Prophets have always been perceived as those who are in the know. In OT times, where the roots of any biblical understanding of prophetic ministry lie, they are seen to be the God-intoxicating, biblical existential, calling all to live faithfully in covenant relationship with God and consistent with His kingdom and rule in the world.
Although prophets have a futuristic orientation, their real focus is a call to live in the existential here-and-now of faithfulness and obedience.
The prophets essential task as declaring the word of God to the here and now; disclosing the future in order to illuminate what is involved in the present.
Prophetic ministry can be said to revolve around two questions:
1. Who is God (what is His nature)
2. What does God require of us in this particular place and time (How shall we live)
Prophets tend to be passionate and spiritual people. They feel strongly and deeply. This is given them from God. And because of the primary concern for God, His values, and His vision for the world, they seem to be able to sense situations where those values are not reflected. They notice what goes unnoticed: injustice, unfaithfulness, indifference toward God, and cruelty etc.
This experience of encountering two contradicting realities causes the prophet to passionately call into question the existing order of things.
The prophets eye is directed to the contemporary scene; the society and its conduct are the main theme of his speeches. Yet his ear is inclined to God. He is a person struck by the glory and presence of God, overpowered by the hand of God. Yet his true greatness is the ability to hold God and man in a single thought. Holding these two realities together creates tension within the prophet. The prophet identifies the gaps between Gods reality and our own. By forcing us to face up to these gaps in our faithfulness, the prophet creates a context that allows us to perceive the truth of our situation. It is in this space that prophetic intelligence (or sensibility) plays its most critical role.
The prophets recognition of this gap often requires a confrontation with personal and collective idolatry, especially in contexts where the institution has legitimized its particular worldview that makes some ideas possible and others unthinkable.
In such situations we need prophetic imagination to deconstruct and dismantle these systems of justification that so often conceal our fears and selfishness. Recognizing the prophets distinct, focused role to awaken our imaginations partly explains why the prophetic person can often have an aversion, even distain, for strategy and structured planning.
As a result of all the work of bridging God and humanity, prophets generally are not content with the status quo. They tend to be always calling Gods people to greater degrees of faithfulness. They question everything that does not seem to be God honouring and force us to face up to the distance between us and God. They stir the pot, rock the boat, move our cheese, harp, nag and agitate us until we pay attention to the areas or our individual and communal lives that do not reflect the values of the gospel and Gods kingdom. As such they often evoke the darker, more self-protective human responses. No wonder they tend t be killed, exiled, or simply marginalized.
Prophets generally draw attention to the gap by calling into question the current social, political, or theological arrangements. As the quintessential questioners, prophets play a critical role in developing a community’s capacity to adapt to its environment.
The failure to ask questions allows us to operate with a distorted sense of reality. Organizations that are unable to question their prevailing view of reality are like walking corpses, they just might not know it yet, because it has created an insulated culture that systematically excludes any information that could contradict its reigning picture of reality.
Prophets initiate the process of critical feedback that is necessary for organizational learning. We need to give permission to prophets and their dissenting voices. “Turn off your radar and your will eventually hit the side of a mountain.”
The prophetic function is more that purely a critical one; it can also play an animating, profoundly revitalizing role. In fact, in calling us to repent and change, the prophet opens us up to the ever-renewing encounter with God. Walter Brueggemann therefore rightly characterizes the role of the prophet as one who both criticizes and energizes. These two categories suggest a continuum between criticizing and energizing on which prophetic ministry can be located, which points us to an important distinction: Criticizing and energizing are not always given equal attention. Genuine prophetic ministry will always include both, but with different degrees of emphasis.
First the role of the prophet is to call people back to God. Prophets is the new covenant not only call us back to God; they also call us forward to Gods preferred future for the world-one defined by the ministry work of Jesus the Messiah. In other words, it is messianic as well as missional in nature.
Second, criticism is not a licence for cynicism. Cynicism denies the possibility of future transformation and keeps prophets from engaging their context. All faithful prophetic ministry should both criticize and energize, even if one of those functions receives more emphasis than the other.
The third important qualifier for prophetic ministry is love. Because prophets are the guardians of the covenant, they must maintain a deep-seated, covenantal love for God people no matter where and in what state they are in.
Fourth, critical distance should not translate into permanent distance. The prophetic vocation sometimes has to learn how to be the loyal opposition of remaining connected to the system while consistently challenging and prodding the system toward greater faithfulness.
Fifth, prophets are not infallible, and we are encouraged to test the prophets message to see if it is from God. As highly intuitive types, prophets have an uncanny knack for seeing things others cannot, but intuition can be right or wrong. Collective discernment by the community needs to be applied to the prophetic insight.
Finally, prophets need to be aware of their humanity and the possible ways that they might actually be contributing to the crisis they so passionately address. Spending time away from the community and inhabiting Gods reality through prayer and meditation and identification with those on the margins can blind prophets to ways in which their own lives and choices may be perpetuating problems within their own context. The mystics were susceptible to an other-wordly ethic that detacvhed them from the life of everyday. Mediating revelation does not absolve participation in todays reality. Prophetic ministry stands in the gap for sure, but it does so with one foot in Gods reality and one foot firmly anchored in the existing reality.
Reasons why it is so important to allow the prophets to speak:
· Without the prophetic voice, we become overly pragmatic and mechanistic in our orientation towards effectiveness and success as a church. From the prophetic perspective, the goals are wrong, and therefore the methods and metrics are too.
· Without prophetic witness, most western Christians don’t expect God to speak to us. His voice remains stuck on the pages of a book that only a professional can access and then spoon feed to us.
· Without prophetic imagination to show us the possibilities, we don’t expect God to perform miracles in our midst and in our present era. There is a concomitant loss of the sense of the God who is Lord of, and who intervenes in history.
· Without prophetic urgency, we don’t question status quo and are afraid to disturb social and traditional equilibrium – something that the prophetic consistently did to a stagnating people of God in the Old Testament.
· Without prophetic perspective, eschatological living (where past, present and future are held together) has also been lost. Eschatological living is the kind that asks “what kind of people should we then be?” The future, as a meaningful concept and motivation, is relegated to a distant reality, not a present one. And thus we function primarily from the past rather than the future in how we live out the present – which slows the pace and flattens the peaks of what can really happen.
· Without prophetic modelling, we lose our transformational and radical edge: prophets always model an alternative reality. They call us to live differently, to choose God’s ways over the ways of the world.
· Without prophetic spirituality, our spirituality becomes intellectual, predictable and segmented. We don’t embrace mystery and the mysterious aspects of spirituality and of communal life. Faith takes on less and less risk and more and more intellectual assent in pursuit of “certainty”and orthodoxy.
· And without prophetic longing, we are content with God being a distant Savior and creator but lose the sense of Him as Lover, Friend, Judge, Comforter etc. Spirituality becomes about right belief or even right practice – not right relationship.
(from “Permanent Revolution” – Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim)