Guest / Limited Access /
Do Evangelicals Have Room for Prophets?
Courtesy: FFRME
Canon Andrew White with children at St. George's Baghdad.

Andrew White is a favorite speaker at Wheaton College, and he was with us again last week. He is an Anglican priest whose parish is in downtown Baghdad. Yes, Iraq. He's affectionately called the "Vicar of Baghdad," and it's a rough job: In the past ten years, some 1,200 of his church members have been killed. When he travels on pastoral visits, he is accompanied by a couple truckloads of armed guards. Just in case.

I've heard Canon White address our students now three times. And in every case he ends the talk with his pastoral mantra. The students know it so well, they finish it before he can.

White tells how many times people caution him while he's in Iraq. They say "Take care." It annoys him; taking care is the last thing he wants to do. So he thunders to all 2,600 of our students, "Don't take care . . ." and they chime in: "Take risks." He currently has a Wheaton graduate as his personal assistant. One of my students, Sally, may join him this summer as an intern. Imagine telling your parents that your 2014–15 summer internship will be in Baghdad. "But don't worry—the church will supply armed men."

As I walked back to my office after another Canon White chapel, I began to think about risk-takers and how important they are to the vitality of the church, or any organization: a ministry, a college, perhaps any gathering that desires to have vision. We need risk-takers. Sometimes they're called prophets. Andrew White is both a risk-taker and a prophet. And like most biblical prophets, he lives large—and dangerously. He is quite happy to speak boldly and forthrightly about what he believes. He is not a cautious man.

It seems most organizations have a variety of leaders who serve somewhere along a continuum between what I call "custodians" and "prophets."

Custodians and Prophets

Let's be clear: Prophets can be annoying. They look at the status quo and wonder why it can't be different. They are impatient for change and are driven by a vision for something better, something clearer, than the rest of us normally see. Perhaps like the biblical prophets, they are driven by a vision for justice or compassion or righteousness that compels them to take risks in order to sound the alarm or heighten the community's consciousness. They like change. And they work even subversively in order to enact it. Some of our greatest social reformers—Wilberforce, say, or King—were prophets. The same is true within the church. In their day Luther and Wesley were nothing less than prophetic.

Custodians, meanwhile, maintain the order of things. They keep the lights on and the trains running on time (the very trains the prophets use daily). They value tradition and prefer a social environment where everyone shapes himself or herself around a mission that has been working smoothly for years. They are risk-averse. In fact, they hire professional "risk managers" to keep an eye on things. For custodians, change is less an opportunity than it is a threat. They look at the status quo and see first what they like and easily describe its critics as cynical or unhelpful. And yes, they do not like prophets. Custodians may want to build an expensive new building; prophets may ask why that money isn't given to the poor or sent to Nigeria instead.

Prophets at the extreme end of the continuum can be unhelpful, even destructive. Custodians at the other extreme will easily fossilize an organization. Healthy organizations need both. They need the stability, restraint, and caution of the custodians, as well as the vision, risk-taking, and energy of the prophets. Someone once told me: Steve Jobs at Apple? A technology prophet. Bill Gates at Microsoft? A technology custodian. I value both companies. But it was Apple that changed the world. I wonder if Microsoft keeps the world going round.

Support our work. Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Read These NextSee Our Latest
Current IssueHow to Keep Time Like a Christian
Subscriber Access Only
How to Keep Time Like a Christian
An excerpt from 'Moments & Days.'
RecommendedOur Priorities Are Off When Family Is More Important Than Church
Our Priorities Are Off When Family Is More Important Than Church
Jesus' focus was on the family of God, not the biological family.
TrendingWhy Most Pastors Aren’t Answering Your Phone Calls
Why Most Pastors Aren’t Answering Your Phone Calls
It's one the great mysteries of ministry. Why do pastors have such a bad reputation for answering or returning phone calls? Here are 9 reasons.
Editor's PickThe Good (and Bad) News About Christian Higher Education
The Good (and Bad) News About Christian Higher Education
‘Christian colleges are as strong as they’ve been since the 1920s,’ says historian William Ringenberg. But there are challenges on the horizon.
View this article in Reader Mode
Christianity Today
Do Evangelicals Have Room for Prophets?