Three Ways to Encourage Prophecy in Church Gatherings
Two weeks ago I posted arguing that many Christians have lost the biblical and benefical role of prophecy in the life of the local church. In that post I did not set out to challenge the abuses of prophecy in Charismatic traditions but to address its absense in my own Anglican tradition, and no doubt in the broader Reformed church. It is ironic to belong to a tradition that firmly opposed Medieval Catholicism – with its over-distinction between lay people and church leaders, amongst other errors – unwittingly falls into similar traps today, restricting public speaking ministries to the theologically trained. I wonder if part of the reason for this is that our engagement with 1 Corinthians 14 does not go deeper than using it as a proof-text against the misuse of tongues and to highlight the importance of intelligible worship. Interestingly, Paul writes that prophecy is not only prefered to tongues (14:2-3, 19), but should be practised in the local church (14:5, 24), for it is a desirable gift (14:1).
A note on the word ‘prophecy’
Before getting onto our three points below, a brief discussion about the word ‘prophecy’ is necessary. Robert Doyle, one of my lecturers at college, described words as suitcases that can have their contents changed over time. Unfortunately, the word ‘prophecy’ has been crammed full of misplaced and misfitted clothing, or concepts. If you ask a non-Christian what it means to prophesy they will most probably answer, ‘Predicting the future.’ Many Christians will, I fear, give a similar answer. But that sort of prophecy is very infrequent in Scripture; in fact, most of the Old Testament prophets merely warned Israel about the outcomes of improper worship, hard-heartedness, and idolatry, which they were well aware of in the Pentateuch. This has led many, such as Tremper Longman III, to name Old Testament prophets “covenant enforcers” and resist the common misconception ‘fortune tellers.’ As I wrote in my previous post, when we arrive in the first century the authoritative prophetic office is replaced by the apostles appointed by Jesus (John 16:12-15); so our task requires us careful study of the New Testament’s teaching on prophetic ministry, which avoids both loading it with an unbiblical emphasis on supernatural foresight and tying it too closely to the Old Testament office and authority. Therefore, instead of shying away from the word ‘prophecy,’ we should repack it with its biblical content.
Three pointers for rediscovering and practising prophecy
1. Create the culture
This must be where we start for we have created a church culture, compounded by our Anglican tradition, that encourages “spectator worship” (Grudem) and limits congregational input to responses scripted by our liturgy. Few of us understand church gatherings as meetings where we can be actively involved in the edification and encouragement of others (1 Corinthians 14:3), even the conversion of non-believers (14:24-25). I quoted John Frame in my previous post, and it is worth highlighting his point again, “We should go to church to do something: to bring praise to God and to minister to one another.” In creating this culture, of active involvement in corporate worship, we must rid ourselves of the present culture that has an almost entirely passive attitude towards church gatherings. We must cultivate the understanding that we can contribute to one another in profound and Spirit empowered ways: speaking words of encouragement, issuing challenges, and applying the gospel to specific needs and circumstances. Sermons and the subsequent conversations about them will not suffice to mature believers and grow the body. We must create the culture where each person is ready to speak the truth in love and thus join and hold the body together, with each part working properly (Ephesians 4:15-16).
2. Plan “celebration slots”
One of the ways to create the above culture is to invite congregants to share prepared reflections and testimonies at designated times in your service. This will encourage people as they hear how God has been working in the lives of others. In my own church we do this – though infrequently – and have had people share their conversion story, how God has been convicting them through the preached word, something they have been reading that they would like to challenge the church with, an aspect of God’s goodness they are praising him for, or a major shift in their understanding that they want others to hear. In my previous post I suggested that our church gatherings should be slightly more ‘democratic’; planning celebration slots and calling God’s people to pray in response shows that churches are not run by a ‘dictator’ but are in fact a group of pilgrims making their way forward together. This will not only help create the culture of sharing, ministerial worship, and offering encouragement but forms an important step towards my final point.
3. Allow unplanned sharing
Unfortunately called “us and us,” whatever that means, here I am not referring to three minutes in your service where you stand up and “greet each other in the name of the Lord,” prompting terrified visitors to break out in a cold sweat, shut their eyes, and (miraculously) pray that no one comes over. What I am calling for is an informal time allocated in church gatherings where people are invited to share spontaneously how God has been at work in their lives. To risk sounding harsh, I think that if you ask a Christian how God has been at work or what they are grateful for at that moment then they should have an answer ready. I say that because Jesus taught, ‘The branch attached to me will bear fruit’ (John 15:5). Christians understand themselves as those whom God has made alive, ‘springs of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14). Christians cannot be dried up branches or stagnant pools but should be pictures of abounding life, so that when asked how God is at work their minds will be aflood with causes for celebration. It is this spontaneous sharing that – in my mind – comes closest to what Paul is writing about in 1 Corinthians 14.
Conclusion and challenge
We have a challenge before us. The word ‘prophecy’ is embattled. Our church culture suppresses spontaneity and sharing. Platforms for congregants to publically celebrate God’s work are in short supply. We are fearful of opening up the floor and well aware of the abuses of prophecy. But we must begin, as I have set out, to address those challenges and concerns in our local church gatherings and rediscover a place for prophecy.