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

Displaying 1–8 of 8 comments

Mark Stephens Sr.

August 26, 2007  1:54am

I have not read all of what has been said, but in what little I have read, it is what I have been facing all of my life. Sometimes I just want to hide and never be seen. I have had so many dreams come true and to the detail. The things God has put on my heart to pray for could only have come from God, and they too come to pass. Sometimes I think I have lost my mind. I wote a letter to my pastor explaining what has been going on for years, but he never called me to his office or on the phone to talk with me. I've learned to be silent and walk in the shadows of the Almight God. No matter what I've tried to do, it's like being in a constant pressure cooker. To see, to tell and watch man stay blinded by there own free will. Reaching for the numbers and the image, sacrafice the anointing for image and talent. I said that to the choir director then two weeks later we had a guest speaker; guess what he talked about! Needless to say, it's at a point that they don't want to hear because the things I have been telling them are upon us. When I walk up to say hi, you can see the dread in the eyes. I don't like for things to be this way - they are my friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ. When I know I will tell according to the will of God. Feel free to send wisdom!!!

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reGeN

March 16, 2007  10:25am

The prophetic ministry is sorely lacking in most local church contexts. Then again, prophets from God are like an unexpected and unwanted wind, blowing people off the course called Comfortable...one of the problems i've seen up in my own charismatic-Baptist (AKA Bapticostal) circles is that the very idea of what a prophet is has been warped by TBN nonsense and bad theology rooted in questionable experiences (like barking to God...WTHeck!)...so they can't see how a greg boyd or a.w. tozer would ever be looked upon as a prophet

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Paul Goddard

March 15, 2007  3:11pm

Just to be a bit nasty... Reading the blogs above, I think a prophet is someone who is saying something I think someone else needs to hear. ;-)

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Ed C

March 15, 2007  8:46am

A very timely article that the church needs today. Prophets are an essential part of the church. The one point I would challenge in this article is the integration of some sort of prophetic class into seminaries. Prophets can be nurtured and we can learn about prophets, but ultimately God must raise up those with this gift. To really speak for God is a lofty calling, but it's something that cannot be "taught" in the classroom.

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Sam Clark

March 14, 2007  11:15pm

You know you are a prophet when: 1. Most people want to argue with you about what you say but you are the first one they ask for an opinion. 2. Pastors will email you asking you to review a book they've read but won't ask you to join their small group. 3. The same Pastors will invite you to dinner but not to their sermon. 4. Prayer warriors keep telling you that you need to be trained up for evangelism and that there are no "lone ranger" christians. 5. The only one that truly "gets you" is your wife and Jesus.

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J. D. Greear

March 14, 2007  6:41pm

I would suggest that some of the centuries greatest prophets have been pastors. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called for a return to biblical preaching; John Piper has issued a revolutionary call to engage the lost world for Christ; Rick Warren had led on numerous fronts, including engaging the AIDS crisis. Erwin McManus and Tim Keller have led the way in engaging the culture with the Gospel; Mark Dever has issued the call for authentic ecclesiology. All pastors. Even Brian MacLaren, whom I seldom agree with, wrote as a pastor. All of these men were pastors! Professors, on the other hand, often are thrilled by the "novel." The nature of their work lends itself to continual critique of others–that's how they make a name for themselves and sell books! This is good, of course, in its place. The problem is that many professors do so because orthodoxy bores them and because they are generally out of touch with people and more in love with pragmatic ideals than they are the plain outworking of the Gospel. I say this as one is both a pastor and professor. The 2/3 world has often critiqued Western Christinity correctly, in my opinion, by saying it is too guided by the academic theology, and not enough by the church. The academy is not nearly as conducive an environment for the growth of Christianity as is the church. Jesus did not die for syllogisms; he died for normal people. Perhaps the reason you might consider only professors to be prophets is because you yourself are more attracted to philosophcal ideas than the outworking of the Gospel in the lives of God's people? Of course, I can't know that... and offer it only as a humble suggestion... but I'll take a John Piper over a Stanley Hauerwas or a Rick Warren over a Philip Yancey any day!

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J.W.

March 13, 2007  10:47am

The greatest failure of the Church is found in the idea that we can "train" or "make" an apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher or evangelist. True, those with such God-given calling can acquire useful knowledge, improve their communication, administrative and people skills. But, until we get back to recognizing those in our midst who possess these gifts, our seminaries and the leaders they produce will never be able to live up to our expectations. As for directly answering the question, "Where are the Prophets? I think they've been here all along. I meet prophets almost every day–false prophets and occasionally a prophet of God (not much different than ever–look at poor Elijah–850 to 1 odds). God always has His prophets in place to be sure. But in my 52 years on this old stone, I have seen very few times when he or she was acknowledged by a church; especially the leadership. Yeah, once they're dead, then they get recognized. Once they can no longer threaten the kingdoms of religious men, then men are more comfortable with telling everyone that a prophet had been in their midst. But even then, they continue to prophesy from their graves and most leaders are reluctant to do more than pay them lip service. More than likely there are prophets in your church nearly every week. He might be a homeless guy, a drunk, someone with a gambling addiction. One thing I've found about prophets is that they are human; they struggle with the rejection they receive from the church and it tends to make them introverted and sometimes subservient to some worldly vice. Perhaps that's why we don't recognize them when they are here, but the better reason is because they convict us; they can see right through to the depths of our souls. We don't want to believe that God would speak through such "lowlife"; especially when what they have to say makes us so uncomfortable, or exposes our own hypocrisy. One thing I've noticed is that their lives prophesy to us even if they say nothing. I've had my own soul exposed more than once by a prophet of God. As painful as it was at the time, it brought my pride to the service where I could deal with it, and I am grateful for that. I thank God for the prophets. I just wish sometimes that more of God's people would have the eyes to see and the ears to hear their message.

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Jonathan Erdman

March 13, 2007  7:51am

You mention that Seminaries are training teachers. Frankly, I think that they are even failing at that. A true teacher not only understands the language of the text and its historical understanding, but also how to appropriate it in the current culture. If the teacher cannot exegete the culture, then he cannot appropriate the text in a meaningful way to the current culture. So, even though many seminaries think they are succeeding in churning out teachers who can exegete the text what we are now seeing is teachers who are out of touch with their audience. In other words, our teachers only have about half the story. They know the word in the past tense but don't know how to bring it into the present tense. That is a bad teacher.

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