Have you ever thought what a marvelous thing it is for God to bring a diverse group of people together to unify them as a body only to wonder how that diversity does not break itself apart? The last few years have seen a lot of division both within communities of faith and in the larger culture. It feels like unity is an impossible dream. Is there a shared story that can hold both diversity and unity?
I often feel misunderstood or that I am often among people who are operating on a different frequency, even within the church. I don’t think I am unique in feeling this way. We might be tempted to circle into like-minded homogenous groups to preserve peace and to build collations of people who agree with us, but a party loyalty system is not the model God gives us for unity. In several places in scripture, Paul describes how God gives gifts to his people, that when used together, allows us to tell a shared story of what he is doing among us and through us. He uses language such as ‘Common Good’ and ‘reaching unity in the faith and knowledge of God’. How do we discover our role in this shared story?
In an interview with Thomas Kail (the Music Director from Hamilton), he reflects on how a Director communicates with his crew and actors.
“The relationship between coaching and directing is a direct one. The job is get a group of people in the room who might have never met. You don’t know where they come from or what their story is and you have to be clear what the goal is. What are we trying to do? Are we on the same page? Are we telling the same story?”
In my own reflection of what Christianity has taught me, my sense of isolation is acute when I sense that I am often alone in how I articulate what I believe about God. I am rarely telling the same story as those around me.
The story that mainstream Christianity taught is one that focuses on an individual’s sin for which Jesus is naturally the answer. In the 80s and 90’s ‘The Four Spiritual Laws’ neatly articulated this Gospel into four points:
- “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” John 3:16
- “Humanity is tainted by sin and is therefore separated from God. As a result, we cannot know God’s wonderful plan for our lives.” Romans 3:23
- “Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for our sin. Through Jesus Christ, we can have our sins forgiven and restore a right relationship with God.” Romans 5:8
- “We must place our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior in order to receive the gift of salvation and know God’s wonderful plan for our lives.” John 1:12
Narratives like the Four Spiritual Laws were constructed to simplify the scriptures into an easy-to-share story that one can share with their friends and neighbors. The narrative uses scripture from various books and contexts to construct a gospel that clearly articulates a problem (individual sin), that is solved by the sacrifice of the Messiah, and a call to action to place faith in Jesus. The simple-to-follow logic was printed into tracks that could be shared and concluded with a prayer of repentance and invitation for Jesus to enter one’s heart so they would receive the gift of salvation from Hell and entrance into Heaven.
This traditional construction of the Gospel story tells me that Sin is the problem of the individual and the solution, while available to all, is only efficacious to those that have faith and who ask for repentance. This articulation of the story of Jesus affirms a narrative where God should be feared because you are a problem, you are sinful and you need to be fixed. Defining the problem and the stick of damnation sets up the carrot of salvation and the message “our” team is promoting. Is news ‘good’ when you define me as the problem and then sell me your solution? America has a very lucrative deficiency-based charity system that is built using a strategy of defining people as problems to raise money, run programs and reassess the problem for the next year’s budget. Our deficiency model of ‘Good News’ is an extension of this deficiency-based charity system. Is this what the scripture writers and the first-century church had in mind when they thought of the “Good News”? I think this narrative could be reframed to show a more hopeful story.
While I affirm that we often find ourselves in the story of our lives already dead and it is the way of Jesus that makes us alive, Paul describes salvation (in the book of Ephesians) as communal in nature so that we can do the good works that “God prepared in advance for us to do.” The work of Jesus has already been completed in the resurrection. The “Good News” for us is we can escape the hamster wheel of a sin-based gospel narrative embedded in atonement-based religious cycles and ask better questions about what have we each been equipped to do, how will I lean into my purpose and how are we all interdependent. The traditional expression of the Gospel as summarized by tracts like the Four Spiritual Laws is limited in keeping the church bound into a neverending cycle of isolation, and sin management which is insufficient to tell the full “good news: of a discipleship that connects, equips and sends its people to do the work he has prepared us to do. Retelling the story of Jesus as redemption, equipping and sending people into the purpose they were created for, broadens our theology to move beyond fear, deficiency, and an individualistic narrative of sin management.
Community is Synonymous with Discipleship
I am of the conviction that central to understanding Discipleship is understanding how God has gifted us, how we equip one another and how God sends us, whether that be in our church, in our community or in the world. Community is built to the degree that people use their gifts, capacities and resources for the common good. God’s model for unity is centered on the people of God using the gifts he gave us for the Common Good (1 Cor 12) and how using those gifts grow our faith and knowledge of God (Eph 4). If we are not operating together, using our diverse gifts, and equipping each other to be sent, we will not have clarity on what our shared story is nor will we have clarity on who God is or have faith in what is doing through us. The central narrative of the Gospel, as I read it, is community – the Kingdom of God is in your midst and it is within us (Luke 17:21). Sin and the individual’s relationship to God are themes in the larger narrative, but when you read through the gospels for how the Good News is discussed, it is in relationship to a Messiah that is bringing the Kingdom of God among us and we each have a part in contributing our gifts for the common good. Centralizing the Gospel narrative on the individual’s sin creates a culture of deficiency where we are obsessed with the identification of Sin and how close can we get to it before we need to go back to the repentance step of the Four Spiritual Laws. One could be forgiven for mistaking the Christian walk for a StairMaster of sin management and repentance that never actually goes anywhere.
What is the Alternative to a Sin Based Gospel? Gifts Based Discipleship!
What does a community and gifts-based discipleship look like? Paul uses the image of the body to help us understand how each part has its own role that is critical for the body to be well ordered, mature and stable. Using the Eph 4 gifts, often referred to as APEST: (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers), we might imagine these gifts as systems within the body (Respiratory, Nervous, Digestion, Skeletal, Circulatory, Immune – there are 12 body systems so there is no one to one relationship to the APEST gifts). It is critical for each of the body’s systems to operate as intended and in good health in order for the other systems to do their job and hold the body together. The focus of one system is not the focus of the other systems. The language of one system may be foreign to the language used by the other systems, but if one or multiple systems fail, a cascade of failures will lead to massive health issues or even death. Regardless of the system’s function being different with a different language that may not have a direct understanding of how the other systems operate, all the systems have a shared purpose of keeping the body not only alive but thriving!
Are you thriving? Are we as a community growing stronger? I think our path toward thriving is to be a gifts-centered community that takes every opportunity to recognize the gifts that others bring into our lives, to the meetings, and into the conversations we find ourselves in. When we see the divine imprint on each other, we help each other see what is sometimes hard to see within ourselves because we are just too close to see it. When I find myself asking questions like:
- How can that person think that?;
- How can they vote that way?;
- Why are they so focused on that question?; or
- Why are they always avoiding the issues that I think are important?
I wonder if what I am really seeing are the gifts of others causing them to have different focuses, fears and emphasis in interpreting the world. Understanding how they are gifted may help me to appreciate their gifts and have empathy for why they do and say the things that I cannot understand.
Alan Hirsch in his book The Forgotten Ways, describes in detail the APEST Gifts, their primary focus, and the effects on the body when the gift is used in unhealthy ways. “Because they operate within a system, each individual APEST function enriches, counterbalances, and “corrects” the particular bias of each of the others. In fact, each function actually needs the others to be itself.”
Main Emphasis: extend the gospel. As the “sent ones,” they ensure that the faith is transmitted from one context to another and from one generation to the next.
Focus: They are always thinking about the future, bridging barriers, establishing the church in new contexts, developing leaders, networking trans-locally.
Unhealthy expression: If you focus solely on initiating new ideas and rapid expansion, you can leave people and organizations wounded. The shepherding and teaching functions are needed to ensure people are cared for rather than simply used.
Main Emphasis: know God’s will. They are particularly attuned to God and his truth for today.
Focus: They bring correction and challenge the dominant assumptions we inherit from the culture. They insist that the community obey what God has commanded. They question the status quo.
Unhealthy Expression: Without the other types of leaders in place, prophets can become belligerent activists or, paradoxically, disengage from the imperfection of reality and become other-worldly.
Main Emphasis: recruit. These infectious communicators of the gospel message recruit others to the cause.
Focus: They call for a personal response to God’s redemption in Christ, and also draw believers to engage the wider mission, growing the church.
Unhealthy Expression: Evangelists can be so focused on reaching those outside the church that maturing and strengthening those inside are neglected.
Main Emphasis: nurture and protect.
Focus: Caregivers of the community, they focus on the protection and spiritual maturity of God’s flock, cultivating a loving and spiritually mature network of relationships, making and developing disciples.
Unhealthy Expression: Shepherds can value stability to the detriment of the mission. They may also foster an unhealthy dependence between the church and themselves.
Main Emphasis: understand and explain.
Focus: Communicators of God’s truth and wisdom; they help others remain biblically grounded to better discern God’s will, guiding others toward wisdom, helping the community remain faithful to Christ’s word, and constructing a transferable doctrine.
Unhealthy Expression: Without the input of the other functions, teachers can fall into dogmatism or dry intellectualism. They may fail to see the personal or missional aspects of the church’s ministry.
Based on APEST tests I have taken, I tend to score highly with the Apostolic gifts and very low on Shepherding. I am mainly concerned with how are we gifted and how are we equipped and sent in our giftings. I am ok with instability and change for the purpose of moving our movement forward. The Shepard’s sensibility to create nurturing safe environments can create anxiety and tension for me. I could interpret this emotion and tension within a framework of right and wrong or that we just don’t see the world in the same way and I will just keep to myself. What I sacrifice in doing this is understanding the gifts God has intended for me to learn by having that person in my life. If I were to only surround myself with Apostolically gifted people, I cannot fully understand the One who gave us all the gifts for our benefit.
We also need to be willing to be vulnerable together in leaning into the gifts that we are not comfortable with so we can equip one another. I come from a tradition of dry intellectualism focused primarily on teaching and shepherding. The idea of leaning into the prophetic (focusing on the truth, Social Justice, and passionate relationship to God) and evangelic gifts (focusing on communicating the truth of God to the world) was outside their comfort zone. We missed out on the rich complexity of what God was doing outside of the limits of our own comfort.
I believe that suffering is rooted in isolation. The Fall of Man told in the scriptures is a story of being isolated from God and the beginning of suffering. The Gospel is the story of reconciliation and the beginning of being connected to God and to each other through the gifts he has given to the body. We are given gifts so that in diversity, we would have a shared story where connection not suffering; and gifts, not deficiencies, define us.