A spine-chilling squeal erupts from the back row of the balcony. As if reacting to sudden gunfire, you physically duck when the verbal explosion begins. You recognize the voice. It's the forecaster of doom you had spoken with earlier in the week by phone.
From the tone of her voice, she was making it quite clear that she didn't appreciate being told by the pastor to keep her prophecies silent and her mouth shut for the time being. For her, being a rogue was always in vogue when it came to prophesying. At least this time her message was short and to the point:
"Thus saith the Lord, 'I am not here.'"
Huh? Apparently, the Lord decided to show up and tell everyone He wasn't there. In all seriousness, the real interpretation of the message was that if the balcony blaster is no longer allowed to prophesy, then the Holy Spirit will no longer grace your congregation with His presence.
Or, maybe you've encountered another dilemma: It's the 11 a.m. service and someone begins to prophesy--again. Like clockwork, the Sunday morning congregation is hit with a sequence of remarks delivered in King James-style English that sounds more like rhetoric than prophetic.
From the platform, you can actually feel your hair turning gray during the prophecy. You love the moving of the Spirit. You welcome the gifts freely--at least you used to. But you know in your heart that many in the congregation have been turned off--not necessarily by the prophetic, but by the antics of this well-meaning "prophet."
Scripture is clear in its positive attitude toward prophecy that is given through tongues and interpretation--especially when they are interpreted for the corporate body: "Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but he who prophesies edifies the church" (1 Cor. 14:1-4, NKJV).
Nothing challenges the gut and soul of a Spirit-filled pastor more than the issues of shepherding tongues and interpretation. On one hand, if the pastor attempts to correct a resistant prophet, he or she runs the risk of being labeled a "prophecy despiser." If the pastor says nothing, he or she may alienate the truly sincere. It's no wonder that so many Pentecostal shepherds have quietly dismissed the role of prophecy in their churches.
Whether you're spiritually minded or saturated in secular thought, the gifts of the Spirit are a divine intrusion into the routines and traditions of modern church life--and they should be. And in a day and age where ministry relevance often tops our list of core values, this creates a tough high-wire act for the pastor.
Acts 2 was nothing short of a nuclear blast that leveled the religiosity that had found a home in Jerusalem. In no uncertain terms, the Holy Spirit came down and threw Jerusalem out of bed. And thus began the great battle between the abruptness of church birth and the delicateness of church life.
The dilemma for many shepherds involves examining the chemistry between their own authentic encounters with the Holy Spirit and the experiences and expressions of others that may feel far less authentic than their own. They realize that to simply discard the prophetic role through others can mean throwing away the preciousness of prophecy and its past role in their lives.
Caught in the middle, many pastors quietly exist somewhere between enthusiasm for the doctrines of public prophecy and biting their lips as they endure the shallow goofiness of some who prophesy in their churches. Some have become so discouraged by this cycle that shepherding the gifts becomes a process of damage control and not much else.
As messy as it can be at times, the gifts of the Spirit were never intended to be a distraction or a burden to the church. Paul was quick to remind the Corinthians that prior to their conversion they had followed after the worthlessness of "dumb [mute] idols" (1 Cor. 12:2).
Worshiping voiceless and godless stones made no sense to Paul. But even more perplexing was the full swing some had taken from worshiping silent idols to worshiping the sound of their own voices as they rampantly prophesied in the name of Jesus.
Knowing that His departure was imminent, Jesus Himself took great pains to accurately describe both the person and the power of the Spirit that would soon fully engulf His disciples. On the night of His crucifixion, Jesus describes in detail the emerging role of the Spirit. His primary concern was to refute the fears of His disciples that His absence would leave them fatherless: "'I will not leave you orphans ... '" (John 14:18).
Without the promise of His return, Jesus knew that instead of turning the world upside down, the sibling disciples would turn on one another. In the preceding verse, Jesus gives what may be His most important insight in the role of the Holy Spirit: "'But you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you'" (John 14:17). In other words, the Holy Spirit is described as both inside and alongside, a fountain and a river.
In my opinion, the reason so many churches are filled with hostile "siblings" is that they have allowed human intellect and fear to cloud God's clear design for this age. The gifts Jesus left for the church to use and enjoy, the company and oversight of the Spirit's personhood and the promise of Christ's return are all equally needed if the church is to rise above an "orphanage" spirit of rivalry and fear.
With that in mind, the gift of tongues and public prophecy, no matter how daunting, are missions critical to the church age. Here are some principles we need to remember and practice while pastoring public prophecy.
The apostle Paul was far more concerned with the attitudes surrounding the gifts than with the details of their operation. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 12:7-8, Paul states that the correct motivation behind all manifestations of the Spirit is the "profit of all," not personal advancement.
He continues with an analogy that compares the foolishness of body parts arguing with one another over which organ is more important to the Corinthians' dispute over the supposed superiority of each of their spiritual gifts.
"If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,' is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,' is it therefore not of the body?" (1 Cor. 12:15-16)
Paul then reversed his train of thought in verses 21-22: "And the eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you'; nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.' No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary."
The pastor must not allow such feelings of inferiority or superiority to grip his flock. If special provisions of friendship and honor are made by the pastor and his people toward the more celebrated gifts at the expense of the obscure, the unity and impact of the local church will be lost. Spiritual gifts can create in their recipient a sense of grandeur, but it is crucial that the pastor teach and cultivate a servant-based ministry culture.
I have taught our congregation repeatedly that Jesus may have begun His public ministry with the water and wine, but He ended it with the water and the towel. Servanthood, not gifts, is the key indicator of Christian maturity. And all gifts must lead us back to the missional lifestyle of Jesus. If revival and the operation of spiritual gifts are creating a subtle caste system of winners and losers, then I recommend you quickly re-evaluate how these spiritual attitudes are being formed and reinforced.
Although, like a good rain, prophecy falls somewhat randomly, it must always benefit the corporate body. From one worship service to another there are new low spots of the human heart that need filling. Through tongues and their interpretation, God sends the rain of prophecy and it fills, overflows and then floods the low-lying areas that have developed since the last rain.
A key indicator of the orderliness of any tongue and interpretation is its focus--or lack thereof--on the person of Christ: "Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3).
The Spirit of God in any form of manifestation, gift or work must point people toward a revelation of Christ. That revelation may be His holiness, His radiance or His evangelistic and healing purposes. But in all cases, Jesus remains the center aim of all that the Spirit does.
Like the pillar of fire and cloud that led the Israelites through the wilderness, the Word of God and the Son of God are the twin objects of focus to which the church must look and against which the church must evaluate all charismatic gifts.
Thankfully Scripture itself offers three standards of measurement for judging the authenticity of public prophetic messages: edification, exhortation and consolation: "But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men" (1 Cor. 14:3).
Thus, I make no apologies as a pastor when I say that any public message must have as its central topic Christ, followed closely by the sub-themes of edification, exhortation or consolation.
If the church is not built up (edified), even through times of correction, or given practical next steps for escaping peril or possessing growth (exhortation), or instilled with solace and salve for their grief (consolation), then the message is judged inappropriate for the flock. Scripture is clear on this one; the core message of any prophecy must include at least one or more of these themes.
We make an effort to train those used in prophetic ministry that even if the Holy Spirit interrupts corporate worship for one individual, the message to that individual must contain one of those three themes.
Exhortation, edification and consolation are broad enough subject matters to include many things for many people, but they also are narrow enough to bring trust and safety to the prophetic ministry.
In our ministry we have an unusually large sanctuary which requires that any prophecy, whether it first be in tongues or the interpretation that follows, to be brought forward.
After sharing with an elder or pastor the general content of the message--unless it is tongues of course--the pastor then stands beside the individual which is the cue to our worship pastor that an appropriately timed message is ready to be given.
He then creates a space in the midst of worship for the message to be given. This method has served us well. It gives us an opportunity to test the message as well as provide for the right kind of timing. In our setting, it is a logistical impossibility to have someone spontaneously shout over the voice of the worship leader.
Some have felt the loss of spontaneity in this method. I feel the gain is far greater than the loss. We still experience the random beauty that comes with prophetic rain, but are now able to test and distribute the message in such a way that the common good of all is served. We also follow closely Paul's recommendation for no more than three prophetic words to be given in a single service.
In the case of tongues preceding the interpretation, we take that as a signal that an added work of the Spirit is underway. By choosing to use tongues, the Holy Spirit is flagging the presence of some who are either unbelievers or deeply unbelieving about the reality of the Spirit. In either case, I usually give an immediate altar call for salvation and repentance when tongues precede an interpreted prophecy.
Of course, there are times when mistakes are made by both pastor and prophet, but this is not the Old Testament. (We do not stone people, we correct them.)
In a time when authentic expressions of charismatic gifts are needed now more than ever, the pressure for pastors to back down from their earnest desire for spiritual gifts is mounting in many corners of America.
But my hope is that we as shepherds will feel a deep renewal of desire for the fresh release of God through our own lives. May the courage that overtook Joshua overtake all of us who are called to lead the church into the promises of God.
And may we never turn the unexpected into the uninvited.
Handy guidelines for nurturing healthy expressions of public prophecy.
"The first time I prophesied was exciting, but confusing and unproductive." This is how veteran pastor and scholar Ernest Gentile describes his first encounter with the prophetic in his own life.
In his book Your Sons & Daughters Shall Prophesy: Prophetic Gifts in Ministry Today (Chosen), Gentile offers 14 guidelines for profitable--and orderly--prophetic ministry in a congregational setting:
Shaming: If a church member ventures out in prophecy but makes a mistake, our biggest error would be to publicly rebuke and harshly criticize. This is a time for the leadership to show great love and concern.
Imperfection: In all these things we admit that no one has a corner on God, and nothing is yet perfect. People are still learning, and there is great variety in all our gifts and ministries.
Edification: It is important for us to search out personal motives when considering whether to prophesy. Those coming to the mike should feel they have something worthwhile for the entire congregation.
Timing: Timing is of utmost importance. No one should break into high praises and worship of God with something that could go unsaid or wait until later. Hasty prophecies do not inspire.
Clarity: If a person has only bits and pieces of thoughts, yet feels they are from the Lord, the lack of clarity suggests that it is premature to speak the thoughts forth publicly.
Confirmation: Sometimes you may not be sure about a thought. Don't become agitated but consider it an opportunity to seek the Lord. He is not so anxious to see His will accomplished that He must rely on confused messengers.
Direction: There are two types of directive prophecy--one positive, the other negative. A prophecy that gives direction and flows with the mood and frame of mind of the congregation and leadership will be received in a positive frame of mind, and even acted on in faith.
Kindness: The privilege of prophetic ministry must not be abused through negative statements or personal concerns. Let the message declare good news.
Patience: On occasion time does not permit a prophetic word, or else the leadership feels compelled to move the service in another direction. In such cases the people of the church should not take personal offense when they are not asked to share.
Humility: Be willing to have your words tested. Never insist you are right or try to prove that you are. Simply give the message and leave the results to God and His people.
Faith: Never fear failure. Faith must be exercised to come forward and speak. A perfectly good prophetic insight does not qualify as prophecy unless it is proclaimed audibly to the assembled church.
Announcements: Visitors and new people should be informed of the church's procedures through the bulletin and platform announcements. Every church moving in the prophetic needs to have its teaching on prophecy available to the local church body.
Titles: Usually the more secure a person is in a ministry, the less necessary for him or her to have recognition or a title. Take a humble approach, and do not boast of your gifting or insist that you have any gift.
Judgment: A margin of error is always present. The church does not have infallible prophets. We do have sincere, Spirit-filled people trying seriously to do the will of God. We can contend for 100 percent accurate prophecy, but part of our contention must be the willingness to submit our revelations to the church.
Scott Hagan is pastor of Grand Rapids First Assembly of God in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of They Felt the Spirit's Touch, They Walked With the Savior (both Charisma House) and Big Bad Bible Bullies (Charisma Kids).