Friday, January 28, 2011

Hope Not Hype: Rediscovering a Prophetic Ministry in a Church in Decline.

This is an article I worote that was first published in 'Candour' the PCANZ Ministers journal in Sept 2009.

What does it mean to have a prophetic ministry in a church in decline?

“We believe that the prophetic ministry of ordained pastors as prophets is not merely an option, still less an idle curiosity; it is incumbent on them as an important feature of their role and identity.” (Shelp and Sutherland 1985:8)

What does it mean to have a prophetic ministry in the church today? Hopefully there is not a comprehensive shrug of the shoulder and an ‘I don’t know’ in response to that question. Many of us have seldom if ever met what we would recognise as a Christian prophet (Yocum: 1976:29). While we may have a great idea of what the classical prophets were doing when they prophesied we find ourselves wrestling to understand what New Testament prophets were doing when they were prophesying (Hill 1977: 108). We are comfortable with terms like ‘Minister of Word and Sacrament’, and are coming to terms with phrases like ‘change agent’ and ‘servant mission leader’ but it is harder for us to identify with the list of gifts Paul says are needed for building up the church in Ephesians 4:11. I know of no-one who wants to step up and claim a title like prophet or apostle! And they are not titles in the biblical passage they are gifts given by the Spirit for the building up of the church. We are somewhat comfortable with ‘evangelist’ and more so with ‘teacher’ and ‘pastor’. However I believe to give hope to the church in decline we need to rediscover what these gifts mean for us today. In this article I will wrestle with the idea of a prophetic ministry in a church in decline.

John Calvin shaped our thinking on this matter. He addressed the list in Ephesians and split it into two arbitrary categories. First the ministries “that the Lord raised the beginning of the Kingdom, and now and again revives them as the need and the times demands” (Calvin cited in Peel 200:42). Into this category he placed apostles, prophets and evangelists. The second group and only permanent gifting in his opinion were those of pastor and teacher (Peel: 2000:242-243).

Here are some understandings and misunderstandings of what a prophetic ministry is...

Weird guru type person: When we use the word prophet we often have in our minds the picture of the desert fathers or similar hermit-like figures, with the long beard and wild eyes, clad in animal skins. If that is the reality of what a prophet is then, “it is no wonder there are so few” (Yocum: 1976:29).

A seer: In first century near eastern religious prophets and oracles were the equivalent of clairvoyants and the psychic hotlines of today. They gave spiritual advice to people with questions and concerns. There are many who still have this picture in their minds. They focus on prophecy as foretelling rather than the more biblical understanding of one who tells forth God’s word; who brings the timeless word of God to bear, in a timely manner, to a specific time and place.

The social justice activist: James Glasse sees the pastor as prophet when they are concerned for social change and reform outside of the congregation they work in. I guess Martin Luther King Jr. would be the primary example of this understanding. Glasse’s main concern is ministers who want to be prophetic without being professional. They did not spend the time encouraging and building up the church or as he puts it ‘paying the rent’ (Glasse: 1972:35).

While this is one understanding of a prophetic ministry and reflects a kingdom concern for justice and mercy it does not reflect the biblical understanding of the prophet primarily speaking to the people of God and ministering within the faith community so they may together become a prophetic community, a people who reflect God’s new way of living to the world around them.

Acts of divine utterance: the Charismatic and Pentecostal understanding of prophecy is as divine utterance. It starts with an understanding of who God is. That God is a communicative God. “All through the scriptures God tells us that he desires to speak ever more intimately, evermore frequently with those who follow him” (Yocum 1976:11). In the Old Testament God chose to speak to specific people but in the New Testament the Spirit is poured out on all who believe. In this respect all God’s people can hear from God and tell forth what God wants to say. Neither this understanding nor the scriptures connect this activity with any office or position in the church. Gordon Fee maintains that as with all prophecy there is the need for discernment. Any such utterance needs to be weighed and the community needs to wrestle with what is said to see if it is from God. The Spirit provides the gift to do this as well. Fee cites 1 John 4:1 as evidence for the connection between discerning spirits and prophecy (Fee 1994:171). 1 Corinthians puts the context of the use of this gift in public worship and shows Paul’s Presbyterian roots (or more truly our Presbyterian roots in Paul) by insisting that it be done in order.

Inspired exegesis and interpretation: There is the hope that each time we faithfully expound scripture that prophecy happens. The reformed ideal is summarized by JI Packer ...’it appears that New Testament prophets preached the gospel for conversion, edification and parity of reasoning therefore, any verbal enforcement of biblical teaching as it applies to one’s present hearers may probably be called prophecy today, for that in truth is what it is’ (cited in Turner 1996:187). Of the reformers Zwingli seems to have articulated this most. His daily bible studies in Zurich were called the Prophezei or prophecy: Scholars, clergy and students would gather in the cathedral choir for an hour of intense exegesis and interpretation. Zwingli’s emphasis was on the role of the Spirit in interpreting the scriptures to people. He established some rules for interpretation to ensure Biblical fidelity: putting texts into context and comparing them with other texts in different literary genres ( Stephens 992: 38-39). There is an essential element of the scriptural understanding of prophecy here in that the word of God, through the Spirit, is understood and able to be interpreted and applied to the present situation.

I want to suggest a different way of looking at what a prophetic ministry is...

One of the most useful and challenging books I have read on this subject is Pastor as Prophet (1985). It is a collection of essays re-examining the role of the pastor. It was written in response to the move to see pastoral ministry primarily as a ‘helping profession’ and is a clarion call to rediscover what it means to have a prophetic ministry. It includes some material from Walter Brueggemann who I believe gives us important insight for ministry today.

The book affirms some of the basic roles and tasks of pastoral ministry as being prophetic. Preaching the word and administering the sacraments are prophetic because they constitute us as the people of God in the world (Hauerwas 1985: 43). In public prayer there is space to fulfil a prophetic ministry. In prayers of confession we confront evil in the world. In giving absolution we declare the gospel truth of forgiveness and proclaim the possibility of new life and transformation. In prayers for others we are able to speak prophetically to governments and power structures. In asking God to give guidance to these institutions we, as the church, are acknowledging their accountability to a higher power, which will ultimately have the say over what is done ( Migliore 1985: 128). Likewise pastoral visiting and identifying with the hurting and oppressed is prophetic in that it shows God’s concern for the pain and suffering in the world. Developing and encouraging leadership and pastoral visiting teams further is prophetic in that it shows God’s call for his people to be active in God’s mission.

The thing that challenged me the most is Walter Bruggermann’s idea of the pastor having prophetic imagination. Having a clear and biblical understanding of what it means to be God’s people or as Andrew Stanley puts it seeing God’s preferred future (1999: 17) and then working to see that alternative reality come into existence. Brueggemann sees the prophets’ role in this as critiquing the way things are and to energise people for the way they can be. Not innovation but calling for faithfulness to God’s original vision, for Israel and for the church in Jesus' Kingdom of God.

I spoke at a Youth Leaders convesntion recently and I asked the youth leaders present to raise their hands if they had a vision of what they were wanting to achieve in the ministry they were doing with young people. I was shocked to see only a few hands go up. There was little prophetic imagination happening. I fear it reflects the state of the church.

In the book leading congregational change, Jim Herrington et al presents a process for a church community to work through. Starting with developing a vision community to begin the process of looking at what it is God is calling us to be (2000:41). While he is a Southern Baptist his process fits well with us, with the need for a great diversity to be represented in that group. The process is to capture the imagination of the congregation in order to bring changes at a practical and paradigm level (Herrington 2000:62-63). Even to get to the level of changing the metaphor we use to construct our reality. It involves a careful and well thought out process of bring that change and seeing that vision coming to fruition.

Herrington also maintains that for this transformation to happen there needs to be an ongoing process of learning; unlearning old paradigms and being willing to explore new ones. We often think of our role as teaching elder as being confined to our preaching and Christian education, but an important element of that is resourcing leaders and elders and congregations so they can develop a prophetic imagination in order to look beyond the way things are to the way they can be. While you may not agree with all of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church it is an example of a clear vision of what church is about. When I gave it to my elders to read I found that for many it fuelled their imagination as to what the church should and could be.

We use the term ‘leadership’ to cover a lot of this. Often people talk about this process of change agent as bringing business models into church life. But in essence I believe it is what it means to have a prophetic ministry in a church in decline. The Biblical models for the prophetic are Moses and Jesus, who had clear God given visions for an alternative community of faith and both spoke and worked to see it come into being. They gathered a vision community around them and infected them with the possibility.

I have sat through a lot of good teaching even sometimes prophetic preaching; I have received and hopefully given good pastoral care. But I fear that as a church we have taught and pastored our way to decline and even death. We have not encouraged or prayed for the Spirit to give us the prophets and prophetic ministries we need for the church to be built up again, to rediscover the biblical vision for being the people of God. We need leaders who will have the courage to speak the truth about the way things are and about the way they should be, who have that Spirit given prophetic imagination. Hopefully we can pack our suitcases and head to this new kingdom.

You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us have been

A place that has to be believed to be seen’

-Walk on U2 Lyrics by Bono (dedicated to Aung Suu Kyi)


Brueggemann, Walter. 1978. The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress Press

Brueggemann, Walter. 1985. “The prophet as destabilizing presence’ in The Pastor as Prophet, EE Shelp & RH Sunderland ed. New York: The Pilgrim Press. Pgs 49-77

Fee, Gordon. 1994. God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. Peabody Mass.: Hendrickson Publishing.

Glasse, James d. 1972. Putting It All Together In The Parish. Nashville: Abingdon.

Hauerwas, Stanley M. 1985. ‘The Pastor as Prophet: Ethical Reflections On An Improbable Mission’ in The Pastor As Prophet, EE Shelp & RH Sunderland ed. New York: The Pilgrim Press. Pgs 27-48

Herrington, Jim. Boner, Mike. Furr, James H. 2000. Leading Congregational Change. A Practical Guide for the Transformational Journey. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Hill, David. 1979. New Testament Prophecy. London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott.

Milliore, Daniel l. 1985. ‘The Passion Of God and The Prophetic Task Of Pastoral Ministry’ in The

Pastor As Prophet, EE Shelp & RH Sunderland ed. New York: The Pilgrim Press. Pgs 114-134

Peel, David. 2000. Reforming Theology. London: The United Reformed Church

Slep Earl E and Sutherland Ronald H. 1985. ‘Prophetic Ministry: An introduction’ in The Pastor As Prophet, EE Shelp & RH Sunderland ed. New York: The Pilgrim Press. Pgs 3-26

Stanley, Andy. 1999. Visioneering. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers.

Stephens, W P. 1992. Zwingli: An Introduction This Thought. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Turner, Max.1996. The Holy Spirit and the Gifts Then and Now. Carlisle, Cumbria: The Paternoster Press.

Yocum, Bruce. 1976. Prophecy: Exercising The Prophetic Gifts In The Church Today. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books

1 comment:

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