What does it mean for me to be brown? What does it mean for me to be Egyptian? To be a man? To be a husband, a son, a father? A pastor, even? On one hand, essentializing the meaning of my brown-ness or man-ness can result in racism and sexism. On the other hand, though, acting as if those characteristics are purely the result of my own construction seems to be a stretch too. I don’t think we are blank canvases, and I don’t think we have to discover or invent ourselves on our own. I do think we are created with enough essence to pursue a vocation as a member of the body of Christ.
Now, we’re all given to love, for example, so I don’t think our gifts limit us from acting as Christians, but I think they particularize that action. But they are not a substitute for the “fruits of the Spirit.” Paul tells the Galatians: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” We are all striving for those characteristics, and our giftings can actually bring them out. If you’d like to take a spiritual gifts inventory to discern yours, you can find it here.
Our Leadership Team invited the whole church to a retreat to discern our giftings, and I was amazed at the ones people called out in me. So when you take the above, maybe have a friend take it for you, or at least have a conversation about it. You’d be surprised what you are missing in yourself (and a friend with the gift of discernment may be able to help you).
Circle of Hope has the gift of apostleship
At the end of our retreat, we wondered if God had gifted our whole body with certain gifts. We individualize our giftings so much, we may forget that God gave our local communities individual missions too, with their own particularities. On days when I feel alone, that’s comforting to know. On days when I feel competitive or judgmental, it is humbling to know. God gave us different things to do as individual people and as individual communities.
So what is Circle of Hope’s gifting? We came up with a lot. I thought we were gifted in apostleship.
The gift of apostleship refers to planting churches, starting missions, and initiating new things. It is distinct from similar gift’s like pastoring, which is mainly about shepherding a flock, or evangelism, which is mainly about storytelling. Apostleship is about planting seeds in new territory. It’s what the Apostle Paul did to start the church in the Mediterranean. They are important people, and gifted in unique ways.
Paul modeled how to bring the Gospel to his present time and place with great flexibility. He was part of the Council that decided to make circumcision no longer a requirement for communion with God and believers. God gave circumcision to Abraham, Israel’s founding father, as a sign of the covenant God made with him. God promised Abraham a great nation, and circumcision was how they’d remember that promise.
For non-Jewish people, circumcision was a big barrier to entry. Rather than requiring adult men to be circumcised, Paul said it was no longer necessary, as well as many other Jewish customs. He looked like he was ruining the tradition and the faith. But that’s what apostles do, they follow God so fiercely that they plant churches that seem unorthodox in order to reach new people.
Planting the church in the post-Christendom West
They are pioneers, not settlers. And I think Circle of Hope exercises its apostleship in our region. Planting churches in the post-Christendom West can be a challenge. It seems to me like most Christians are looking to maintain their cultural power and influence since they had it in such lavish quantities for much of American and European history. But that time is coming to a close.
More and more people are not identifying as Christians. Our old church buildings are turning into condos. And Christianity is no longer an assumption about people. Five-hundred years ago it was impossible for people not to believe in God; these days, it feels impossible for them to believe in God. We’re dealing with a different landscape and set of philosophies. Harkening back to the beginning of this post, we’re all expected to come up with a worldview that suits us. And so in the marketplace of ideas, we are hard-pressed to find God.
Before, finding God was as simple as waking up to a Christian hegemony and rule. But that isn’t how the world is anymore. And you know it’s not because there are people that are committed to restoring it to how it was. They are the fundamentalists that have allied with white nationalists, as they grasp for a time that has past. Western Christianity as it was has become synonymous to Westernism as it is. So you can see why such an alliance seems to make sense. But that sort of alliance, where Christianity is a construct of the West and byproduct of whiteness, is deadly to the church. We need to find new ground to plant the church in our postmodern landscape. We’re not grandiose enough to speak on behalf of the whole church; we are applying what we’ve been given to do in a very specific time and place.
Rather than living on the “inheritance” of the church, we want to let go what is dying and find new soil to plant the Gospel. We want to plant the church in the postmodern, urban Northeast United States, specifically in the Philly metro. That means we need to make a new church, for the next generation. We are imagining what the Spirit is doing next and we feel gifted in finding new ways to help people get next to Jesus.
We’ll take the best of the past and try to pioneer a way forward. I think that’s Circle of Hope’s gifting. It’s a different kind of church, which means that sometimes we look strange or unorthodox. We do it for the next person. We do it for the next plant. We do it for you.