The funny thing is, I have no aversion to digging out a commentary and poring over a lexicon to determine what Ezekiel and Zechariah were saying in their sometimes-enigmatic prophecies.
Now, I would never suggest that the words of modern-day prophets should be handled with the same reverence as the oracles of biblical prophets that have found a place in the canon.
But, any time God speaks--or we think He may be speaking--we should listen up, discern and apply what we hear ... whether He chooses to speak through the pages of Scripture, the lips of a prophet or the mouth of an ornery donkey.
Why? Because when the God of the universe speaks to His creation through prophecy, it is an act of great mercy--especially since He has already spoken in Scripture.
Some may say that God has said all He ever needed to say in His written Word. They're right. But more than bringing new revelation, prophecy is often most valuable when it reminds God's people of what He has already said. Consider the warnings and judgments of the major and minor prophets, which ultimately have their foundation in the covenant stipulations of Deuteronomy.
The two most prolific authors of Scripture, Moses and Paul, both lamented not the abundance of prophecy but its dearth.
Several Israelites came to Moses complaining about the spontaneous outbursts of unexpected prophets Eldad and Medad, and Moses replied, "'I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!'" (Num. 11:29, NIV).
Paul echoed Moses' sentiments when he said, "I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy" (1 Cor. 14:5).
This enthusiasm for the prophetic was not born out of inexperience. Both Moses and Paul were aware of the controversy that prophecy would bring the people of God. But they were more concerned about the spiritual famine Amos speaks of--"a famine of hearing the words of the Lord" (see Amos 8:11).
Sure, God doesn't have to send us prophets, but isn't it just like Him to give us a second chance to listen and obey?
As you read this issue of Ministries Today, I pray that you'll be challenged to embrace prophetic ministry. Fraudulent prophets will always be with us, as will sneaky evangelists, abusive pastors, heretical teachers and power-hungry apostles.
But, if we allow our fear of the counterfeit to shake our faith in the authentic, we may miss out on hearing God speak.
I've worked with pastors whose skills and professionalism could have landed them high-paying jobs in the business world, and I've served others whose gifts were better suited for the Teamsters' union. Tommy Barnett, whom I had the privilege of interviewing for this issue (see "Dream Weaver," page 38), belongs in the first group.
Pastors of large churches like Phoenix First Assembly aren't entrusted with their burgeoning flocks just because of an ability to manage programs and invent new church- growth schemes. God has seen fit to bless their ministries because He has created them with gifts tailor-made for their unique situations.
From my brief time with Pastor Barnett, here are a few observations of the types of people that God often calls to fulfill the ministry of the shepherd:
Simplicity: While the world may extol the virtues of a complex person able to weigh options, calculate risk and analyze potential, a good pastor keeps it simple: "Preach the Word, and love people," my father--himself a pastor--once advised me.
It's not that a pastor is disengaged from the complexities of life, but he or she has the ability to immediately sift through challenging enigmas, separating the eternal from the temporary. It's no wonder that the effective ministry of a pastor surrounds the three things that are anything but temporary: God, His Word and people.
Focus: Successful pastors like Tommy Barnett have the uncanny ability to focus--not just on the lofty goals that keep them in the prayer closet and the board room, but also on the individuals who sit in their offices seeking counsel.
When you're in a room talking with Pastor Barnett, you and he are the only ones there. Not that this comes naturally. If anything, the gift of focus is one that must be honed and practiced, as one's ministry grows and one's sphere of influence broadens.
Dependency: Once again, this is not a sought-after quality, but without it a pastor will become a smoldering wick in a matter of years. Leaders like Tommy Barnett constantly extol the value of those whom they lead, recognizing that their effectiveness is contingent on the partnership of those who share their visions. They have learned to depend on God--and others.
Good pastors revel in the productive service of those whom they lead--even when it has the potential of eclipsing their own ministries. Unthreatened, they recognize this for what it truly is: an indication of their own fruitfulness.
May God raise up more pastors like Tommy Barnett--simply engaged with the things that matter, focused on God and His people and willing to take the risk of dependence.
The Bible itself teems with number crunching, suggesting such activity has spiritual implications. Moses counted the tribes of Israel; offerings and animal sacrifices were counted; troops preparing for battle were numbered; and salvations were tabulated. Even God crunches numbers. He numbers our days (see Job 14:5); He counts--and names--the stars (see Ps. 147:4); He even numbers the hairs on our heads (see Luke 12:7). Let Barna try that one!
Analyzing statistical data is important because it not only gives you insight into your current situation, but also helps you gauge the direction you're heading so that you make better decisions.
We at Ministries Today compile statistics through various means, including our monthly online poll for pastors and church leaders (www.ministriestoday.com). Although the results are purely a reflection of the views of those who take the poll as opposed to a truly scientific survey, they are nonetheless quite insightful. Some stats from recent polls you may find intriguing: When asked what causes them the most stress, 31 percent of pastors said personal finances; only 11 percent worried as much about church finances. But nearly 20 percent--the second highest reply--said private issues are what cause them the most concern.
"Totally fulfilled and satisfied" was the phrase almost 30 percent of pastors used to describe their career satisfaction. Close to 24 percent chose "somewhat fulfilled" and 19 percent picked "mostly fulfilled." On the down side, 17 percent chose "struggling but hanging in there," 7 percent said "dissatisfied but hanging in there," while 3 percent chose "I want to throw in the towel."
It's in those rough patches of ministry where we need to remember the most important stats of all: God's mercy toward us is measureless (see Ps. 103:11; 100:5); His loving thoughts toward us are greater in number than the earth's sand (see Ps. 139:17-18); and His grace is abounding (see 2 Cor. 9:8; 12:9). Those are statistics we can rely on.
Reading through some of our past issues recently, I noticed we have remained, through the years, on the cutting edge of issues related to pastoral leadership and the Pentecostal/charismatic church. We have tackled tough subjects honestly and given practical guidance in a no-nonsense manner. Our articles have given voice both to prominent leaders in our movement and to those on the front lines of ministry who are not "big names." In the process, we have created a forum for true community and fellowship.
My perusal of the past provided a little humor, too, as I stumbled upon some of the then-cutting-edge subjects we addressed 20 years ago. In one of our earliest issues, for example, an article about personal computers--which had just hit the mainstream market--educated pastors on what a printer does, how to use this new thing called a "word processor" and stated that computers are affordable now that one "can be purchased for the price of a new Chevrolet." Times certainly have changed!
All of this got me thinking about what issues church leaders might need to grapple with in the next 20 years. I do believe we have a lot to be excited about--after all, the Pentecostal/charismatic movement is the fastest growing segment of the church worldwide. There is greater unity across denominational and racial lines than in times past. And I believe we are on the verge of the greatest harvest of souls the world has ever seen.
But there also are areas of grave concern, and we as leaders must be willing to address them. To name a few: (1) We must counter doctrinal error infecting the church and ground people in the Word--and we must be better grounded ourselves; (2) We can no longer indulge leaders living on a loose sliding scale of personal morality; and (3) We need to stop the type of manipulation for personal gain that too commonly spills over Christian airwaves and is preached from our pulpits.
I don't know for sure what the next 20 years will bring. But I do know that we, as leaders, must rise to meet the challenge.
It wasn't the first time she had heard them tell this seemingly tall tale. For the last couple of weeks they had talked about this "monster" they had seen scurrying under the house while they were frolicking in the yard. They had seen it more than once. It was a huge beast, according to their description, and they were scared of it. But no one they told would believe it really existed.
Until neighborhood pets started mysteriously vanishing. And until the parents, too, started hearing noises late at night.
It was soon discovered that an escaped python had been living under their house. The creature would sometimes slither between homes in the rural community to hunt for food. And, yes, in case you were wondering, pythons have been known to eat children on occasion--not a dramatic feat when you're 30 feet long and weigh 200 pounds.
No wonder her kids had been crying in fear. Thankfully, this "monster" was caught in time, because no one had been listening to the children's cries. It's hard to be taken seriously when you're 5 or 6 years old and don't have the vocabulary or life experience to articulate what is happening to you.
This same scenario is occurring in churches across our country. Except the pythons in our midst don't slither in the grass--they hold hymnals. They don't look like frightening beasts--they lift their hands during worship. They don't hide in basements--they are sitting in the pew right next to you. They may appear pious, but they are out to feed on our children.
That's why we're addressing the crisis of pedophilia in the church in this issue of Ministries Today. David Middlebrook, author of The Guardian System, wrote the article on page 46 to give pastors practical advice for how to prevent pious pythons from victimizing children in our congregations. It is not an option for us to sit back and do nothing.
We must not ignore our children's cries. As we've seen in the scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church, these child victims were right all along. The monsters they were seeing were very real. The children just needed someone to listen to them.