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!”

Spurgeon on Church Gatherings

Lectures to my studentsIn February I plodded my way through Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students and found it to be an immense store of practical but gospel motivated advice for those who teach and preach in the local church. Throughout the collection, Spurgeon comes across not merely as an influential luminary and iconic leader but as a man who loved the Lord Jesus and longed to see God’s people properly shepherded. There is unfortunately no summary of the work that will adequately substitute for reading the lectures yourself, which I heartily encourage you to do, and in this post I simply want to pick up on a few of Spurgeon’s passing but invaluable points about church meetings, corporate gatherings, “Sabbath services”, or whatever else you want to call them.

Hearing God’s Word preached is an act of worship

“Rightly to listen to the gospel is one of the noblest parts of the adoration of the Most High. It is a mental exercise, when rightly performed, in which all the faculties of the spiritual man are called into devotional action. Reverently hearing the word exercises our humility, instructs our faith, irradiates us with joy, inflames us with love, inspires us with zeal, and lifts us up towards heaven”. Many Christians today foolishly distinguish between aspects of our meetings that constitute worship, for which we have a “worship leader”, and others whereby something else is happening. Spurgeon continues, “True preaching is an acceptable adoration of God by the manifestation of his gracious attributes: the testimony of his gospel, which pre-eminently glorifies him, and the obedient hearing of revealed truth, are an acceptable form of worship to the Most High, and perhaps one of the most spiritual in which the human mind can be engaged.” The sermon does not only inspire worship, responding in hymns and prayer; hearing God speak to us through his Scriptures and by the work of his Spirit is an event in the life of the church where Jesus’ name is magnified and our hearts are moved to praise. Surely that is worship. As D.A. Carson writes in Basics for Believers, “The sermon is not un-worship; it is part of our corporate worship, both a sign of it and a profound incitement to it.”

Weigh each aspect of your service 

C.H. SpurgeonContinuing from the previous point, Spurgeon calls us to “feel very deeply the importance of conducting every part of divine worship with the utmost possible efficiency”. Just as we fall into the error of distinguishing worship and listening to God, so we sometimes fail to consider how each aspect of our corporate gatherings can declare the gospel, not only the sermon. Spurgeon calls us to remember that the salvation of a soul may hang on the choice of a hymn. Yet most Christians are more caught up with the style of their music rather than content. He challenges us to reflect that “God may very especially bless an expression in our prayer to the conversion of a wanderer; and that prayer in the unction of the Holy Spirit, may minister greatly to the edification of God’s people, and bring unnumbered blessings down upon them, we shall endeavour to pray with the best gift and the highest grace within our reach.” Yet we stupidly think prepared prayers unspiritual and lifeless. Lastly, Spurgeon says, “In the reading of the Scriptures comfort and instruction may be plenteously distributed, we shall pause over our opened Bibles, and devoutly seek to be guided to that portion of Holy Writ which shall be most likely to be made useful.” Yet I have visited numerous churches where Bibles are little more than stage props. Removing the public reading from Scripture from our meetings robs people of hearing from God, in his living and true word. We must prayerfully consider every element in corporate worship, for each has the potential to proclaim the gospel and encourage faith.

Vary the order of service

Still discussing the service as a whole, Spurgeon warns: “In order to prevent custom and routine from being enthroned among us, it will be well to vary the order of service as much as possible”. Spurgeon entreats us to allow the Spirit to work through innovation, not being in bondage to tradition and fixed rules as modes of worship. He also notes the irony where liturgy is vehemently resisted yet other prescribed rubrics reign over church meetings. “We claim to conduct service as the Holy Spirit moves us, and as we judge best. We will not be bound to sing here and pray there, but will vary the order of service to prevent monotony…Irregularities would do good, monotony works weariness.” It would be easy to highlight the charismatic churches’ repetitious singing at this point, but in my own Anglican tradition that makes frequent use of the Book of Common Prayer we are in grave danger of stifling our services with structure, both in week to week monotony and in the lack of space given to unprepared sharing, testimony and prayer. Being enslaved to an order of service can dissuade people of the liveliness and significance of God’s gathered people.

Direct all public prayers to God

C. H. SpurgeonFinally, I want to draw an incisive point from Spurgeon, as many preachers tend to treat their closing prayer as an “oblique sermon”, powerful rhetoric designed to stir their hearers’ emotions, or an opportunity to summarise their message. He smarts, “It is little short of blasphemy to make devotion an occasion for display,” for “the Lord alone must be the object of our prayers.” He then goes on, quite unsettlingly to state that, “Fine prayers are generally very wicked prayers.” While we might aim through zeal to excite our hearers, “every word and thought must be Godward…look up, look up with both eyes.” This does not excuse embarrassingly personal or specific prayers. A prayer should harmonise with the rest of the service – from our songs to the sermon and even to confession – but this is to be done wisely, not slavishly, always remembering that God alone is the object of our prayers. I would add, in conclusion, that if it is God’s gospel of grace that we proclaim through our preaching, accept and find assurance in during confession, celebrate in our songs, and through which we humbly approach God in prayer, then not only would we be kept from falling into this trap uncovered by Spurgeon but it would be unthinkable that our prayers be directed to anyone other than our gracious heavenly Father.