How Do We Make Room for the Gift of Prophecy?

I received this question from Mark:

“While we are Southern Baptist, we are definitely reformed in our theology. We also do not believe that the gifts of the Spirit have ceased. When we were attending the Worship God conference , we were moved by those who shared from the prophecy mic. It was an incredible part of our worship to hear scripture, illustrations and such. Can you share with me how you introduced that to your church? Any guidance and input you could give would be great as we pray and seek God’s leadership in introducing this to our people. There’s no question that this is scriptural. But, we want to make sure we present this correctly so that our congregation will understand the purpose of adding this to our worship meetings.”

I’m not sure that everyone reading this blog believes that “there’s no question” that having a microphone for congregational participation is Scriptural. But, for the sake of space, I’ll assume that you’re at least open to the idea. Also, while the title of the this post focuses on prophecy, there are many ways that a congregation can meaningfully contribute to a Sunday meeting.

But let me begin by stressing that congregational participation is always subject to and led by elders who shepherd the flock, exercise oversight, and are over their congregations in the Lord (1 Pet. 5:2; 1 Thess. 5:12). One of the primary purposes in gathering is to hear and apply God’s Word that is proclaimed by those he has raised up as pastor-teachers. But another important aspect is the ministry we bring to one another. Col. 3:16 says we’re to teach and admonish one another. The nearly thirty “one anothers” of the New Testament indicate that meetings include more than a group listening to a single person. 1 Cor. 14, and especially v. 26 imply that various contributions from members of the church are God’s intention.

How that’s done depends on a number of factors, including the size of the church, the maturity of the people, and the church’s history. In Mark’s church, these are some of the ways I’d move ahead.

1. As with any change you want to make, begin by teaching what God’s Word says. Teach the church on the nature of the church and the place of mutual edification in the corporate meeting. David Peterson’s Engaging with God is a great resource. Teach on the variety and importance of the spiritual gifts. 1 Cor. 12-14 are obvious passages for that. A few books we’ve found helpful are Wayne Grudem’s The Gift of Prophecy, Showing the Spirit by D.A. Carson, and Max Turner’s The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts. Sam Storm’s The Beginner’s Guide to the Spiritual Gifts can be helpful as a simple and practical introduction to the nine gifts listed in 1 Cor. 12. Explain that you’d like to create opportunities for members of the church to serve other members through verbal contributions. Teach on the importance of spiritual leadership and orderliness in the Sunday gathering. Inviting members to contribute isn’t abdicating your role to shepherd and lead the flock.

2. Provide a microphone for ministry from members of the church. Spell out what kinds of contributions you’re looking for. They might include Scripture readings, prayers, and prophetic impressions. Generally, they’re spontaneous, but they can be written down beforehand as well. You can also invite people to come up and pray for a specific situation. Even though it may not be “prophecy” strictly speaking, it can lead to people becoming more familiar with contributing to the meeting. If you’re in a very small church, a microphone might be unnecessary, but I’d still recommend having a place people can go to if they have something they’d like to share with the church. We have an on/off switch at this microphone so the sound engineer doesn’t have to control it.

3. We believe the gift of prophecy functions in submission to the gifts of leadership and pastoring. So we station a pastor at the microphone to screen contributions before they’re shared publicly. Sometimes having two pastors makes it easier to evaluate what’s being shared, because there are times when you’re not quite sure about what someone’s bringing. This is one of the ways we obey the command to test prophecy (1 Thess. 5:20-21). At the start, I’d lean towards allowing more contributions than fewer. They may all not be “home runs” but people will be encouraged when God speaks to and through them.

4. I’d evaluate contributions in at least five areas: content, attitude, communication, length, and timing. Is what they’re sharing faithful to Scripture? Are they sharing to serve people, or to not-so-subtly communicate their own perspective to balance out someone else or correct the church? Can the person share their contribution effectively and with appropriate emotion? Is their contribution brief and to the point, or does it wander aimlessly or go on for a few minutes? Is what they want to share going to contribute to the flow of the meeting, or does it seem out of place, tangential, too late, or too early?

5. Personally thank and encourage anyone who comes with something to share, whether or not the church actually hears it. If nothing else, thank them for being faithful to obey what they sensed was God encouraging them to share with the church. At the same time, follow up with anyone you think is wrongly motivated or lacks the gifting to share publicly. It’s better to speak to them directly than try to address them in a veiled way through a sermon or general announcement.

6. Finally, encourage and train those who are particularly gifted. I invited a group of men and women to study Grudem’s The Gift of Prophecy once a month for nine months. We’re currently offering a four week class on the Holy Spirit and the spiritual gifts.

We don’t have contributions from the congregation at every meeting, for different reasons. Sometimes what we’ve planned for the morning doesn’t leave much space. Other times no one come to the microphone. But at those times, we’re very aware that the Spirit is working in many other ways to display God’s varied grace and to bring glory to the Savior (1 Pet. 4:10-11).

I trust this is helpful. It’s difficult to get too specific without knowing the details of a particular church. But I think these principles could be applied profitably in most churches that want to encourage edifying verbal contributions from their congregations. Please feel free to follow up with any questions or comments.

For more resources on this topic you might want to check out:
A People of God’s Presence by Jeff Purswell
Encountering God’s Presence: What Should We Expect? by Bob Kauflin
Manufacturing, Marketing, and Minimizing God’s Presence by Bob Kauflin

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10 Responses to How Do We Make Room for the Gift of Prophecy?

  1. Kyle October 20, 2007 at 9:27 AM #

    I’m a worship pastor in an independent Bible Church in Houston. I have been a cessationist for a number of years (after experiencing a vast abuse of spiritual gifts with an on-campus group in college). Recently, however, and largely due to the carefulness and responsibility of Sovereign Grace folks with regard to the gifts, I’ve been wanting to re-examine these issues in the Bible and determine if what I’ve believed is truly what the Bible teaches. So I hope you’ll hear this question as from one who is inquisitive and open to what the Scriptures say, but who is not yet fully convinced.

    My biggest hesitancy in accepting modern-day prophecy as an operational gift is reflected in the following sentence from your post: “They may all not be “home runs” but people will be encouraged when God speaks to and through them.” It seems to me that Scripture is completely void of any instance of God speaking “to and through” somebody and it being less than a “home run.” When God spoke to someone in the Scriptures, it was clear and unavoidable. Moses didn’t have to learn how to hear God before he was spoken to from a bush. Paul did not have training in operating in the Spirit before Jesus stopped him in his tracks on the way to Damascus. When Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles were given a directive by God, there was no need for interpretation of what God had said, or any question as to whether or not God had truly said it. God spoke to people, the people understood, and responded (either obediently or disobediently, as in Jonah). I have not read a compelling case for Biblical examples, or instruction, regarding New Testament prophecy as something less than reliable.

    The difficulty is that I also feel the standard cessationist position is largely an argument from one verse (1 Cor. 13:8) and from relative historical silence regarding true and trustworthy Biblical prophecy (and the problem of the closed biblical canon; if prophecy today were the same nature as prophecy in biblical days, wouldn’t we need to re-open the biblical canon, which is forbidden in the Bible itself?).

    In other words, I’m not fully convinced by the argumentation on either side of this issue, and am thus not sure of where to land. Any help you could offer, and/or resources to which you could point me, would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks for your continued service to Christ and his body through your worship ministry and through this blog.

    Grace,

    Kyle

  2. Kyle October 20, 2007 at 9:41 AM #

    After leaving my comment, I followed your link to Carson’s “Showing the Spirit,” and read several reviews at Amazon. Looks like this may be a worthwhile endeavor in approaching these issues carefully and biblically.

    Thanks again.

  3. Allan October 20, 2007 at 10:39 AM #

    Bob,

    I think another line from your post is helpful with respect to Kyle’s question:

    This is one of the ways we obey the command to test prophecy (1 Thess. 5:20-21).

    In my experience at Covenant Life and in other contexts where prophecy is practiced carefully, there is a clear distinction that is constantly drawn between the kind of prophecy which God intended to be canonized as Scripture and the kind of prophecy that is practiced in every day interaction between believers. There never is any question that prophecy inspired by God for the purpose of inscripturation was always a “grand slam.” But there is also room for a lesser level of inspiration which issues in prophecy which is often less clear and certain. Therefore I often heard at CovLife and elsewhere qualifying statements such as, “I believe this is from the Lord, but I am not absolutely sure…” etc.

    If all prophecy at all times had to be a “home run” there would really be little need for “testing.” It would seem it would be clear when we are hearing something that was intended to be written into a book as authoritative as the Bible.

    Yet it makes perfect sense to me that God would move people to prophecy without giving 100% clarity so He can move on others in the body, especially leadership, to develop prophetic gifting and watch over the flock.

    Hope this is helpful.

    Allan

  4. Barry October 20, 2007 at 3:07 PM #

    Hi, Bob. I really like what you’ve written and agree with most of it in principle. I have one concern, however.

    I do agree that careful oversight is critical to this process, but the type of screening you describe in Step 3 seems foreign to the text in 1 Corinthians 14, where the contributions are clearly spontaneous and unscripted.

    I don’t mean this next question to sound like a challenge. I’m genuinely interested in your answer. How would you justify, Biblically, a departure from the apparent pattern in 1 Corinthians 14?

  5. Bob Kauflin October 20, 2007 at 3:20 PM #

    Kyle,

    Thanks for your helpful and humble comments. I think the question of prophecy has to do with whether or not God ever speaks to us situationally or circumstantially, in ways that aren’t canonical, but are nevertheless, truly him speaking to us. I understand how some could see this as leading to a gross subjectivism, but the right response to abuse of a gift isn’t disuse, but proper use.

    Paul himself said we “prophesy in part” and “see through a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:9, 12). In commenting on how Paul viewed prophecy in the Corinthian church, Max Turner, professor of NT Studies at London School of Theology, writes, “[Paul] may have expected prophecies to give direction in situations where neither Scripture, nor gospel, nor tradition could do so, or to set particular Corinthian events, practices or spiritual states in heavenly perspective. Through such prophecies the risen Lord might be expected to reveal how he perceived the church’s condition in general and in particular, and to give it spiritual direction” (The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, p. 215). Al Allan said above, Paul obviously didn’t expect the New Testament prophecies to be “home runs” every time, or else they wouldn’t have to be tested.

    I’ve known people who have had a remarkable track record for sharing accurate prophetic words. I’ve known others who are consistently “off.” But no one has been close to 100% right. I don’t expect them to be. But neither do I expect that the Spirit will never speak to us for our upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation (1 Cor. 14:3). The fact is, the Holy Spirit gives numerous gifts to the members of the church for the edification of the body. Why limit ourselves to a few?

  6. Bob Kauflin October 20, 2007 at 3:59 PM #

    Barry,

    Thanks for stopping by and for your question. I’d start by saying that what is described in 1 Corinthians 14 isn’t meant to be our only model for prophetic ministry. Paul was bringing order to an unwieldy, disorderly situation. But he doesn’t command all contributions to spontaneous and unscripted. In smaller groups that kind of spontaneous ministry is more manageable and appropriate.

    But as a church grows, the pastor(s) are responsible to insure that what takes place serves the entire church. We’ve found that when contributions aren’t well led, there can be a number of negative effects. People can contribute from sinful motives, they can make contradictory or unscriptural points, the preaching of the Word can be neglected, and people can tend to develop a mentality that exalts spontaneous experience over objective truth.

    Spontaneity is a characteristic of prophecy, but what comes spontaneously at one moment doesn’t have to be shared right away. Timing is another aspect of the Spirit’s leading. He may bring something spontaneously to mind in our devotions that he wants us to share with someone later in the week.

    Let me know if that’s helpful.

  7. Barry October 20, 2007 at 4:43 PM #

    Thanks for the response, Bob. It is helpful, and I don’t have any problem accepting the practical, pastoral wisdom in everything you’ve said. I hold you and all the men in Sovereign Grace in high esteem, and value your counsel.

    My struggle with this is really exegetical and not practical. I guess I just don’t see the screening process in the text. Forgoing some sort of screening would potentially increase the need for public correction (which is never pleasant), but seems to me to be more faithful to what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14.

    On a practical note, however, I think that the errors you describe above could probably be avoided with good leadership, whether there was a screening process in place or not. The real question, for me, is whether this (or any) particular practice conforms to the Biblical pattern.

    Having said all that, though, I fully realize that I could either be misunderstanding the text, or that this text may not be normative for all meetings. I welcome any other thoughts you might have in response.

    And, finally, I really do appreciate this post. I plan to share it with my pastor, as it addresses a subject we’ve discussed a number of times. Thanks again!

  8. Kevin October 28, 2007 at 11:37 PM #

    Hi Bob,
    Thanks for another helpful post. Further to Barry’s question above, it seems to me that 1 Corinthians 14 does in fact expect a screening process of some sort. v29 says that the others should ‘weigh’ (ESV), ‘weigh carefully'(NIV) what is said or ‘pass judgement’ (NASB). Carson likens the Greek term to ‘sifting’.
    Carson, Grudem and others argue that the command which follows in v34 for women to ‘keep silent’ cannot be disallowing them to prophesy, as 1 Cor 11 permits women to do so. Rather, the context suggests the command refers to women not participating in publicly ‘weighing’ what the prophets say.
    Under such a reading 1 Cor 14 does in fact suggest a verbal ‘screening’ process of prophecy, which only men should participate in. It seems to me that the Sovereign Grace practice of allowing male elders to do this task is a valid and helpful application of this chapter, and of their role to keep watch over the church of God (Acts 20:28).

    In relation to Kyle’s question about prophecy, I downloaded a recent sermon by Pete Greasley (a Sovereign Grace UK pastor) from http://www.christchurchnet.org. I would recommend it as a concise and helpful overview of prophecy in 1 Cor 14, in addition to the resources you’ve mentioned above.

  9. Barry October 29, 2007 at 12:00 PM #

    Hi, Kevin. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion. In order to clarify my concern, let me say that I agree with you and Bob that prophecy and other contributions to the assembled church have to be screened.

    My question, I think, is whether PRE-screening those contributions undermines the apparently free and spontaneous nature of them, as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14. The sifting process there seems to take place POST-contribution.

    And again, I understand that doing it like that can be a lot messier and more difficult for the leadership, but I’m operating on the assumption that there is a reason (whether I understand it or not) that it was done that way.

    Am I misunderstanding the text, or if I understand it correctly, am I misapplying it?

  10. Bob Kauflin October 29, 2007 at 8:43 PM #

    Barry,

    Thanks for asking for clarification. I think you’re trying to make the 1 Cor. 14 passage say too much. It seems to me that Paul’s primary point is that prophetic words should be evaluated, not that they should be free and spontaneous. He was addressing a situation where numerous people were speaking at the same time, and the result was confusion. His instruction that the first prophet should stop speaking when a second person received a revelation was intended to bring order. Previously everyone would just speak at the same time. Therefore, I think the pre-screening of prophecies that are intended to serve the church is in line with the spirit of what Paul is saying here and in 1 Thess. 5. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong when churches allow people to speak out spontaneously. I simply wouldn’t interpret as the only way to communicate prophetic words in the church. Hope that’s helpful.

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