I’ve never thought much of spiritual gift lists. Mostly because I’ve never seen them do anything productive. Every time I’ve taken some form of spiritual gifts inventory it has only served to: puff up people with pride about how cool their gifts are, or confuse people about what their role in the world should be, or excuse poor behavior and justify inaction. (For example, “I have the gift of preaching, not evangelism. That is why I’ve never shared Jesus with someone. It is not my gifting.”)
Therefore I have always perceived the spiritual gift lists to be random things Paul was throwing out in the moment, not comprehensive lists of any sort. I thought there were probably another 25 Paul could have come up with; and that the point of the lists was to let every member know they were valuable.
Verge and the Forgotten Ways
This weekend I attended the Verge Conference in Austin. It was the first large gathering in the U.S. of Missional church thinkers. (I will write on the conference later. At the moment I am still processing a lot of stuff and I’m not sure how I feel about some things that happened.) At one of the breakout sessions Alan Hirsch (author of Forgotten Ways – a book that radically changed my life and encouraged Wendy and I during some frustrating times) changed my opinion about the gifts listed in Ephesians 4.
Hirsch believes the gift listing in Ephesians 4 is unlike the other lists. To support this he pointed to the nature of the letter of Ephesians. It was a circular letter intended not for one specific group like the other letters, but rather to be sent to many groups in hopes of explaining Paul’s understanding of the church. At Verge Hirsch explained that Ephesians 4 contains the six elements necessary for creating an environment from which a movement can erupt.
Movements of God are Hirsch’s expertise. He has been a part of a few smaller ones and has spent a ton of time studying large ones – specifically the movement currently going on in China. In 15 years the underground Chinese church has grown from 2 million to 120 million believers. In Forgotten Ways Hirsch laid out what churches that start movements look like.
In the book Hirsch described the church of the New Testament and churches that have births movements throughout history. He identified six elements that every church should contain: organic systems that are easily replicable, decentralized leadership that empowers every believer (which Hirsch called Apostolic Environments), an obession with discipleship, a deep sense of team (which Hirsch called Communitas), and an incarnational impulse. Primarily everything the church does and believes should be based around the proclamation “Jesus is Lord.” Hirsch called these elements “the missional DNA.”
The breakout session at Verge that changed my understanding of spiritual gifts was specifically on Apostolic Environments. So back to Hirsh’s understanding of Ephesians 4…
Ephesians 4 through Hirch’s Eyes (My Interpretation)
Hirsch began by explaining that the top down hierarchy in the church as it now exists was forbidden to us by Jesus; especially the practice of giving leaders titles like “teacher”, “pastor”, or “father.” (Check out part one of this series here for more on that.)
Side Note: In response to one of the attendees pushing him on this point Hirsch said (my paraphrase…not an exact quote because he talks to fast), “You know what I would do if I were Satan and I saw Acts 2 breaking out. Immediately I would realize that I had to put a stop to this wild fire because each one of those 2000+ new believers carried within them the Missional DNA to start a movement of God like the one that just launched somewhere else. That is a dangerous thing. So, if I were Satan, I would make them all believe that they were dependent on clergy for the work of ministry. That would cut the danger of the Gospel breaking out in a tenth at least.”
Hirsch also pointed out that Ephesians 4 was not a passage to a limited audience (a.k.a. – just leadership). In verses 11-17 Paul made it clear that he was speaking to every believer, not simply leaders in the church. Every single believer will take part in the following roles. One single leader will not own any particular role, rather each role will be multipled over a great number of leaders or even groups. Also, no one role is more important than another. All five are necessary for the enviroment of movements.
These roles, Hirsch explained, are the “maturity mechanism.” As we live out them together, we grow and mature as believers. Again, one role does not equip the others. It is the fire sparked by all five working together that brings about maturity.
So what are the roles?
- The Apostles – The apostles seed and guard the church. They are the entrepreneurial voice, the strategic coordinators, the frontiers people of the church. They organize leaders, plant churches, and generate the organic forms that hold Bodies together. They inspire core principles to be established and then defend those core principles. They are systems thinkers, designers. Hersch called them the “custodians fo the DNA of God’s people.”
- The Prophets – Prophets are concerned with God and what God is concerned about. They question the status-quo and demand the Body live in faithfulness to God. They call believers to repent and demand they line up with how God sees things. Hirsch pointed out that they are usually angry. Their role is to point out what is broken and demand it be fixed. They approvecritique the work of the Apostles.
- The Evangelists – Evangelists are the recruiters. They get really excited about what the prophets and apostles are up to and recruit people to the cause.
- The Shepherds – As evangelists gather a crowd, the shepherds yell, “Hey! We’ve got to take care of these people!” They stress community, love, and understanding of one another.
- The Teachers – They bring insight into what is happening. They seek to define and expand understanding.
Every believer, because the Holy Spirit is present, has within them the ability to be all five of these. One or two will dominate the others in each person; but everyone has all five and are called to use them. So for example, one person maybe (in order of dominant expression) an Apostle-Evangelist-Shepherd-Teacher-Prophet while another might be a Prophet-Shepherd-Apostle-Evangelist-Teacher. Hirsch said he was an Apostle-Teacher-Prophet-Evangelist-Shepherd which caused him to come off as a crazy mad scientist that flares up in anger from time-to-time and struggles to see the needs of individuals.
Keep in mind, Hirsch said Ephesians 4 describes decentralized leadership. Several attendees of the breakout session struggled with this and kept trying to use the different roles to create a hierarchy. It doesn’t work like that. Each role is present (although they do set each other off in a certain order) and each role needs to be functioning at all times. No one is more important than the others.
There is a leadership matrix, a “calling within a calling” Hirsch called it. At times individuals will emerge that will lead out in one of these roles; but remember, this is decentralized leadership. They emerge like runners pulling ahead in a marathon. It is not a position given or title bestowed. Rather, the leader serves the group for a time by emphasizing a specific role. When they are done serving someone else will emerge to emphasize another role.
Further Thoughts on Movements and Roles of Ephesians 4
Hirsch explained that every movement has a life span. The natural order of things is that they are born, they grow, they decrease, and finally they die. Movements are no different. The five roles working together in the church make the life span possible.
When movements of God begin they are characterized by belief, questioning the status quo, chaordtic expansion (chaotic-order), and learning. Ideally, the Apostles (A) go to work first, then the Prophets (P) kick in, then the Evangelists (E), then Shepherds (S), and finally the Teachers (T). Here is how Hirsch explained the process: the apostles are the catalysts. They get stuff going. The prophets keep the newly birthing movement faithful to God. The evangelists begin recruiting. The shepherds start caring for people. Then finally the teachers have space to teach.
If anyone of those pieces are missing the movement is incomplete and a church is not birthed. For example, if the apostles are left out and the prophets start the grove, the result is a prophetic movement that will bring social change and call people to repentance; but it won’t form a lasting Body. If evangelists start it (leaving out the prophets and apostles) a lot of people get saved, but no one knows what to do next. Shepherds start charismatic movements of caring. Teachers start ideological movements that define themselves by saying “No!” (Hirsch joked that these were the “hard-nosed Calvinists” of our day.)
Movements begin to die, Hirsch explained, when we begin protecting the status quo by kicking out the apostles and prophets.
Apostles and prophets challenge the status quo and make us uncomfortable. They upset the balence of things. We love order, therefore we don’t like having them around. So we kick them out and put the shepherds and the teachers in charge. The shepherds and the teachers develop safety and security. They manage the present reality.
Hirsch explained that one of the current problems in the American church is that for decades we have tossed the apostles out of the church (forcing them to start parachurch ministries) and have kept the prophets at arms length. We have given all the power and influence to the teachers and shepherds. Evangelists spring up and get stuff started (Hersch referenced Bill Hybels and the Seeker Sensitive movement as an example) but their movements fade and feel incomplete because voices are missing.
So what is the take away? For me there are a few…
- I feel like this understanding of how decentralized leadership works affirms my current study of leadership. Before the breakout, decentralized leadership was like reading about a painting in a book. I couldn’t see it, but I could imagine it. Now I feel like I see the painting down the hall. I’m not up on it yet, but I’m starting to make it out.
- This understanding of the roles encourages me to embrace criticism and eagerly recieve suggestions. Recently a member of the Thingy (the Missional Tribe Wendy and I are a part of) wrote me an email about how our group is missing something. Thinking back over our history, she has often spoken with a prophetic voice. Because of Hirsch’s understanding of Ephesians 4, he comments encourage me. If we have “arrived” then we are finished.
- Knowning that all of these roles work at the same time in a variety of places and people at once helps me to understand how movements of God get started without a celebrity leader at the center – a dream of mine and Wendy’s.
- I see how this is already taking root in Baltimore, especially in the house church world. If we can avoid centralizing structure, defining strictly what we do, building pecking orders, and instead focusing on listening to each other and loving people like Jesus loved then something really cool will happen in this city.
It is really exciting and fun to think about.
But now I will put it all in the back of my brain, think on it no more, and get to work being Jesus in my community!
It is the incarnational living, the imitation of Jesus in the world by every believer that brings the healing, restoring, forgiving, loving, exciting, explosive power of the Spirit into the world…not diagrams and discussion of roles…therefore I shall focus on…
Loving God and loving others by living a life defined by Jesus’ humility, service, forgiveness, worship, wonder, and surrender.
More on leadership coming tomorrow.