Participation awards, a modern symbol of a yearning for equality at the cost of merited awards, have no place in church. To celebrate participation is a failure to recognise diversity of skill, talent, and gifting that we are called to use wisely as stewards of God’s gifts.
At times, churches are torn between two extremities in response to the celebration of participation.
On one hand, we are tempted to think it is inherently valuable to participate, regardless of the outcome or our capacity to contribute and whether we are called to that ministry. On the other, we drift towards exclusivity, refusing to let anyone participate, forming a ministry elite.
The proper working of the church
To speak of ministry participation requires us to consider Paul’s reminder in Romans chapter 12, verses 3-4,
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function”(ESV)
There is a measure of gifting assigned to each. To not all share the same function does not tarnish the equality between church members. We are all equal, but equality in Christ does not mean we are gifted in the same fashion.
Rather, Paul describes the flourishing church “when each part is working properly” (Ephesians chapter 4, verse 16 ESV). Church growth is no premised on everyone participating equally, but according to each one’s gifting.
Paul does not shy from the notion that there is a “proper” way for church to function for “grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (verse 7).
Paul then goes on to list different offices of the church. Whilst not all of us may find ourselves meeting the definition of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, or teacher, we are exhorted by Paul later in Romans 12 to consider how each of us is gifted, not just those we esteem in certain leadership roles.
None of us can escape this call to the “proper” working of church which leads us “to grow up in every way into Him who is the head” (verse 15), for not only is the reward great, but the cost of failure is too high.
When the church fails
How easy it is to notice when a church has failed. It is far easier to spot than a church that abounds in fulfilling the gospel message.
Paul describes such a church in contrast to maturity when he portrays in Ephesians chapter 4, verse 14 wayward congregations as, “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (ESV).
We live increasingly in a climate where every other church is tainted by this temptation to embrace the waves of change around us, blown about by human reasoning.
Rather than embracing Christ as the head through the mutual encouragement of our giftings, we are led astray by secular divisiveness that serves no role or benefit within our congregations.
Rather, the church is called to “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (verse 13).
When we realise that the criteria of a flourishing church composed of individual members serving, is of united faith, knowledge, and a measure of the fullness of Christ, it becomes even more evident when a church fails to uphold this.
Held together by every joint
Before we think we can separate ourselves from this weight upon the church, the giftings of Christians reminds us last of all that none of us is gifted separate from the church.
Consider Paul’s words exhorting us “to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped” (Verses 15b-16a).
Every joint is connected to the church, everyone according to their allotment of grace assigned. Each joint both holds together and equips the church in Christ, so that the church “builds itself up in love” (verse 16b).
If we are tempted to think that our gifting is meant to serve only ourselves, and not the church in love, then either we have not found our gifting or we have not found Christ’s purpose for His church.
With a weight so significant upon the church and the gospel call so strong, there are no participation awards in church, only Christians called to bless the church according to their individual giftings.
Hailing from North Auckland, Blake Gardiner sounds American, looks Swedish, but grew up in Laos. As an introvert, Blake lives life on the edge by socialising. When he isn’t putting his life at such risk, he enjoys reading theology and debating whether Interstellar is truly the greatest movie of all time. Blake is married to fellow young writer Jessica Gardiner.