Scripture teaches that God has given all Christians at least one spiritual gift at their conversion. Indeed, the apostle Paul repeatedly emphasized that every Christian possesses spiritual gifts for the edification of the church (Rom 12:3; Eph 4:7; 1 Cor 12:7). No Christian, therefore, should ever feel useless within the body of Christ, for God has outfitted every Christian with spiritual resources to build up his or her local congregation.
Paul also takes considerable time to educate local churches on the specific gifts that God has provided in his church. Paul provides four lists of spiritual gifts in the NT, with a total of twenty if you combine the various lists in Romans 12:3-8, Ephesians 4:11, and 1 Corinthians 12:8-11. Given how the apostle describes these gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (“varieties of gifts,” “varieties of service,” “varieties of activities”), however, it is probably best not to take the compilation of these lists as exhaustive. There are a host of gifts that God will dispatch in the local church for her edification. All of these, however, fall under two large categories: service gifts and word (teaching) gifts (see 1 Peter 4:11).
In light of Scripture’s emphasis on spiritual gifts, a question that naturally arises for Christians is the method through which they are to discern and discover their spiritual gifts. One approach that’s been promoted for the last few decades is a spiritual gift assessment or survey. While these assessments may help a Christian intentionally reflect on his or her interests and abilities, such private methods of evaluation fall short precisely because they are conducted apart from, or without much reference to, the body of Christ.
Discovering Our Gifts
But because the New Testament teaching on spiritual gifts is given to the local church, it is best to pursue the discovery of our spiritual gifts within the local church context. In other words, the way we determine our spiritual gift is not by taking a private assessment or drawing conclusions on our own, but by actively living and serving within a local congregation where our gifts can be confirmed and affirmed by the Spirit through the body of Christ.
In truth, we need the local church to help us discover and affirm our gifts because we so easily veer into error when left to ourselves (Prov 18:1). We may wrongly assess our gifts and conclude that we have gifts that we actually don’t have, or we may fail to recognize the gifts we really do possess. Even if we are able to rightly identify our gifts, we may, without the honest appraisal of others, think too highly of our gifts and render ourselves ineffective because we assume roles and responsibilities that are unfitting for the way God has gifted us (see Rom 12:3; cf. 1 Cor 12:29-30).
It is also important to recognize that spiritual gifts are not determined primarily by personal feelings of fulfillment, enjoyment, desire, or even private assessments of our own effectiveness, although we may often experience satisfaction from serving and have desires that correspond with our gifting (see 1 Tim 3:1).
Rather, spiritual gifts are discovered as they are exercised in the body of Christ and the church itself affirms that such and such person is genuinely effective with such and such kind of service within that local congregation. If spiritual gifts were given for the goal of enhancing the common good (and not for private use or personal advancement; 1 Cor 12:7), then it makes sense that the body of Christ would be the people who assesses whether or not one’s exercise of a particular gift is accomplishing that goal.
How to Encourage Others
Now that we have some grasp on the central role the church should play in the discovery of our spiritual gifts, let’s now consider where we fit into the process.
(1) Determine what Gifts Are Being Given Today
First, if a Christian is going to set out to identify their spiritual gift(s), they need to know what gifts are actually being given by the Spirit today. As a cessationist, I believe the New Testament leads us to conclude that the miraculous sign gifts (healing, miracles, tongues) and revelational gifts (apostleship, prophesy) are no longer needed nor available today. These gifts were used to confirm the apostolic messengers and establish the church in her early days; now that we possess a completed New Testament, these gifts are no longer necessary.
So, the first thing you will want to do to encourage your brother or sister to discover exercise their spiritual gift is to help them come to clear exegetical and theological conclusions about what spiritual gifts are actually available today (for a defense of cessationism, see here, here, and here).
(2) Encourage Commitment to a Local Church
Second, in order for spiritual gifts to be discovered and affirmed a believer must be committed to a local church in which they can serve and exercise their spiritual gifts. This means you should encourage your Christian brothers and sisters to join a local church and begin to find ways to serve and bless the people of that local congregation. Such encouragement does not imply that a believer who is relatively new to a local church is required or even advised to assume large amount of serving responsibilities, but it should direct them toward committed and intentional service within the body of Christ.
(3) Recommend a Wide Variety of Service
Third, you can encourage your brothers and sisters to serve in a variety of ways (e.g., teaching, acts of mercy, nursery, discipleship, etc.). By pursuing a variety of opportunities, a Christian will open himself to many different area of potential gifting, which will help make it clear over time in what specific areas one is gifted. Also, serving in broad categories at the beginning of the discovery phase will guard a person from drawing conclusions about their gifts too early in the process.
(4) Emphasize the Fruit of the Spirit
Fourth, counsel your brothers and sisters to serve diligent while also seeking to obey the call of Scripture on all their lives. While we are called to diligently use our spiritual gifts for the good of the body, the bearing of spiritual fruit is even more important. Paul reminded the Corinthians that a person could have the most superlative gifts known to humankind and yet lack love and thus be useless to the body (1 Cor 13:1-3). If our gifts outstrip our character, we will be in danger of hypocrisy, the misuse of our gifts, and guilty of tearing down the body of Christ rather than building it up.
(5) Focus on Effectiveness
Fifth, look for effectiveness. I mentioned earlier that the discovery of our gifts is not primarily dependent on feelings of personal fulfillment or desire. A sense of satisfaction will often follow on who uses their gifts for the spiritual benefit of others (Acts 20:35), but these subjective feelings are not the basis on which we are to appraise our own or another’s spiritual gifts. Rather, we should think in terms of effectiveness.
Paul told the Corinthian church that each person was given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1 Cor 12:7). This implies that a person is wielding their spiritual gift in a way that actually accomplishes good, which is to say, they are effectively using their gift. A person is ineffective when they are not accomplishing the good for which the Spirit has equipped the body.
Therefore, when helping your brother or sister in Christ determine where they’ve been gifted, help them see where their ministry has been effective in accomplishing genuine good within the congregation. Do they teach in a way that edifies and strengthens the congregation in the Word of God? Do they rightly identify needs and facilitate solutions to alleviate those needs? Do their acts of mercy bring comfort and encouragement to those who are suffering? If it is difficult to answer these questions in the affirmative, it may be the case that your brother or sister is ineffective, and thus, not gifted, in that area.
Asking the effectiveness question is important because it is possible for a person to like what they are doing and feel good about doing while remaining relatively fruitless because they are simply not gifted in that particular area. When it comes to spiritual gifts, Scripture doesn’t call us to coddle feelings of personal fulfillment; it directs us to consider whether or not we are actually doing good to others in our service. When the latter is in place, the sense of joy and satisfaction and fulfillment will follow.
(6) Be Honest
Finally, be honest with your brothers and sisters. Don’t flatter them, and don’t encourage them in an area where they are not effective. It will be of little benefit to the church and even less benefit to your fellow Christian to confirm them in a gift they do not have. Far better for the church and your friend to be straightforward about their gifts and help them find a place of spiritual effectiveness than to let them dither in spiritual incompetence because you were afraid to tell them the truth.
So, be precise and concrete. Tell them what you see and what you don’t see. Find others in the body to aid you in your assessment so you can be as objective as possible. And when you have genuinely discovered that your fellow Christian has a particular gift, encourage them regularly to put as much time and energy as they can into that gift.
Some may think this latter bit of counsel unwise or even selfish. Isn’t it better to encourage believers to pour equal time into a host of different areas of service? While we are never allowed to neglect any area of Christian obedience due to our gifting (i.e., I don’t need to serve because I don’t have the gift of service), it is also unhelpful for the body of Christ when Christians to fail to apply adequate time and energy to their gifts. It is not necessarily selfish for a believer who, knowing their gifts, chooses to pour as much effort as possible in growing and using and developing those specific gifts; such concentrated effort will actually lead to great blessing for that local congregation.
The truth is that we only have a limited amount of time and resources, so rather than dilute our effectiveness over a broad range of ministries, Scripture seems to urge us toward an intentional development of our particular gift: “…if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation” (Rom 12:7).
The primary point in this entire discussion is that God intends for us to discover our gifts within the local church context, among our brothers and sisters and church leaders, not in the solitude of a private spiritual gifts survey. For your part, be active in both pursuing the discovery of your gifts while also helping your brothers and sisters discover theirs. The church will benefit greatly from both ventures, and you will be blessed as you give of yourself to the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:7; cf. Act 20:35).