Once, my wife and I volunteered to organize a church dinner. We exhausted ourselves, weathered much grumbling, and left hungry. Next time we will host a potluck! It’s great sport to make fun of potlucks, but they tell a good story. Everyone brings a favorite dish, all get fed, and no one gets burned out.
The idea of church is reflected in the potluck concept. Each follower of Christ is endowed with a gift — a “favorite dish” that others need. From faith to mercy to discernment to teaching to encouragement to service to wisdom to giving (and many more), each of us brings something necessary to the group. Exercised together, our combined gifts make every member healthy and mature.
This imagery flows through the Epistles (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12:7), but is best captured in Ephesians 4:11-16, where the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
The trouble is, not every gift is relevant to a Sunday service. Many lend themselves to interpersonal application throughout the week in the context of community. This creates an important tension for church leaders since the majority of churchgoers only show up on Sunday morning. For them, attending church is no more interactive than attending a movie. Slip in, face forward, listen, and leave. While such a model is efficient for group instruction, it’s largely impersonal and deprives everyone the benefit of each other’s gifting.
This is why I would look for a church that prioritizes the shared investment of spiritual gifts.
There are plenty of good examples out there. Many “Sunday service” churches invest heavily in classes, community groups, gift training, prayer teams, service projects, and various other “throughout the week” interactions. Some Brethren churches (assemblies) also do this well. They champion shared ownership, investment, accountability, and weekday involvement. I’ve also seen larger churches that retain a Sunday gathering for singing and Scripture reading, but push everything else (e.g., Ephesians 4:11-16) into scores of homes throughout the community. That’s where the people meet for teaching, fellowship, prayer, and the exercise of all their gifts. Leaders (e.g., elders and deacons) are centrally trained but serve locally. No one is unknown in these groups, and all share their gifts.
Many smaller churches naturally function this way. They live close, know each other, and depend on one another. Being the fragrance of Christ in small communities isn’t easy, so it takes everyone to make it work.
But it is the shepherds who train the group to exercise their gifts (vv. 11-12). Sunday services rely on the gifts of a few dedicated members, but it’s the everyday contribution of every member that raises the level of “Christlikeness” for the entire group. And since Scripture doesn’t prescribe a method for being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, it takes intentionality to make it happen. To create a shared worldview that reveals no other way to thrive than to thrive together. This is why the third element I’d look for in a church is intentional discipleship.