I have found that people tend to confuse three different but related spiritual gifts: teaching, prophecy, and exhortation. Thoughtfully reflecting on the differences may save you from much frustration as you figure out your “fit” in God’s mission.
According to Divine Design (a leadership assessment tool developed at Covenant Seminary and used at Coram Deo):
- Teaching is the ability to understand and communicate the Christian faith so as to make the truth clear to others. The result of this gift is the equipping and maturing of others in the body of Christ so that they will grow in grace and be more effective disciples.
- Prophecy or Preaching is speaking what God wants said with clarity, creativity, and power. The primary ministry in this gift is not prediction, but in confronting people with the truth about God and man—with conviction and empowering as the result.
- Exhortation is the gift of being able to encourage others by well-timed and wise counsel. This gift builds the Body of Christ by helping new, young and adolescent disciples to turn from sin and believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. Also called the gift of Counseling or Encouragement.
Here’s how these gifts play out in various arenas:
- Missional Community/Small Group Leadership: The best MC leaders are usually those with the gift of teaching, because they’re not content to communicate information; they want to see people learn and grow. On the other hand, prophets tend to preach to their MC, while exhorters want to turn it into a counseling session.
- Discipleship/Spiritual Formation: The best disciplers are usually those with the gift of exhortation, because they know how to speak a timely word (Prov. 15:23) and how to draw out what people are really thinking and feeling. Teachers tend to turn discipleship into “content dump” while prophets often talk at people instead of to them.
- Rebuke/Confrontation: The best people to confront sin effectively are usually prophets, because they care less about what people think than about the truth. Teachers tend to instruct instead of confronting, while exhorters can be so encouraging that the rebuke isn’t appropriately felt.
- Preaching: Prophets make the best preachers. Teachers can also be effective from the pulpit when they play to their strengths (clarity, equipping, disciplemaking); in fact, one pastor gifted in prophecy and another gifted in teaching often makes for a great 1-2 punch. Exhorters can also be effective preachers because of their great insight into people; however, they should invite the input of teachers and prophets for help with structure and clarity.
Of course these are over-generalizations. No one should be pigeonholed into a particular area of service, because with appropriate skill development and maturity, people can minister effectively outside their area of gifting. But in general, it’s a good idea to find a role in ministry that leverages your God-given gifting for the good of His body and the progress of His mission.
It should also be noted that progress in sanctification (or lack thereof) can strengthen (or conversely, weaken) the effectiveness of these gifts. Teachers or prophets who haven’t learned to be “quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19) tend to delight in airing their own ideas without considering whether they fit the circumstance. Exhorters who are not well-traveled in the disciplines of prayer, meditation, and Bible study can end up dispensing moralistic advice instead of good news. The fact that you have spiritual gifts doesn’t mean you’ll use them well. Don’t neglect your need for progressive sanctification.
(By the way, if you’d like to take the Divine Design profile to get a better “read” on how God has uniquely gifted you, let us know.)