Three Ways to Encourage Prophecy in Church Gatherings

Passive worship

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

FCA_Meeting_-_MainThis 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

TestimonyUnfortunately 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.

Reclaiming a Place for Prophecy in Church Gatherings

AnglicanI am an Anglican, mostly by theological training and partly by conviction. Thus I am convinced to varying degrees about issues such as local church government, paedobaptism, and denominational structure. I gladly, along with other denominations, see my Anglican roots in the Reformation historically. With much credit to Ashley Null, I am enamoured with the English Reformer, Thomas Cranmer and his legacy, our Anglican liturgy. However, this brings me to the Thirty-nine Articles and an aspect of my experience in the Anglican Church, which has left me dissatisfied, and that I am sure is shared by many: the lack of spontaneity and mutual encouragement in our corporate gatherings. Though there are no doubt many excellent reasons for formally structured services (though see Spurgeon’s warning against predictable services), I wonder if the 23rd article is not partially responsible for my frustration, ‘No man is permitted to take upon himself the office of public preaching before he has been appointed to fulfil his office. They must be selected and called.’ Obviously this is referring to the public ministry of preaching, but the article is titled, “Ministering in the congregation,” which in most Anglican churches is done by the trained few rather than the priesthood of all believers.

What brought this issue to a head in my own thinking was reading David Peterson, an Anglican of Anglicans. In his invaluable book, Engaging with God, he provides a biblical approach to worship, calling Christians everywhere to measure their view of worship alongside the touchstone of Scripture; worship, when understood correctly, is the meeting with God made possible through faith in the gospel, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. After establishing a biblically faithful definition of worship, Peterson unpacks its relevance for the corporate gatherings of local churches. One of the most challenging segues for me personally, and to my Anglican tradition, is his treatment of 1 Corinthians 14. We are familiar with this passage because it is where Paul criticises tongues, but how often do we reflect on what Paul favours in its place, namely, prophecy? In answering that below question I will rely heavily on David Peterson and 1 Corinthians 14, and lightly on John Frame’s Worship in Spirit and Truth.

Prophesy in Public Church Gatherings

WorshipPeterson writes, “1 Corinthians 14 challenges the tendency of many Christian traditions to undervalue spontaneity and variety of input in the congregational gathering. Paul expected that members of the congregation to come with some contribution prepared for the occasion or that individuals might be prompted by the Spirit to offer prayer or praise or some other ministry on the spot.” We balk at that application, especially that last bit about the Spirit’s prompting, though it is hard to deny considering prophesy may disclose the secrets of a hearer’s heart (1 Corinthians 14:25). Peterson is not suggesting free for all corporate worship, after all that is what Paul was writing against, and he recalls the New Testament’s weighting and emphasis on pastor-teachers doing the primary work of equipping and leading (Ephesians 4:11-14). But, “There should be some public opportunity for spontaneous and informal ministries.” Peterson adds that other passages, such as 1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11, 14 and Ephesians 4:15, confirm the value unplanned verbal ministries of exhortation, comfort or admonition by the congregation. Reading the New Testament we are confronted at many points by what John Frame calls “participative worship” and I agree with Frame that this cannot be claimed to take place solely in the scripted and restricting liturgy of congregational prayers and responses. Careful thinking needs to be done in creating a place for encouraging prophecy in public church gatherings. But before that is done three important qualifications must be offered.

Three qualifications

(i) Intelligibility
Above I have, with the help of Peterson, identified what John Frame calls a relatively democratic structure for worship. Fundamental to Worship in Spirit and Truth is Scripture’s explicit emphasis on the intelligibility of corporate worship. It was the unintelligibility of worship at Corinth that Paul sternly addresses – “If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will you anyone know what is said?” (14:9), and, “In church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (14:19), “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account” (14:24). That last verse cited impresses on us that even non-Christians should find worship understandable and sensible. This must be kept in mind as we seek to incorporate prophecy into our gatherings. Hear Paul, as he moves towards concluding this section of his letter, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (14:33).

(ii) New Testament balance
New Testament balanceSecondly, we need to retain the balance of the New Testament, which I have already mentioned. Peterson rightly says that the natural environment for prophecy is in home groups, personal interaction after or before services and in meeting informally to pray or read together. But he then inquires, considering 1 Corinthians 14 and other passages cited, why we view the spontaneous prophecy for edification, encouragement and comfort with such suspicion when it comes to our public gatherings (14:3). Answering his own question Peterson says we cannot claim to hold to the New Testament’s balance without allowing at least some space for informal contributions to be made. How this is to be done is not developed in any sort of detail in the New Testament though Peterson suggests, “It may be a matter of finding appropriate spots in the regular pattern of Sunday services where contributions can be made…rearranging the furniture or encouraging people to gather together differently so that those who contribute can be more easily seen and heard.” However we do it, it should be done. And we must not forget that the public reading and teaching of Scripture remains the organising centre of corporate worship.

(iii) Prophets versus prophecy
Finally, Peterson calls for clear distinction between the prophets of the Old Testament and prophetic ministry carried out by certain Christians (see Romans 12:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22; 1 Peter 4:11). Unlike the former, prophetic ministry requires evaluation (1 Corinthians 14:29), indicating that it can be challenged and even rejected. Prophecy of the sort we are investigating does not share the apostolic commission given by Jesus to provide the church with authoritative revelation (John 16:12-15), which became our New Testament (John 17:20; 20:30-31). The prophetic ministry of the New Testament should not be confused with Old Testament prophets, who addressed Israel with Yahweh’s very words; instead it functions to strengthen, encourage and comfort those in the local church (1 Corinthians 14:3). Prophecy is also to be instructive, “that all may learn” (14:31). Thus prophetic ministry possesses a limited authority while pursuing the application of the gospel to the lives of other believers.

In encouraging our congregations to explore the gift of prophecy in the life of the local church we must insist on maintaining intelligibility, in order to keep us from becoming clanging symbols; retaining the biblical balance of preaching and the public reading of Scripture to lead local gatherings; and asserting the authority which God has preserved for us in both Testaments over any claim to speak on behalf of God today.

Conclusion

I started this post lamenting the Anglican tradition’s fear of involving the congregation in public worship. As I close let me say that I do not think our liturgy should bear the sole responsibility. Both Frame and Peterson identify a deeper problem than traditions and liturgy: the passive attitude most Christians adopt towards corporate gatherings. Frame believes this is a result of our entertainment driven culture. Peterson, on the other hand, suggests that too many Christians have the narrow understanding of church services as facilitating private communion with God. Both of these grossly inadequate approaches to church services express a failure to properly consider the horizontal dimension of worship. Frame reminds us, “We should go to church to do something: to bring praise to God and to minister to one another.” It is tragic misunderstanding of church to be most concerned with what I can get out rather than how I might contribute to others. I will allow David Peterson the last word, “Paul would urge us to meet in dependency on one another as vehicles of God’s grace and to view the well-being and strengthening of the whole church as the primary aim of the gathering. There ought to be a real engagement with other believers in the context of mutual ministry, shared prayer and praise, not simply a friendly chat over a cup of coffee after church!”

Doodle: Resurrection Bodies and The Silmarillion

Corinthian mosaicThis year our small groups have worked through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. With us fast approaching the end of this apparently eclectic, immensely encouraging, and sin exposing epistle we have spent the last few weeks in chapter 15. What struck me in preparation was Paul’s contrast of our present earthly bodies and promised heavenly bodies (see 15:35-58).

The biggest contrast Paul draws is between our perishing present and the imperishable future. He writes, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (15:50). The Corinthians could not fathom how the dead would enter heaven (15:35), but Paul’s answer is that even the living are unfit for heaven for they need to become imperishable (15:42). An explanation of the material between these two points is that Paul stresses continuity between our earthly and heavenly, natural and spiritual, bodies. This continuity undergirds the entire section but what the Corinthians needed to learn was that our present bodies made from dust are perishable. The problem is not that the dead cannot be raised but rather that the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable (15:50). Our bodies need to be changed, transformed and clothed with immortality (15:52-54). The resurrection does not only mean that bodily death poses no threat to our hope of heaven; it promises that we will be made imperishable and fit for heaven.

Tolkien - SilmarillionWhat does that have to do with Tolkien’s The Silmarillion? I think that an episode towards the end of Tolkien’s masterful myth clearly illustrates the point made by Paul. In the Akallabêth, the Númenoreans, a mighty line of Men also known as the Dúnedain, yearn for the West, being enamoured by the undying lands of Aman they are embittered that their lives are tied to Middle-earth. Their unrest is told to the Valar by the Elves and it comes as grievous news. Manwë, one of the Valar, sends messengers, “who spoke earnestly to the King, and to all who would listen, concerning the fate and fashion of the world.” They told them there is no profit in voyaging to the Blessed Realm for, “There you would but wither and grow weary the sooner, as moths in a light too strong and steadfast.” There is no hope in leaving the perishable world, for their fate is intertwined with it. But even if they were to sail from Middle-earth to the Blessed Realm, the question Mandos, another one of the Valar, asks earlier about Eärendil rings loudly, “Shall mortal Man step living upon the undying lands, and yet live?”

Empty tombTo quote Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:53, “This perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” What guarantee do we have of this? “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (15:20-21).