What Does It Mean to Be a Prophetic Church?

What does it mean to be prophetic? The word is thrown around a lot, but depending on which circles you run in, it means something quite different. If you’re in the charismatic crowd, being prophetic means speaking the ‘now’ word of God— bringing ‘fresh revelation’, and possibly even doing it in a way that is spontaneous and disruptive to the plan or the schedule. But if you run with justice-oriented Christ-followers, being prophetic is being bold, confrontational, and possibly disruptive not to a plan but to an order, a societal framework. How could the same word have such different connotations? What can we recover from the Biblical roots of the prophetic role?

In the Old Testament, two words are used to describe the prophet. The earlier of the two is the word ro’eh, which roughly means, ‘the one who sees’. Later, the more common word used for a prophet is nabi, which can be loosely translated as, ‘the one who speaks’, particularly, on behalf of another.

A prophet is one who sees a different world, and says a different word.

Specifically, a prophet is able to speak a revealing word because he sees something others don’t, something hidden to others. This is why the woman at the well in John 4 called Jesus a prophet– he revealed the truth about the number of men who had married and abandoned her. And this is why Paul is a prophet– because the mystery of the Gospel has been revealed to him. If we bring all this together, we can outline a sketch of what it means to be a prophetic church.

A Prophetic Church…
1. Sees Jesus as King and His Kingdom arriving here and now.

One of the major themes in the Old Testament is that the Creator-God is the King of His Creation (many of the Psalms praise God in this way). When we read the first few chapters of the Bible through that lens, we begin to understand that human beings were created to reflect the wise and loving rule of God the Creator-King into His creation. This is what having ‘dominion’ means. Yet, the fall was a rebellion that forfeited that privilege.

Until…the True Adam came as the world’s True King. When Jesus announced His Kingdom mission in Luke 4, He quoted Isaiah 61, where the anointing of the Spirit is the empowerment to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoner, and more. In Luke’s ‘Volume 2’— the Book of Acts— the Spirit is poured out on the Church so that this Kingdom mission can continue.

Paul argues through his letters in different ways that the Church participates in the Kingdom by confessing Jesus as ‘Lord’— the true sovereign of the world— and by living under His reign by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is at its prophetic best when it lives in a way the would make no sense unless Jesus is King, and His Kingdom really were arriving here and now. That is why a prophetic church does not divide up evangelism and miracles and justice. We see them as a threefold cord. A prophetic church announces the forgiveness of sins, healing for the sick, and justice for the oppressed in Jesus’ name.

2. Speaks the truth to power.

Our image of the prophet has to be shaped by the Old Testament’s regard for Moses as the greatest prophet in Israel. We don’t usually think of Moses as a prophet, but when we do, we understand that part of the prophetic call is speaking truth to power. In that light, Nathan’s rebuke of David and Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel all begin to make sense. Sometimes the prophet does the truth-telling through the voice of lament, as Jeremiah did.

Thus Jesus is prophetic not only because of His revealing the marriage history of the woman at the well, but also because of His confrontations with power. When Jesus overturned the tables of money-changers in the Temple, and when He defied Pilate— by reshaping his questions, refuting his claims to power, and even by refusing to answer— He was living out the prophetic vocation by speaking the truth to both religious and political powers. (Paul echoes these behaviors in his conversations with various religious and political rulers in the latter half of the Book of Acts.)

The early Christians were not killed because Christianity was a religion Rome did not like. Rome welcomed any and all religions, but they were particularly threatened by Christianity. Why? Because Christianity made a radical, new and exclusive claim: Jesus alone is the Lord of all, worthy of worship; all other gods must be renounced as false. Rome viewed this as a dangerous belief. And every time the Church gathered to worship, there were speaking the truth to power by confessing Jesus as the True Lord– using terms Caesar had applied to himself as political propaganda– and thus declaring the gods of Empire as false.

Every time we show the gods of our age to be false, and expose their claims as a lie, we are speaking the truth to power. We denounce the lie that economic prosperity is the source of joy, that sexual pleasure is the highest end of every relationship, that violence is the path to peace, that a people-group or nation matters more than another. Sometimes our voice is the voice of proclamation and confession; others it is the voice of lament. Both are forms of prophetic truth-telling.

3. Signposts toward the future.

Activism has many appealing qualities. It is better than doing nothing; it unites and mobilizes people toward a common cause. It can raise awareness and even adjust a widely-held cultural paradigm.

And yet, activism is not the same thing as being prophetic. The Church does not care for the poor or feed the hungry or speak for the marginalized for the same reason an activist does. They may be in the same march or use the same hashtag, but the Christian is motivated by something different than the activist. The Christian is not in this— ultimately— to create change or to solve problems. If this were so, then a Christian may weigh the odds of actually changing a situation before speaking up or acting. A Christian is driven to act and speak because she has seen a different future. Remember: a prophet says a different word because he sees a different world.

Every time the Church ‘welcomes the stranger’, forgives an enemy, shows mercy to the offender, or protects the vulnerable, we are a signpost to the future. We don’t do these things to be a good humanitarian or to solve a global crisis. We do it to point toward the day when the Kingdom comes in fullness, on earth as it is in heaven, when every tear will be wiped away, when suffering is no more.

Now more than ever, we need the Holy Spirit to help us live as a witness in the world of a different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom, arriving on earth as it is in heaven. May God give us the grace to live as a prophetic Church.

How the Past Can Rescue the Present

At the start of new year, most of our attention is focused on what lies ahead. It’s really one of the few times we take our eyes of the present moment and begin to imagine the future. My wife and I love praying and planning for the season ahead.

But I also love studying the past. I’m not a history buff, but I enjoy learning about previous eras, particularly of church history. As a pastor, I am often comforted in knowing that the Church has faced challenges and dilemmas like the ones in our day before. We can learn from both the mistakes they made and the wisdom they displayed.

There are two types of snobbery when it comes to a view of time. There is the snobbery of progress— what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’. It is the belief that everything newer is more evolved, more enlightened, more advanced or sophisticated. This is a temptation precisely because there are aspects of it that are true: we know more about how the human brain works, how addictions occur, how spirituality integrates holistically with emotions and actions; and on and on. But not everything current is an improvement. The passing of time is not the same as progress. And, as Lewis pointed out, a culture or society may forget what it once knew.

The second kind of snobbery is the snobbery of nostalgia. This is the view that everything older is better; that the more historic the thing is, the richer it is. The way things used to be is automatically assumed to be better than the way things are. This view fails to account for the problems and flaws of every paradigm, or the challenges in every age, or even the way an allegedly abstract principle is actually deeply shaped by the context of its geography, politics, and more.

So, why does the past matter? Why study it if its not actually better than the present? Why can’t we just concern ourselves with the ‘now’ work of God? Once again, C. S. Lewis offers an insight:

“…we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.”

Just as a person “who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village,” so the person who “has lived in many times” is “in some degree immune from the…nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

We study the past so that we do not become prisoners of the moment.

We study the past so that we can call into question the assumptions of our age.

We study the past so that we can gain an immunity from the myths of our day.

And so I press on…backwards to go forwards, free of the myopia of the moment. My current quest for chronological context includes reading this gem from Larry Hurtado (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh) on the unique qualities of early Christianity in the midst of both Jewish and pagan contexts.

Here’s one of the passages the struck me recently:

‘It is interesting that these pagan writers [in the first few centuries of Christianity] typically refer to Christians as dissonant and out of step, and as in tension with the larger culture of the time in some matters…Tacitus [the Roman writer around 112 AD who wrote on Nero’s accusations of Christians] claims that under Nero’s orders “an immense multitude” of Christians were arrested, who were convicted of “hatred of the human race,” and then were subjected to various forms of death.’

Huh. So, no matter how loving and kind Christians try to be, we still may be accused of being out of touch with the times (on the ‘wrong side of history’) and hateful? Well, now, that may challenge our paradigms.

But the rap on Christians in the first few centuries wasn’t all bad. Galen, a physician in the 2nd century, expressed ‘admiration for Christians, particularly for their courage in the face of death [not that the admiration for their courage was not a reason to rescind the death penalty!], their self-restraint in matters of sex, food, and drink, and their “keen pursuit of justice”.’ So, no need to tone down our admonishment of Christians today to embrace both a comprehensive view of justice and a temperate view of morality.

And yet, it may not be enough to keep people from viewing us– as Celsus the late second century pagan writer viewed early Christians– as ‘intellectually inferior people’.

There is so much more in Hurtado’s book that encourages and challenges me. And I think that’s the point: we need to study the past to see our own age more clearly.

We cannot compare the present to the future because we do not see the future clearly enough to know the implications of our theories and hypotheses. And we cannot live in the past as if the world remains unchanged. We must make two moves– the move to acquaint ourselves with the Church in previous eras, and then the move to see our own context with fresh eyes, and discern the Spirit’s work in us, here and now.

It’s Too Easy To Dismiss Hillsong…and Miss Our Shared Problem

So, Hillsong declined to publicly declare a position on ‘LGBT issues’.

And the internet was awash with opinions. Some shook their heads in disappointment, because, after all, ‘the Bible is clear’. Others smugly remarked that we shouldn’t expect much from this ‘culturally accommodating’ brand of Christianity. I find neither response particularly helpful or accurate.

First, the response of certainty: ‘A non-answer is an answer.’

I understand this response, and there is some truth to it: a non-answer is indeed an answer.

But it is not saying as much as we might think it is. It does not, for example, (necessarily) mean a ‘shift’ in position. It may simply be a statement about what the church’s mission is: to announce Christ in the pluralistic public square, and to challenge Christians more specifically once they are in the community.

I didn’t read their response as fudging on the what of Christian morality but rather as a statement about the where, when and to whom. Is it the Church’s role to announce ‘positions’ on issues to the public? Or is that tendency a leftover from Christendom– the era where we were gladly the power-brokers of society, blessing presidents and wars and condemning movies and rock stars? The Church is not a government agency; we need not announce ‘policy’ to the public.

Furthermore, there is something fundamentally wrong with thinking about this as an “LGBT issue.” I read with tears an email from a congregant who thanked me for our clear yet tender conversation about homosexuality. It was the first time he felt dignified as a person. Not an issue or an agenda. If we think of this as an “LGBT issue” or a “gay agenda”, then we will rush to announce policies and positions. But if we remember that we talking with and to people– living, breathing, holy, created beings– then we will be careful to have these conversations in pastoral contexts, not in press conferences.

Secondly, the response of smugness: ‘What did we expect from Hillsong?”

If you’re looking to bag Hillsong, you don’t have to work too hard. Criticism from afar is all too easy. The lights. The arenas packed with the young and beautiful. The upcoming movie. But all these critiques are cheap. And wrong.

Today, Hillsong was accused of ‘accommodating culture’, with the not-so-subtle insinuation that this was why they have attracted such large crowds. But I wonder if the people who wrote those critiques have ever been to Hillsong. I wonder if they’ve ever listened to a sermon. I wonder if they realize that they (likely) sing Hillsongs’ songs in their own churches on Sundays. I wonder if they know that one of the biggest new songs on Hillsong’s latest album is one based on the Apostles’ Creed— written humbly in response to a challenge from an outside denominational leader.

I know how easy it is to form an opinion or to cast doubt on a group of people by what you observe from the outside. I know because I’ve done it. But it’s wrong. From an academic standpoint, it’s irresponsible sociological analysis. From a pastoral standpoint, it reeks of the ‘older brother’ all too willing to see another’s faults exposed. And from a Christian standpoint, well…

Let’s look in the log in our own eye. 

Let’s do some theological reflection for a moment. One of the more controversial statements in Merritt’s article was from Carl Lentz’s wife, who said that it isn’t our job to tell people how to live. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and say that by ‘people’ she meant people outside their church.

But what if she didn’t? What if she meant that as pastors it wasn’t their job to teach their congregation how to live? Now, this would be extraordinarily troubling. But it would say more about us— all of us as modern, Western, Protestant, non-denominational Christians– than it would about Hillsong. Let me explain.

What makes it possible to say that it isn’t our job to tell anyone how to live? I submit it is the fruit of seeds many of us have participated in sowing:

  • We have perpetuated an individualistic view of salvation that allows an individual to ‘be on their own journey’– and the Church ought to be silent while they’re on it.
  • We changed the purpose of a church gathering from worship— with the historic ‘four-fold ordo’ or at least the ‘two-fold shape’ of Word and Table– to evangelism, modeling it after the Frontier Revivals– a warm-up, a sermon, and an altar call. If the church gathering is more about mission than formation, why wouldn’t we end up abdicating our role to instruct fellow Christians on a new way to live?
  • We have sent out church planters with little to no sense of ecclesiality (what makes a church a church) or covering or authority, leaving them to give ecclesial authority only to those ‘who are doing it better than us’– which, in short, means those with bigger churches.
  • We have created such a hard (and false) dichotomy between ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ that we have no place for actual moral instruction. All teaching on how we ought to live is too often reduced to ‘law’ and therefore dismissed as ‘legalism’. By misunderstanding grace to be a sort of spiritual autonomy instead of the power that makes us new and helps us live in a new way, we have side-lined any notion of ethics.
  • We have not said enough about the thoroughly biblical notion that the commandments are meant to give us life, that Jesus has a way for us to live that leads us to true human flourishing, that ‘Christian ethics’ is really an invitation to be fully and truly human.

You see, it’s too easy to scapegoat Hillsong and miss the larger problem we all share. We would do better to address our participation in an anemic or flawed soteriology and ecclessiology– the log in our own eye!– than to waste another minute dismissing a church we don’t really know.

UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up piece on whether we should make a distinction between public statements and pastoral exhortations HERE.

On the Limits of New Year’s Resolutions

Resolutions are powerful things. We feel all the energy of a new year rushing forward, washing over past failures or shortcomings. I like goals and fresh starts and reset buttons. But they have their limits. And as with so many things, the better we are at recognizing their limits, the more likely we are to enjoy them for what they are.
Five years ago, I wrote a blog on why resolutions miss the mark. And while I may have been a little gloomy about the topic as a whole, there are a few thoughts worth repeating as we step into 2014 together.
————————–

Why does it seem that no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to make ourselves better? If Life gave out report cards, we would be lucky to hold a B average. 

 

What if the whole approach is off target? What if life– and life with God– is not first about progress and improvement?

 

The Bible has two favorite word pictures for our life with God. The first is of a potter and clay. We are reminded that God is the potter and that we are the clay. Using this imagery, God rebukes Israel for trying to take over what only God can do:

 

“You turn things upside down as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me’? Can the pot say of the potter, ‘He knows nothing’?” (Is. 26:19)

 

Jesus picks up on this theme by pointing out the futility of worry:
 
“Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matt. 6: 27)

 

We cannot make ourselves more like Jesus any more than a lump of clay can make itself into a vase. We are not the initiator of change; we are the responder. From the picture of a potter and clay we learn the first reason resolutions often miss the mark: 

 

God is in charge of the process and the progress; we are responsible for our response.

 

We often defend our addiction to progress with the word “growth”. We need to grow this year– that’s why we have so many goals. The second Biblical image speaks to the concern for growth. Life with God is often pictured as a tree planted by streams.  

 

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when the heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in the year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jer. 17: 7-8)

 

Here again we are reminded that growth is God’s work. But there is another lesson from the tree:  

 

Bearing fruit is a byproduct of faith in God.
 
Will our lives be different as a result of walking with God? Yes. Will we be changed to become more like Christ? Yes. Is that the point, the focus of our efforts? No. The point is faith– trusting obedience– in God. The point is relationship and connection. Growth, fruit, is the external result of an internal work.  

 

Paul places our work, our effort, in the context of God’s work in us:
“…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” (Phil. 2:12b-13)

 

God is at work in us. And He is in charge of the process and the progress. That’s why it’s slightly misguided to set our own timelines for growth.
 
Can we have goals? Yes. But maybe our goals should be more about how we can create space for God to work in our lives, how we put down roots by the River, how we can respond to His molding. 

The words of the psalmist make an apt prayer for New Year’s: