Releasing Others to Serve: An Interview with Alex Absalom

09_Fillinger_JNBy Kent Fillinger

Alex Absalom leads Dandelion (www.dandelionresourcing.com), which empowers leaders, churches, and networks to build missional and naturally supernatural disciple-making cultures. 

He is a pastor at Grace Church in Long Beach, California, and previously spent five years on the leadership team at RiverTree Christian Church in Massillon, Ohio, where he led the church in transitioning from a purely attractional to an attractive missional model, which included the starting of about 70 midsize missional communities.

We spoke with him about how churches today are unleashing their members to use their spiritual gifts—and how they can do this better.

What is and isn’t working in churches today related to discovering, honoring, and fully using the gifts of every Christian?

Alex Absalom
Alex Absalom

There’s increasing cultural pressure that compels us to see everybody ministering and playing his or her part in the life of the church, particularly in our witness to the world.

However, I see too many churches whose leaders are afraid to ask for help for fear of releasing control. Churches that are fruitful, growing, and multiplying have a culture that’s both highly empowering and highly accountable. Unfortunately, many pastors sacrifice this due to a mind-set of fear—“We can’t risk letting people have too much freedom to experiment because what happens if something goes wrong?”

What are church leaders missing when they think about the gifts and ministries of their members?

We need to move in two different directions at the same time. One direction is to have a culture that is very empowering. This will be demonstrated by church leaders whose standard response to a new idea becomes, “Yes, and”; typically, a pastor’s default response is, “No, but.”

We also need a system where the people we would never pick can step forward with an idea or mission dream, and we create a space where they can safely experiment, innovate, and express what God has put into them.

The second direction is to create cultures that are highly accountable. Accountability is a good word, not a negative one. In terms of people expressing their gifts, this works when we have structures and processes where people can receive feedback, training, encouragement, challenge, and affirmation. Most churches don’t have processes that foster ongoing relational feedback.

What role does theology and spiritual formation play throughout the process of Christians discovering and using their gifts?

It’s enormously important that these two things develop together. If people are living lives where there is intentional spiritual formation, then they’re increasingly demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit. That is the biblical context for the gifts of the Spirit to be expressed in healthy ways.

Great biblical passages about gifts are in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. The glue linking them together is chapter 13, which reminds us that love must be the foundation of it all. Paul’s aim in that chapter is to help us frame how to use spiritual gifts in a way that honors God and has the greatest fruit and impact.

What steps or processes have you found to be effective in helping church leaders move beyond these challenges to mobilize believers to serve?

One step is training and teaching about the gifts of the Spirit: how we can understand them and how we can start to practice them. As part of that, we must help people comprehend how God has shaped them to serve.

Another step is to tell simple stories of people stepping out in faith and using the gifts God has given them to extend his kingdom. If you want your church to value and see every member in ministry, then think clearly about the stories you’re telling and be intentional about using stories that move you in that direction.

It’s important that not every story be about incredible success. Sometimes people mess up and things don’t all work out quite how they hoped. Nevertheless, they still pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and continue trying to serve Jesus.

Stories like that give tangible expression to the grace Jesus gives us in the gospel, and it gives hope to people. If we have a church where it’s safe to try, safe to learn, and safe to fail, then we can learn and grow in the context of a loving Christian community. And that will really help people feel free to exercise what God’s given to them.

Another thing we must consider is size of our gathering. I wrote about this in Discipleship that Fits, coauthored by Bobby Harrington. In it, we described five sizes of gatherings where God disciples us and where we’re called to disciple others.

The reality is most churches put too much weight on Sunday morning worship services. We need to rediscover the midsize groups of 20 to 50 people. Midsize groups are ideal settings for people to exercise their God-given gifts, and it’s a good setting for these gifts to be noticed by others.

This helps with creation of an intentional leadership pipeline—places where people can practice, grow, and fail, and practice some more. You can identify the people who are particularly gifted. As a church, you need to affirm and invest in them and give them more opportunities.

What role or responsibilities do church leaders have in this process?

Staff, elders, and leaders should help people work out how they can play a part in extending God’s kingdom. Staff members are not there to do all of the work, but to build teams who do the work of ministry. This is how you start to mobilize an army rather than just a few people.

Does the size of a church affect its ability to engage the congregation in using their gifts?

Here’s the real issue: do we have a commitment and a heart for empowering and equipping people to go and make disciples? If we do, then it creates a different filter for what we do and how we do it. The barrier is not church size, but whether you as a leader are willing to focus on releasing others to serve.

What kind of scorecard should churches use to evaluate the effectiveness of ministry?

The traditional metrics have been the ABC’s—attendance, baptisms, and collections. Those things are still good to count, but it’s a mistake to think those metrics are helping us really assess discipleship.

A dashboard with a wide range of measures is needed. It will give us indicators of the health of our church and the health of the people who are gathering. But this really boils down to asking, “How many people do we have in disciple-making relationships?”

For example, how many people do we have in mentoring relationships or in triads where there is a high level of accountability? How many of our midsize groups are seeing friends drawn into our church community who wouldn’t otherwise go anywhere near a church?

Another metric might include asking, “Where do we see gifts being used?” A good question for any church to ask is, “If we closed our doors tomorrow, would we be missed by the wider community?” The gospel of the kingdom is not just good news for us in the church!

How does engaging Christians in externally focused ministry influence the evangelistic effectiveness of churches?

A friend once told me, “A church’s size should be measured by its sending capacity, not by its seating capacity.” We need to find ways to help people go with the gospel. Our measure of success in disciple-making is not how much information do people have in their heads, but how much are they going to imitate Jesus and call people to imitate them as they imitate Jesus?

The task of equipping people to understand their spiritual gifts is vital to evangelism. We, as the church community, are responsible for encouraging all ages to have faith and confidence that they can be part of this. This isn’t just something for spiritual leaders, or “Mrs. Super Christian,” or those who are paid by the church to live this way; it’s for everyone. We all are called to live on mission. We all are called to help people come to Christ. The conversation around discovering your spiritual gifts is a key part of that journey.

Kent Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and director of partnerships with CFM International in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Connect with Absalom on Twitter (@AlexAbsalom) and Facebook (facebook.com/dandelionresourcing).

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