Who Cares About Potential?

We’ve got four interns arriving today. They missed their domestic flight last night, so they’ve now been traveling for about 40 hours. I’m really excited about these guys and girls coming – there’s a lot of places where they can plug in and be used. I’ll tell you one thing that I’m not interested in at all, though – their ‘potential.’

Not entirely sure why we do it, but it seems that people in ministry have a soft spot in their hearts for people with ‘potential.’ What is ‘potential’? The teen with natural leadership ability, the businessman with heavy pockets, the Bible
college student with a great pulpit presence. It’s what amounts to unused gifts. And the pastor/missionary/youth worker involved says something like ‘If he’d just…, then he could do something great.’ It’s like walking into an attic full of dusty old furniture and seeing the possibility for an antique store. The problem with this idea is that to start an antique store, you actually need old furniture. What do you actually need to be used by God?

The truth is, the Bible reveals a God that is remarkably unconcerned with raw material. He is prone to apparent whimsical (certainly not meritocratic) selection of servants and endows those he chooses with unnatural, spiritual gifts. Which means that a person’s natural gifts and abilities barely register on God’s scales. So why do they register so high for us?

In physics (as I understand it, anyway – I flunked it in high school), potential energy is related to an object’s position. If a rock is sitting on top of a mountain, it’s got high potential energy. Potential energy is part of what pulls it down! If it wants to go any higher, it will require kinetic exertion by an outside force. I’m afraid that ‘potential’ is often just the optimist’s word for ‘possibility.’ It’s possible that this teen will not be a loser. It’s possible that this wealthy person will learn to be generous. But if you want to talk about latent potential, just like the rock perched atop the mountain, they both only have the potential to plummet. Left to themselves, that’s all they’ve got! Blast that depravity!

But wait, you say, do their gifts count for nothing? Can’t God work in their lives and make use of the unused? Certainly, but if that’s the case, why talk about the people’s potential at all? It’s far more accurate to say that God has the potential to use anyone. But if ‘anyone,’ why are you so entranced by the gifts of some? Semantics? Don’t think so…

Our discerning eyes have a tendency to isolate the high-potential people. And those are the people we want to spend our time with. They’re the people that we naturally believe in. They’re the ones we want to support. Meanwhile, some with lower potential are overlooked. I personally have a tendency to first filter out everyone that doesn’t have ‘potential,’ then look among the leftovers for the people that would be willing to serve God. Forgetting, of course, that God is hardly impressed by ‘natural leadership ability’ or ‘a warm personality.’ Forgetting also that I personally have all the potential of sour milk. It might be a worthy exercise for all of us to sit down with the Scriptures and find out who it is that God delights to use, and then search for those characteristics in the people we lead. Otherwise, we’ll probably all continue spending time with the wrong people.

Who do you know with ‘potential’? Who do you always say, ‘if he would just…, then he could do something great’? Why are you so drawn to that person’s potential? How does that affect the way he or she is treated in your ministry? Is it possible that someone else could be passed over because they’re lacking in the ‘potential’ department? Do I really believe God can use anyone, regardless of their potential, or is that grace only for me?

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3 Comments on “Who Cares About Potential?”

  1. Ransom June 16, 2009 at 10:10 am #

    Its interesting you noted the difference between potential and kinetic energy. Like you said, the potential is how far it can go “naturally” on its own, whereas God is the suppliant of infinite kinetic energy to take it farther than the individual could ever possibly go on their own. Great post, bro.

  2. Chris June 16, 2009 at 4:39 pm #

    I think another key point about potential is its subjectivity. We really don’t know who has potential! Sometimes we recognize raw talent, but have no way of knowing how it may translate into ministry success, because God operates by different parameters.

    Quality thoughts on a topic I’ve never really heard discussed before. Thanks.


  3. Luba June 20, 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    Excellent post. Sometimes we focus so much on those with “potential” but no character while we overlook those are *are* serving God and doing right. Give me ten people without potential who will just do right and follow God’s will rather than five hundred with “potential.”

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