How does the Holy Spirit speak to a church? When I pose that question to groups of Christians, answers come slowly. They usually stammer replies, such as “through the pastor” or “through the Word.” Sometimes they suggest that God uses “dreams” or “circumstances” to guide a church. However, the awkward pauses between their answers betray how rarely believers stop to consider the question.
Their answers to my question all have validity to some degree but overlook the main method God created to enable churches to discern His leading. God’s main mechanism to communicate with His churches is through the interplay of spiritual gifts which He distributes to believers in every church. It’s a gift based approach to church leadership.
If God intended churches to discern His leading through the interplay of spiritual gifts, how does a gift based leadership model play out? It builds on three biblical assumptions. First, a gift orientation to church leadership assumes that God has placed particular people with particular spiritual gifts in your particular church to fulfill its particular purpose (1 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 4:15-16). Secondly, it assumes that the same Holy Spirit speaks through people with different spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:4, 11). And thirdly, a church can recognize when it’s hearing from the Holy Spirit when a message or decision resonates with all the variously gifted leaders in your church. We see this play out in passages such as Acts 13:1-4; and Acts 15:1-19.
Unfortunately, most churches fail to recognize the principles of gift based leadership hiding in plain sight within Scripture, particularly in Paul’s body analogy found in 1 Corinthians 12. Instead, many evangelical churches embrace the spirit of pragmatism, which hangs like a dense fog engulfing American culture. Pragmatism, is an approach to planning and decision making based on man’s best wisdom, reflecting practical solutions which have worked in the past. Defaulting to pragmatism falls far short of the gift based model, but it also impedes hearing how the Holy Spirit is speaking and leading.
Consider the following six ways to cultivate a gift based approach to church leadership:
- Be willing to listen to all the spiritual gifts God has placed in your fellowship. In some churches particular gifts hog the limelight. The Bible warns us that when this happens it’s like the whole body becoming an “eye” or an “ear.” If your church tends to idolize teachers, or the pastor, or the worship leader/team, or has a fixation on one particular ministry, you may not be listening to all the gifts in your body (1 Cor. 12:22-24). If your church acquiesces to a controlling spirit exercised by one or more members, you fall short of hearing from the rest of the body. Churches that allow overly responsible and or overly controlling believers to dominate the body need corporate healing before a gift based model of leadership can gain traction.
- Some spiritual gifts are quieter than others and often hold the key. There are a couple of spiritual gifts that may need encouragement to speak up. Rarely will the gift of wisdom contribute to discussion if it senses that it’s just not practical to do so. Neither will the gift of discernment pipe up if it discerns that its advice will fall on deaf ears. Is your church safe enough for all the gifts to operate (1 Cor. 12:21)?
- Avoid interpreting tension between spiritual gifts as opposition. Without tension the muscles in your body would quickly atrophy. The same is true in the body of Christ. There should be tension between the perspectives of those with different spiritual gifts. It’s healthy! (Don’t expect someone with the gift of administration to view a large expenditure the same way as someone else with the gift of faith!) The problem arises when we interpret tension as opposition and then respond in the flesh. Step back from such conflicts. Realize that the Holy Spirit will sound different when expressed through different spiritual gifts. It’s the way Jesus designed His body to function (1 Cor. 12:11).
- Be willing to lay your spiritual gift’s perspective at the feet of Jesus. Part of resolving healthy tension within the body requires the spiritual maturity to submit your gift’s perspective to the Lord. This is especially true when your perspective seems out of sync with the rest of the body. On the other hand, what good would a gift like prophesy be if it always deferred to the group’s opinion? Every believer, no matter what his or her spiritual gift, needs discernment to sense when it’s time to speak up and when to defer to the wisdom of the group (1 Cor. 12:14).
- Don’t get tricked into being right (seeing the issue only through your spiritual gift’s perspective) at the expense of love in your church. I believe the Holy Spirit had good reason to place 1 Cor. 13 (the love chapter) after 1 Cor. 12 (chapter on spiritual gifts). Without love church leaders begin to sound like a “noisy gong or clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). That’s the perfect example of dissonance between spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12: 15-16; 21). Love gives us the endurance to work through tension, turning dissonance into resonance.
- If all else fails, wait on the Lord. If a decision does not strike a unifying chord among your variously gifted leaders, be willing to back off and pray individually and corporately about the decision. The lack of resonance among your church leaders may be a sign that they have not yet fully grasped the Holy Spirit’s leading. Better to wait until you have resonance among your leaders than to move forward without a clear leading from Jesus.
Rev. Mark Barnard serves as President of Blessing Point Ministries. Blessing Point works to heal churches with painful histories. For more information visit blessingpoint.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.