Where Have All the Prophets Gone?
Restoring the prophetic ministry of the local church.

While studying for my ordination a few years ago I was required to read Oswald Sanders' classic book, Spiritual Leadership. I've forgotten most of his practical advice about leading a church, but one short section has stayed with me. Sanders talks about the choice pastors face between being a popular leader or an unpopular prophet.

The logic seems rooted in the Old Testament differentiation of these roles. The kings of Israel served as leaders over God's people. They used their power to pull wires and drive the nation forward. The prophets, on the other hand, served as correctors. They came down from the hills to tell everyone what they were doing wrong. And after being rejected, stoned, and thoroughly despised they returned to the hills. Quoting A.C. Dixon, Sanders says, "If [the pastor] seeks to be a prophet and a leader, he is apt to make a failure of both."

Prior to reading Sanders I had already been wondering why few pastors led with any prophetic energy. Scanning my favorite books on my shelf, typically ones with a provocative challenge for the church, I realized that virtually all of them were written by professors. Few, if any, were composed by pastors. Where were the voices of correction in the local church? Where were the sermons calling God's people in a new direction? Where was there a pulpit challenging our popular assumptions about church, mission, and discipleship? Reading Sanders helped me see that we've driven the prophets out of the local church and into academia.

A recent post by David Fitch cited a new leadership model gaining popularity among missional churches. Referred to as APEPT by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their book, The Shaping of Things to Come, it is pulled from Ephesians 4:11. Paul says God has given the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Frost and Hirsch, among other advocates of the model, say the contemporary church has focused its leadership almost exclusively on pastors and teachers while ignoring the contribution of evangelists, prophets, and apostles.

With structures intolerant of these other leadership functions the evangelists abandon local church ministry for para-church groups, apostles are driven to missions agencies, and prophets take their provocative ideas to academia. But, say Frost and Hirsch, "only when all five are operating in unity and harmony can we see effective missional engagement begin to occur."

So, why has the local church been so unwelcoming to prophets, and how do we get them back? I'd like to suggest a few ideas. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but just a start.

March 13, 2007