March 13, 2007
Where Have All the Prophets Gone?
Restoring the prophetic ministry of the local church.
While studying for my ordination a few years ago I was required to read Oswald Sanders' classic book, Spiritual Leadership. I've forgotten most of his practical advice about leading a church, but one short section has stayed with me. Sanders talks about the choice pastors face between being a popular leader or an unpopular prophet.
The logic seems rooted in the Old Testament differentiation of these roles. The kings of Israel served as leaders over God's people. They used their power to pull wires and drive the nation forward. The prophets, on the other hand, served as correctors. They came down from the hills to tell everyone what they were doing wrong. And after being rejected, stoned, and thoroughly despised they returned to the hills. Quoting A.C. Dixon, Sanders says, "If [the pastor] seeks to be a prophet and a leader, he is apt to make a failure of both."
Prior to reading Sanders I had already been wondering why few pastors led with any prophetic energy. Scanning my favorite books on my shelf, typically ones with a provocative challenge for the church, I realized that virtually all of them were written by professors. Few, if any, were composed by pastors. Where were the voices of correction in the local church? Where were the sermons calling God's people in a new direction? Where was there a pulpit challenging our popular assumptions about church, mission, and discipleship? Reading Sanders helped me see that we've driven the prophets out of the local church and into academia.
A recent post by David Fitch cited a new leadership model gaining popularity among missional churches. Referred to as APEPT by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their book, The Shaping of Things to Come, it is pulled from Ephesians 4:11. Paul says God has given the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Frost and Hirsch, among other advocates of the model, say the contemporary church has focused its leadership almost exclusively on pastors and teachers while ignoring the contribution of evangelists, prophets, and apostles.
With structures intolerant of these other leadership functions the evangelists abandon local church ministry for para-church groups, apostles are driven to missions agencies, and prophets take their provocative ideas to academia. But, say Frost and Hirsch, "only when all five are operating in unity and harmony can we see effective missional engagement begin to occur."
So, why has the local church been so unwelcoming to prophets, and how do we get them back? I'd like to suggest a few ideas. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but just a start.
1. Seminaries are not training prophets
My seminary education (and I assume my experience was not too different than most church leaders') primarily equipped me to teach the Bible. Professors taught me Greek and Hebrew, historical theology, hermeneutics - everything was designed to help me exegete the text, but no one equipped me to exegete the culture. Correction - one professor did, but his course was an elective not seen as essential for pastors. With seminaries churning out teachers we shouldn't be surprised that few prophetic voices are heard in the local church setting.
A first step toward reintroducing prophets is for seminary programs to value this calling. Since I left seminary I believe more schools are doing this. Tracks are now available in some progressive schools that focus on cultural engagement and discerning social phenomena. We need more pastors who can engage ministry ideas and not simply discern if they work, but if they are right.
2. Church structures are unsafe for prophets
A prophet by definition is going to disturb the status quo, make people uncomfortable, and rock the boat. But when a pastor with a prophetic function is completely dependant upon the congregation for his/her livelihood it creates a conflict of interests. Hirsch and Frost state the problem well:
Centralized funding makes the minister or leader economically subservient to the dominant interests of the group. It's very hard to have a prophetic ministry to the group that provides your salary. And this incapacity to cultivate an authentic prophetic ministry contributes directly to the institutionalization of ministry and the church. Leadership is thus always hostage to the reactionary groups in the congregation. Change becomes inordinately hard.
One way to overcome this problem is to decentralize funding for church leaders. David Fitch wrote about the value of bi-vocational pastors, and Hirsch and Frost recommend more leaders consider raising their support from outside their congregation the way missionaries do. Certainly, these ideas raise other challenges but they might allow a prophetic voice to once again be heard within the local church.
3. Ministries evaluate size not depth
Dallas Willard refers to them as the ABCs of ministry: Attendance, Buildings, and Cash. These are what we measure to determine if our ministry is effective and successful. The ability to increase these quantifiable elements is not the strength of a prophet. In fact, an unrestrained prophet is a sure to diminish attendance, buildings, and cash. For example, Greg Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, preached a prophetic series on the dangers of confusing the kingdom of God with partisan politics. As a result 20% of his congregation (about one thousand people) left the church.
If we only see success in ministry as numerical growth we'll never tolerate the ministry of prophets. Their role is not to add people to the church; that function belongs to the evangelist. Prophets bring depth and discernment to the community, they correct our course when we get off track, and they warn us when pragmatism begins to overshadow faithfulness.
Ultimately, if we have any hope of restoring a prophetic ministry to the local church we need to abandon our either-or thinking. We mustn't require pastors to be either leaders or prophets. We cannot value either expansion or depth. And we must not see the role of pastors as being either to comfort the flock or correct it. Both are necessary for meaningful and balanced ministry.