Traits of a Prophetic Church
Pastor Mike Bickle of the Metro Vineyard Fellowship in America leads a church with a strong prophetic ministry.
Being prophetic is essential
to the very nature and mission
of the whole body of Christ
When Holy Spirit activity happens among fallible flesh and blood like us, tensions are bound to arise. Our church, Metro Vineyard Fellowship in Kansas City, has made many mistakes during our journey toward becoming a prophetic church.
A few years ago, David Pytches wrote a glowing report of our church’s prophetic history in his book Some Said It Thundered. I appreciated the book, but also thought there was merit in someone’s suggestion that I write a follow-up book revealing all our past mistakes in prophetic ministry. He said I should call it Some Said We Blundered.
The term “prophetic” is typically used to refer either to the fulfillment of end-time biblical predictions or the speaking forth of current revelatory messages. But beyond these areas, the church is to be a prophetic servant community in a much broader, multi-dimensional way. Being prophetic is not to be the exclusive domain of “charismatics”; it is essential to the very nature and mission of the whole body of Christ.
Those whose prophetic ministry includes supernatural dreams and visions need to view what they do in the larger context of the church’s calling as a prophetic servant community. Prophetic manifestations such as dreams and visions do not comprise the prophetic ministry in its entirety; they are really only one expression of a community that is prophetic in at least eight distinct dimensions.
1. Revealing the heart of God
The angel of God told the apostle John, “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). The spirit (purpose) of prophecy is to reveal three aspects of Jesus’ testimony: who he is, what he does, and how he feels.
Passion for Jesus will inevitably result from this prophetic revelation. Such holy passion is the highlight of the prophetic church. The prophetic ministry is to be stamped and sealed with an affection for and sensitivity to the heart of God. It is a ministry that passionately feels and reveals the divine heart.
Prophetic ministry involves not only receiving and communicating information; it also includes, in some measure, the ability to experience the compassion, grief and joy of God. As we experience God, we will be given insight into some of his future plans and purposes.
If you “desire earnestly to prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:39) by merely seeking information from the mind of God, you have bypassed the cornerstone and the essence of prophetic ministry – the revelation of his heart.
The apostle Paul said, “Though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love [for God and people], I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).
The message and ministry of Old Testament prophets was often prefaced in terms of the “burden” of the Lord. Habakkuk 1:1 speaks of “the burden which the prophet Habakkuk saw.” The word “burden” implies emotional and heartfelt issues are at stake – not just abstract truth.
So then, one prophetic dimension of the church’s ministry is to proclaim, reveal and call to remembrance God’s affection for his people. That includes his jealous longing for us and His intense grief over our sin that separates us from him.
Often I have shared at our church that our passionate affection for Jesus can only come from an ever-increasing revelation of his passion for us. Though I rarely voice a revelatory prophetic word in our church, I seek to contribute to the mission of the church as a prophetic servant community by teaching on the passionate heart of God.
2. The fulfillment of biblical prophecy
For hundreds of years the prophets told of the Messiah who would come and the kingdom he would establish. Jesus sometimes spoke of the kingdom as if it had come with the advent of his public ministry, and at other times as if the kingdom was “not yet.” In whatever sense and to whatever extent the kingdom has already come, those to whom it has come are the living fulfillment of what the prophets spoke.
Jesus said to Peter, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). He also described the kingdom of God as being like a mustard seed that inevitably grows (Mark 4:31-32).
Throughout the last two millennia all the powers of hell have been unable to eliminate the gospel or the church. The church has only continued to grow. The survival and growth of the church is a continuing witness to prophecies fulfilled – a prophetic voice of what will come in the future.
All that the church does to make herself ready as the bride of Christ -worshiping, celebrating communion, witnessing, casting out demons, healing the sick, being peacemakers – is a prophetic trumpet to the world. These prophetic acts declare not only the gospel, but also the relationship of Christ to his church and to the fact that he is coming again to reign over all the earth.
The next time you are sitting in a church service, remember that even though we are almost two thousand years removed from the first-century church, the very fact that you are gathering with others in his name is a both a prophetic fulfillment and a prophetic statement to the world.
3. The prophetic standard in the Scriptures
Scripture is the ultimate trumpet of God’s heart, purpose and will. Fortunately, while our church has grown as a prophetic community we have had several gifted Bible teachers as part of our leadership. As experts in exegesis, hermeneutics, systematic theology and the history of the church, these teachers serve as a balance and plumb line to the prophets and exhorters among us, who sometimes want to apply a scripture in a questionable way.
Sound teaching not only makes the Bible come alive, it gives the church a sense of connection with those who began the race. The church as a prophetic community must realize that we are a continuation of what they began. The torch has been passed so many times, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we are running the same race they started. Their leg of the race has been completed, and they have now gathered at the finish line to cheer us on.
The church is the living testimony of the prophetic purpose of God in history. It is also a prophetic community which is to preserve and accurately proclaim the Word of God.
4. Moving when the cloud moves
The fourth way the church must be prophetic is to discern the current move of the Spirit – the “present truth,” as respected church leader Dick Iverson calls it. Just as the children of Israel followed the cloud through the wilderness, the church needs to move when the Holy Spirit says to move (Deuteronomy 1:33). And the Spirit is continually doing a “new thing, with the church as a whole and with each individual congregation” (Isaiah 43:19).
While the scriptural truth the church preserves and proclaims is unchangeable and immovable, the relationship that exists between the church and the Holy Spirit is not static. The Ten Commandments given on Sinai are forever true and unchangeable, but the people of Israel were changing locations constantly as they moved around in the wilderness.
The kind of moving I am referring to is the changing emphasis placed on elements of truth, structure and strategy. We are, so to speak, moving around within the boundaries of the unchangeable truth of God’s Word.
Several recent examples of people sensing the Lord’s instruction concerning the means and methods of the church’s prophetic expression can be cited:
* A renewed emphasis on small groups and cell-based churches;
* The public expression of worship, now known and practiced worldwide as The March For Jesus;
* The refreshing of the Holy Spirit as experienced in Toronto and many other places;
* A new movement towards prayer, spearheaded by people like C. Peter Wagner, Dick Eastman, David Bryant, Wesley Tullis and Larry Lea.
The leaders of such movements are not necessarily those who exercise the gift of prophecy as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12, yet they can clearly sense the direction the cloud is moving. They might be compared to the sons of Issachar who “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Church history is filled with examples of how part of the body of Christ discerned a current emphasis of the Holy Spirit as it related to a particular element of structure, strategy or biblical truth. Unfortunately though, some have followed the cloud to the next place in God, then never moved again. After camping around a certain structure, strategy or truth for a period of time, they shift from being a prophetic community to being a prophetic monument to something the Holy Spirit did long ago.
This doesn’t mean we should abandon all the older traditions with every new move of the cloud. The greatest expression of the church as a prophetic community is in those congregations or denominations that move on with the cloud, but carry with them all the wisdom, experience and maturity of their history.
5. Demonstrating the power of God
Elijah was a mighty prophet who called down fire from heaven as a sign of God’s power. In the New Testament, though, attesting miracles were not limited to the prophets. The Holy Spirit now distributes the gifts “individually as he wills,” one of those being the gift of miracles (1 Corinthians 12:10-11).
As in the days of Elijah, miracles attest to the truth of God’s Word. But this doesn’t mean the church no longer needs miracles, since we have the written Word. If attesting miracles were needed when the apostles personally testified within a few years of the resurrection, how much more are miracles needed today to confirm the veracity of their written accounts.
Attesting miracles are also valuable as a dimension of the prophetic community because, more than anything else, they make people aware that God is actually present with them. Without an up-to-date awareness of his presence, the church sometimes takes on the air of a society only gathered to venerate the memory of Jesus and his death two thousand years ago.
Miracles jolt our sensibilities and make us joyfully (or frightfully) aware of the fact the he is in our midst. A hundred sermons on God being with us will not awaken our hearts as much as a personal encounter with the manifestation of his presence through the miraculous.
This in no way diminishes the power or authority of the written Word. It simply means that in the miraculous the living God of the written Word shows up in a powerfully personal, intimate and tangible way. Through the miraculous, the church prophesies and proclaims that he is alive!
6. Prophetic dreams and visions
God gives certain people the ability to see and hear things that most people do not see or hear. The term “seer” carries with it some very negative connotations because of its modern-day, non-Christian applications. Consequently, when referring to someone as a “seer,” one must be careful to qualify and define this term in the light of Scripture:
* “Formally in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he spoke thus:
‘Come, let us go to the seer’; for he who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer” (1 Samuel 9:9).
* “And Samuel answered Saul and said, ‘I am the seer’” (v. 19).
Prophets like Ezekiel and Zechariah saw profound visions of God but are not known for demonstrations of power such as healing the sick or raising the dead. Often this type of prophetic person is not gifted with great demonstrations of miraculous power, yet they regularly see things by the Spirit – things such as future events, the secrets of people’s hearts and the calling of God on people’s lives.
Like Ezekiel’s visions, the things prophetic people see are sometimes baffling.
7. Crying out against social injustice
The church has the responsibility to be a “prophet to the nation” concerning the injustice and unrighteousness that eventually cause a nation to incur the judgment of God. One of the more stellar examples of this was the prophetic outcry against slavery from William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and, prior to that, from Lord Shaftesbury (1621-1683).
Many times prophets to the nation speak from a secular platform. Joseph and Daniel were two biblical examples of people who represented God in a position of secular power. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, likewise, prophetically stood for justice and righteousness in America’s social order.
The church must be careful as it carries out its prophetic ministry to the nation. Although many believers will hopefully be active in civil government and even in party politics, the church and those who speak for it must understand where to draw the line.
If and when Christians enter politics, they do so as godly individuals, not as representatives of a church’s pastoral staff. The church itself should be as a prophet standing for the advancement of righteousness – but without indebtedness to political party affiliations.
8. Crying out for personal holiness and repentance
Throughout the generations, God has raised up prophets to cry out against the sins of his people. This outcry is similar to the prophetic cry against social injustice, but different in that it is specifically addressed to the people in the church. It is less like Jonah prophesying against Nineveh and more like Isaiah and Jeremiah prophesying to Israel and Judah.
Leaders such as Billy Graham, Charles Colson, John Piper, David Wilkerson and A.W. Tozer have been effective prophetic ministers raised up to cry out against unrighteousness in the church. Their words have been anointed by the Spirit to awaken hearts to holiness and passion for Jesus. God uses such prophetic voices, just as he used John the Baptist, to prick the conscience of believers and bring them to revival.
The church is the prophetic expression of the kingdom of God on earth. It is called to represent, preserve and proclaim the truth of God to this world. Although not every member of the church is a prophet, all are called to participate in God’s ongoing prophetic plan and purpose.
Those particularly gifted with dreams, visions, prophecies and revelation need to be careful not to think of themselves too highly, as being the prophetic group. They serve only one dimension of the church’s greater calling as a prophetic community.
My prayer and eager expectation is that God will work mightily in our generation to help the church live up to its prophetic calling among the nations of the earth. The proclamation and demonstration of the Word of God through a Spirit-filled church is the only true hope for humankind.
May the Holy Spirit come upon us in unprecedented measure for the glory of God and Christ Jesus!
© Renewal Journal #13: Ministry
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