In the latter years of my dad’s highly energized life, he lost much of his will to press on. At one point, I turned to him and said, “Dad, we need you to get a grip and get back in the race.” But the best he could offer was a blank stare. He no longer had the will (and maybe the ability) to be the father I needed him to be.
I sometimes feel this way about the church. It seems so many lack the will to press on. A number of churches have lost heart, what with Covid and all its disruptions, not to mention the coarsening of our age. Missing most of all is our prophetic mandate. We are overlooking that the church was birthed to make the invisible audible. Isn’t this the message in Acts? God poured out his spirit on the church so that “sons and daughters will prophesy” (2:17-21). But with a few notable exceptions, one searches hard to hear this voice.
If we are to step up to our prophetical call, we need to go back to the prophetic models of old. These were lives on the margins like Elijah and Jeremiah, summoned to enter the council of God, receive his word, and speak into the culture. They went by several titles including “man of God,” “watchman,” “messenger,” and “seer.”
In his The Prophetic Imagination, a book Walter Brueggemann wrote 43 years ago to the decentered church of his age, he described the prophetic task as two-fold:
-to criticize—cut through the numbness, penetrate the self-deceptions, and expose the false gods people set up in place of God -to energize—call people back to God, replacing false realities with true reality, offering flourishing where there is numbness and life where there is death.
Though these prophets were often ignored, dismissed, mocked, imprisoned, and put to death, they nonetheless kept the leaders of Israel on edge. When God’s voice was declared, the royal class often receded into the background. Do a survey of King and Chronicles and notice how the world was upended whenever a prophetic voice emerged. It soon became apparent that those of the political class were not the autonomous agents they assumed to be; they had to reckon with another governance over which they had no control. The prophets warned of the dangers of power and grandiosity, and those who ignored their words did so at their own peril.
What do you do with Acts 2:17? This is the question for the church. Do we not realize that at Pentecost, the mantle of prophecy was passed on to the church? But fewer and fewer churches seem to want to seize it. Unlike the former prophets, the church is not so inclined to be an alternative community to the dominant culture. Too many are bent on aligning with rather than speaking into the culture. It calls for courage, for this includes criticizing. It means confronting—
-the gods we have set in place of God, beginning with our autonomous sense of self with its self-made values
-the growing, egocentric meritocracy that dominates much of culture, where those achieving elitist status measure one’s worth by one’s education and class, creating its own pecking order
-the greed that turns life into constant acquisition, that uses wealth to differentiate and create barriers, denying others the same opportunity for prosperity
-the drive for power, the kind that imposes one’s values on others through speech and thought codes, giving no room for dialogue and disagreement
-the kind of nationalism that calls for loyalty to the state over God, that gives more time to parties and politics and presidents at the expense of time with God
-the critical theories that go beyond the expressing of grief to the call for the shaming of others
This is our prophetic task. Who else will do it? Prophesying isn’t about predicting who will be the next president (foolish as this is). It is less about foretelling and more about forth-telling. Like prophets of old, the sons and daughters of the prophets should not be seeking to share the stage with kings. Our task is far higher—to call ungodliness back to godliness; pull back curtains to reveal unjust structures; expose systems that are rigged for insiders; and warn the nation that we are slowly dying the death of decadence, if not have already died.
As noted, with criticism also comes energizing. Prophets are not mere pessimists, old farts getting things off their chests. They are fresh voices calling for life in a world that is bent on death, voices of sanity in a world of madness. True prophets show the way to divine grace, salvation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They speak not to shame and condemn but to offer hope, the kind that triumphs over despair.
If we need a New Testament model, and we do, it is Jesus. From the beginning of his public ministry, he identified with the marginalized. He preached the gospel, one that as Brueggemann puts it, “never promises without threatening, never begins without ending something, and never gives without assessing harsh costs.” He summoned his followers to be an alternative community, one that offers life to the dying. And he challenged a morally vacuous age to fulfill the holy requirements of God— “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8).
This is the task of the church today—but then it has always been the task of the church. Until we come back to center, come back to true Pentecostal identity and the power of the Spirit resident within our hearts, we will continue on a road of irrelevance. We will not get back in the race, leaving the world to continue on its path of madness and death.