I attended the University of Michigan in the 1970’s (like, before indoor plumbing). I joined a campus ministry that emphasized community, worship, and outreach.
It was a great group. About one hundred and fifty of us sacrificed to live in the dorms all four years for the sake of outreach—and believe me, living in those dorms was a sacrifice. We roomed with, did laundry with, and shared meals alongside nonbelievers.
Our outreach efforts focused on evangelizing leaders in our dormitory halls. We thought that if these naturally-born leaders accepted the gospel, they would invite friends and become leaders in our ministry.
So we purposely befriended honors students, sports team’s leaders, those in pre-med and pre-law, or any natural influencers we met in classes and the cafeteria.
I’m ashamed to admit, we called our strategy, Selective Evangelism.*
What was the result?
Let’s put aside the obvious Biblical flaws with our strategy (man looks on the outside while God looks on the inside). What culture did Selective Evangelism create?
The leaders we cultivated were innately disciplined: it takes self-will to excel at academics and sports. When these leaders joined us, they brought their native self-control to Christianity, and they created a culture of discipline.
This discipline helped thousands of students over the years. They ordered their lives with better study habits, regular prayer times, and personal integrity. Prayer, grades, and morality improved across the board. Who could argue with that?
But it also created a culture of compliance, a peer pressure of willpower. Little by little, tips and techniques for personal discipline became rules and regulations for conduct.
And the culture of compliance birthed a society of secrecy. Our leaders were so good in their personal order that it was a little embarrassing for us to admit neglecting—for the eleventh time this month—to take a prayer time.
Letting God Be the Sun
In our spiritually immature, surface-level insight, we wouldn’t have selected runt-of-the litter David to befriend, we would have chosen his strapping brothers; we wouldn’t have chosen cowardly Gideon, or beauty-queen Esther, or tax-collector Matthew.
Perhaps we would have chosen Paul (if we had the guts to face imprisonment and stoning). But Paul himself criticizes his incredible self-discipline and morality. He says, “Whatever gain I had, I count as a disadvantage.”
Paul is saying, “I used to be hyper-orderly and manically-moral; and now I think all that natural aptitude worked against me. It’s just dung.” What brought Paul to his disregard for natural gifting? It’s called supernatural conversion.
Paul knew that star athletes are often the worst coaches. God chooses people his divine glory can shine through, unobstructed by their flesh.
Let’s all become super-natural leaders
It is fine—good even—to bless others with our innate gifts. If you were born with perfect pitch, make beautiful music, but let’s not force others to write a symphony. Though perhaps we can help them harmonize.
Their best harmonies, though, will come when God exhibits himself in their lives, and his life brings life to others, including to us.
If we are born smart, people will want our brains in their lives. If we are born timid, and God gives us supernatural courage, people will want more of God.
Let’s choose a life God shines through, not one that glorifies our natural selves.
* But God was at work in this ministry. Selective Evangelism was discontinued, and the organization publicly repented. That humility takes super-natural heart change.
Good read. Have thoughts but WordPress kills them.
Samuel C. Williamson
Yeah, I think WordPress is “naturally” gifted that way. 🙁
Another candid and insightful post, Sam. Oddly timed too, as just yesterday I was thinking about how Western evangelicals have come to perceive spiritual gifts. Entire ministries have been developed, books written, and programs developed to help believers identify and implement their spiritual gifts. And while I see the benefit in these approaches, I’ve also wondered what the difference is, under that paradigm, between spiritual gifts and natural abilities that a person possesses whether they’re a Christian or not. Are such gifts God given? Unquestionably. But are they what Paul had in mind when he wrote of spiritual gifts? I think that question is worth exploring beyond our presumptions. We might make some challenging–and delightful–discoveries.
Samuel C. Williamson
I share your concerns. Friends of mine have been helped by the “spiritual inventory” tests; but I wonder. I wonder if those tests aren’t looking on the outside more than the inside. Or else, how have Christians survived for 2000 years? (Mind you, I like many tests, like the Myers Briggs. It’s helpful; but much of the help has been for me to see the weaknesses of my “natural” personality.)
“How have Christians survived for 2000 years [without the tests]?” Exactly! Somehow they got by. The body of Christ managed to function without anyone telling a kneecap how to be a kneecap or informing a bicep that it was a bicep and telling it how to flex within the grid.
Again, like you, I believe these approaches have benefits. But like so many things, they come to define what “church” looks like for countless Christians. Moreover, I have to wonder: Why is it that the natural gifts I had when I wasn’t a believer suddenly became spiritual gifts when I became a believer? I mean, there was no qualitative difference in them.
I could go on about this, but here probably isn’t the place. When we grab that ale, or that coffee, or whatever you prefer, Sam, our jibber-jabber will roam the universe. 😉
I would add that God often calls us to do something so out of our natural gifting that we don’t want to do it. That’s been my experience any way, and I think it was the experience of Jonah and Moses and …
Samuel C. Williamson
I’m completely on board with you! The “natural” Jonah ran away; it was only something that God changed in his heart that sent him East. And even there, God had to change his bigoted heart even more.
And let’s not forget Moses’ rash temper; and he became the meekest of men.
It is what God does in us and through us that we most need (and the world around us most needs).
A really good one. I like the explanation I have heard before about this topic: when a vessel is whole, the candle inside does not show through. When a vessel is broken, a light is seen through the cracs.
This is also why I find it interesting that there are so many tests in Google for a believer to test their natural abilities to find what kind of gift they have from the Holy Spirit. Of course everything is given by God, but through the Bible we can see Him choosing time and time again people for different tasks that they seem uncapable of achieving. So I could not agree with you more:) And our own self and our “good sides” can get in the way of our walk with God because we tend not to turn to Him with things we think we could manage by ourselves. And yet…without Him we are nothing!
Beliefs of the Heart
Chris, I love your comment! Thank you.
Yes indeed, it is the life of God shining in (and through) us that is God’s call to all believers; and that life of Christ completely depends on his supernatural work.
Someone once said that the greatest obstacle to God’s work in our lives is our natural, good gifts. It takes humility (another supernatural gift and fruit!) to want to see his name glorified over our own.
It’s been a while since I read one of your posts but they’re always good and insightful. This practice reminds me of another ministry that I know of that always seemed to do the same thing which didn’t attract me to serving there since I’ve always been more drawn to those left out.
When I took a spiritual gift inventory one time by my church many years back one of the types of gift was considered temporary or in a moment when you were filled with the spirit and I immediately remembered back to one such example when I was on a ministry team in Ontario and we went to the pool hall the night before an outreach event the next day, and God gave me extreme luck to win over and over and over again possibly 10 games and I got to meet many young guys who kept on coming over to challenge me and I was able to bring a handful of them to the event the next day and several of them put their faith in Christ. Of course I knew how to play pool but never had I played that well before, it was obviously fun for me to do well but it was even more exciting to have some of them come to the all day event as that was our objective, to invite young men to the event, and see them take steps towards God. Though I suppose we may have ‘selectively evangelized’ those quite good at billiards LOL
Beliefs of the Heart
In your second sentence you said something that captured me. You said, “’I’ve always been more drawn to those left out.”
You see, that–that very sentence–expresses the heart of God. That is why Jesus went to the tax-collectors, prostitutes, pimps, fishermen, women in general, and the poor. He was attracted (drawn to) “those left out.”
Modern leaders in the church are specifically (and I believe it is heretically) taught to “move with the movers and lead with the leaders.”
That was not the way of Jesus. Thanks for your comment.
Sam, your comment to Mike reminded me of a church I was involved with. Our Senior Pastor always stressed the service of things. For instance, those of us who were Pastors were expected to dress in suits; preferably drive impressive cars (instead of a “junker”). He was concerned with the words we use and how our hair was trimmed. As he said many times, “You represent Christ, it should be a proper representation.”
But, I was rather rebellious in those days. I wore black tennis shoes with my suit; dressed in T-Shirts and jeans to minister to anyone on the street; and gave “dirty, smelly people rides in my car. Patrice and I eventually left that church and (along with another pastor of that church) began a different church, One that was suitable for anyone who wanted to enter our church.
Wow! So glad God saved you from representing Christ in that awful, shallow way.
God must have been working in your heart early! Yikes!