June 23, 2014


The tricky thing about peoples' gifts is how hard they are to nail down.

There's no manual, particularly for the arts, that says "this now qualifies as good enough to serve" and then gives a sliding scale with measurable metrics. To say it another way, there is no way to be sure immediately that a person has "the gift," be it hospitality, administration, or musicianship. After watching someone sing on a worship team, for example, we can start to guess at whether they're gifted, but only time will show one way or the other. The scriptures encourage us to make sure everyone uses their gifts to build God's Kingdom here on earth (the “priesthood of all believers”), and part of that is serving the gathered community of God's people.

At which we're called to do our best. To lead our congregation in worship means singing lyrics and melodies that are in sync with the scriptures and with the language of our culture, creating appropriate environments, and curating a gathering that creates space for God to work. However, it also means the avoiding distractions. Good worship artists work hard to make sure they don't distract congregations from the ultimate focus of engaging God. We can distract by talking too much or too little (but let's be real, it's usually too much), by creating unhelpful noise. Sometimes we distract by not being intentional, by not being hospitable, by wearing clothes that call too much attention to ourselves (always a sensitive subject), by not being practiced ... the list is endless. In short, we can be distracting when we are not excellent at using the gifts we have been given.

Excellence is a good value, a biblical value, because it rightly behaves as though God is honored by giving our first fruits, the best of what we have. But sometimes, churches seek excellence over all else, and they can end up being pretty inhospitable. For example, auditions are not in themselves bad (it is good to make sure that the gifts of a volunteer match up with the ministry in which they want to serve), when removed from a discipleship pathway it can communicate that a church values only what the volunteer can contribute, not who that person is (a child of God). The focus becomes making the presentation excellent, rather than the spiritual lives of the faith community and the host community around them. Rules and standards become more important than people, who become objects. Predictability squelches out any chaos. Eventually, the standards become so harsh that creativity is no longer possible; the possibility of failure is required to have innovation.

And so the church will die, its life gradually drained away by bureaucracy and over-planning. This is why worship, children’s, and youth ministries are the first to die, in that order. These are the places of innovation and chaos within a church, and families who value these things will leave when it’s clear that nobody in leadership finds them important. Since these ministries are often messy and not always predictable (let’s be honest, if they’re not, you’re not really doing them right), a church with life will always contain an element of chaos. 

Clearly, excellence alone cannot rule.

God’s people are also called to serve as a family, and so other communities prioritize inclusion of as many of the priesthood as possible. This is a noble value, one that draws people together. Jesus called us friends, Paul said we were adopted into God’s family. To prioritize the radical inclusion of people into the Kingdom is how we are called to live.

But not everybody can sing.

There’s a difference between radical inclusion into the Kingdom and radical inclusion into areas of service. The scriptures celebrate the fact that there is great diversity in the world, but we have a tendency to think some gifts are better than others. In the worship world, for example, so many people thank the preacher or singers after a gathering, but nobody goes to the greeters or the tech booth or the people who fold the bulletins to thank them. Being up front, in our culture, is sexy and cool; serving behind the scenes is not. We think that one is leadership and the other is not. We think wrong. Lots of people think they can sing, but not everyone is gifted at leading a congregation via microphone (and when you really are tone-deaf, you still won't know you can't sing).

We cannot use notions of "including everyone" to justify putting just anybody up in front of others, and we can’t use them to put just anyone behind the scenes. Though one seems more important to us than the other, both must be celebrated, and both must be done by those with the gifting. The music, for example, could become distracting because nobody can follow a leader who can't sing or a band that can’t play; the people become an unfortunate focus. But it is just as distracting when the tech team doesn't know what they're doing. This ends up dishonoring the gifts given to the people; people who are gifted in one way but think they're gifted in another will never flourish until they are able to confess* who they've been created to be, and serve in the way that honors who God created them to be.

*confess (v): to agree with God

The irony is that both extremes hold something in common: both prioritize making someone feel good - either the people who want quality (be it congregants or artists), or the people who want to feel special on stage (the people who can't sing). One church would rather put up with bad singers or artists or greeters than help them find their true gifts but risk offending them (after all, nobody likes being told "maybe you should only sing in the shower”). Other churches would rather have such predictability that nobody can possibly live up to their standards. In both cases, an idol is made; the priority isn't really to glorify God through His people (though it often comes in at a close second), but rather, to either make God look good, or to avoid making people feel bad.

And that is an impossible task, a nightmare to sustain, and frankly, nobody's got time for that.

Especially since God does what He wants anyway, which doesn't always make sense to us.

God does not desire a life for us of emotional comfort, free from bad feelings, but rather a life of meaning and purpose. Andy Stanley often says that when faced with a problem that keeps rearing its head, we should look to see if it's not a problem to be solved, but rather, a tension to be managed or maintained. In other words, it's a both/and. It's not "either" excellence or inclusion, it's "both" excellence and inclusion. To be our best means both honoring the gifts of our community \and honoring their diversity. True relationships are ok with struggle and challenge, and our priority needs to be investment in people rather than exploiting their gifts for a product.

And above all, remember that the point is not amazing music, amazing drama, or amazing services (though they help).

The point is the amazing God to whom they are meant to direct our attention.

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