I had a disturbing experience before I planted our church.
Prior to moving to Boston to plant Aletheia (the church I now lead), I visited the city. Taking some time to talk to local pastors and leaders, I hoped to gain some insight into the upcoming work. What I got was—to me, at least—disturbingly similar to the report the spies gave to Moses in Numbers 13.
“It’s really hard, here,” they said. “Don’t expect to grow too quickly.”
“I don’t think a church can surpass 200 here,” one leader told me. “It’s a different kind of work you have to be prepared to do.”
There’s giants in them there hills.
Over and over I heard about how hard planting a church in Boston would be, and how my expectations should be measured. While I appreciate that these earnest, godly men were trying to protect me from disappointment, after the fourth or fifth statement like this, I began to get a bit angry.
I’m Reformed. I believe in a great, big, powerful, sovereign God who spoke stars and supernovae into existence, split the sea, stopped the sun in the sky, and raised his Son from death. Why, I asked myself, am I to think planting a church that grows, makes disciples, and plants other churches is somehow too hard for him? Added to my growing passion over this question was the fact I moved to Boston not from a picturesque Midwestern town nor a Southern Bible Belt stronghold, but from Europe. I cut my church planting teeth in the secular city. Why was this one too hard for God?
Gratefully, once my emotions settled a bit, I saw something. Faith—believing God to bring something out of nothing, as I was trusting him to do—is a gift. And as our church has made disciples and continued the work of planting churches elsewhere, it’s a gift I’ve come to believe is critical fuel for the mission of the church.
The Gift of Faith Is a Thing
We should start by simply noting that the gift of faith is, in fact, a thing. It exists. And it shouldn’t be confused with saving faith. All Christians believe saving faith exists, but not all (in practice, it seems) believe the gift (charisma) of faith exists. As Wayne Grudem observes, “Not every Christian has the gift of faith, but every believer has some degree of faith, and we would expect it to be growing in the life of an ordinary Christian.” According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:9, this special gift isn’t saving faith, but a special endowment of faith to accomplish a task—a task like planting a church in a hard place, for instance.
I pause to note this point because, while many of us may agree the gift of faith exists, if people were to watch the way we do ministry, could anyone tell? We hold conferences on church planting techniques, sell books on best practices, and launch initiatives to assess, train, and fund planters—all of which are good. But if we’re not also looking for this gift, we may be overlooking one of the most vital pieces of the missional puzzle.
The Gift of Faith Is a Gift
Again, while every Christian is expected to exercise faith, the gift of faith is a gift, a special endowment to move mountains that stand in the way of the forward motion of the church. We believers are instructed to have a certain attitude toward spiritual gifts.
First, we’re to understand that not everyone has all of them. Paul concluded his discourse on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 by asking the rhetorical question, “Do all possess gift x?” as if expecting the reply, “Of course not!” But then he tells us what our attitude should be, quickly adding: “Pursue love and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts” (1 Cor. 14:1). So while we shouldn’t expect everyone to walk around with mountain-moving gifts of faith, we should expect some to. Paul did.
And if Paul were to find a group of Christians who didn’t have this gift in the mix, I can’t help but think he’d say, “Well, start asking!”
The Gift of Faith Is Mission-Critical
Of course, all this talk of faith raises the question “why?” How many prosperity-preaching charlatans use the language of a “gift of faith” to thinly veil a hunger for money? So in the face of all we’ve seen of this so-called gift, why bother? But to deny the gift on the basis of its misuse is to fall prey to cynicism—the anti-faith that keeps us from believing anything.
The fact is, without the gift of faith the mission simply can’t get done. The whole purpose of spiritual gifts is love for God and power for mission, so the gift of faith is mission-critical. The missionary hoping to break into a closed community in a foreign country must exercise the gift of faith. The church planter asking God to create a healthy, thriving church where none was before must exercise the gift of faith. The college minister looking to launch a new student movement on campus must exercise the gift of faith. Attempting to go to battle without this gift is, I fear, like a special ops team trying to take the hill without weapons. It might be possible, but it’ll be far more brutal and bloody than it otherwise would’ve been, had the right weapons been deployed.
So what are we to do? We’re to obey the command of Scripture and earnestly ask the Lord for the gifts we lack. Why? Because he’s generous, and he loves to give us everything we need so that we can abound in every good work (2 Cor. 9:8).
Are there giants in them there hills? Sure. So let’s ask God for the one gift he’s given the church that allows us to throw those hills into the sea.