Last week I witnessed a ‘prophetic’ ministry from a well-known charismatic Californian church in a well-known UK charismatic church. Is there ever time to shout out to your friends – ‘the Emperor has no clothes?’
I’d been at the church in the morning, and been been struck by the brilliance of the welcome, the hospitality, worship and even the word (from what was probably their third tier preacher) was faithful, challenging, and really helpful to the listener, rooted in a text, well explained in it’s context with at least two helpful illustrations to cement the message.
Excited by the a plug that was made for the guest evening speaker I returned in the evening to the church curious by what a ‘prophetic director’ from a well known overseas church might offer to the church in the U.K.
The talk began inauspiciously with him spending three minutes explaining that he was going to massively exceed his 35 minute allocated slot. Later in his talk this meant he had no time to read the scripture, but just give his personal paraphrase version of a text he never delved very deeply into.
17 Year Old Prophesy
He then announced that one of his young colleagues had a word of seismic importance for ‘the nation’. She got up on the stage and what happened next was one of those moments where it was culturally cringely to me, (but no critique of the form as it may have been appropriate there). We were asked to stand to ‘receive the prophecy’, and then hold hands in line, in my case with two very sweaty blokes either side of me.
The prophecy, she explained, was not hers but one given 17 years ago, about events that sounded utterly imminent in the tone in which they were (unironically) redelivered nearly 2 decades later: One phrase included:
“neither renewal no revival can completely describe the events that are about to happen in your area” 17 year old prophesy
I suppose you could argue that some of the wonderful things that have happened in the church and others could constitute some of what this prophecy was talking about, but the way that it was delivered was as if these things had not yet happened, but were now about to happen. The prophetic visitor clearly had a view as to what was going to cause these things to spring into being. He described himself as someone ‘who used to be arrogant’ and said that he had been praying for this country for 22 years, and only now had God allowed him to come. He apologised that the prophetic had neglected ‘nation states’ and ‘released into being’ his prophecy into their congregation and (somehow!) over all of the nation.
Nation of Ireland
At this point to make sense of the narrative I have to locate myself in Northern Ireland. I may be wrong on this and I’m by no means 100% savvy on all of the politics of the region, but wondered how a congregation from Northern Ireland responded to hearing an American talk about the ‘nation’ of Ireland? Northern Ireland can be described as a nation by itself and is part of the nation of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ known as the UK for short. Of course you may be one of plenty of people who would love to see a nation of Ireland and if so you would warm to his prophecy. But it’s possible he may just enjoy a casual relationship with words / history / politics rather than deliberately espousing an Irish Republicanism in his ‘prophesy’. It might be worth considering is it a divine or a human agent who would get this detail wrong? It felt colonialistic in that he clearly felt that he / his church was living in a personal / corporate revival and was able to release this to another country that had previously been neglected by people of his prophetic stature.
An angel called Oliveramos
In order to understand what he meant by ‘releasing something into being’ we need to get back to the story he told right at the beginning of his talk. It was unscripted(!) provoked apparently simply by shaking hands with a man called Oliver on his way in. This reminded him of a dream he had: [he later said that he was capable of having 10 years of dreams in a single week – so he had plenty to choose from].
In his dream he encountered three angels:. He explained that two were female and one male, (although he pointed out that angels weren’t made in our image and therefore not men and women). The male appearing one was called Oliveramos – which he said was the sort of name you wouldn’t make up, and therefore an angelic one. He then proceeded to break up the name into its root human languages(!) Olive – like olive branch meaning peace – and amor – meaning love. He told us that God had revealed to him that he was sending the angel Oliveramos to help troubled marriages everywhere – to bring peace and love back to relationships.
Married couples were then invited to stand, and the prophetic visitor released Oliveramos to all of them, concluding: ‘that’s sorted that out then’.
So should we thank goodness for secret esoteric revealed knowledge? Or should we actually be as suspicious of this as the early writers of scripture? [cf this video from NT Wright for some background].
The talk then had a meander from 1 Kings 19 (Elijah is a tired prophet annoyed that he has to pass his mantle to Elisha) to Peter in jail in Acts 16 who apparently makes the earth vibrate to heaven’s sounds through his singing thus directly causing the earthquake that liberated him from jail. (Peter also had extraordinary knowledge about how to bring heaven to earth). Unfortunately he didn’t have time to read the text, or expand the passage, to carefully discern if he was right in his interpretation of the event.
What your ears want to hear
Finally, (to keep this post brief, and overlooking the comment about the spirit of Jesus/ the Holy Spirit) we got to the much awaited for epilogue where the visiting prophetic person and team would offer impactful words to the congregation. I was hoping for some very high-level insight into peoples’ lives, but this time was dominated by two things: one was a misinterpretation of the concept of ‘double blessing’ in the Elijah / Elisha narrative as a potential 100% increase in anointing in each generation (please read this for a simple explanation of why that is flawed), and the other was a formulaic prophecy that went something like this: you are great at xxxxx and you’re going to be greater; or you are struggling with yyyy but you’re going to be great and an overcomer. Two prophetic words with detail (name of someone born on such and such a date) were not responded to it all by the very large congregation, which probably defied the law of averages!
And are there factors at play that mean that prophetic director possibly hasn’t had the chance to grow and develop as much as they could?
Forming a minister in a culture of deference
The church the visiting speaker came from is well known for an internal culture where they give deference and respect to those in leadership. They celebrate and back their leaders in a way that is deeply encouraging and affirming. There is much to be learnt from the way they honour one another. We thoroughly enjoyed visiting there for a week two years ago.
Bill Johnson: A culture of honor is celebrating who someone is without stumbling over who they are not.
But: what about when the Emperor has no clothes?
An internally deferential culture does not allow staff and others to grow in the ways that they need to do so. A sort of groupspeak occurs where anything that is said under the banner of ‘prophetic’ is given credence and value that if it was weighed up by those with a Biblical teaching ministry, and some knowledge of Church history, would be questioned, challenged, honed or frankly dismissed as speaking from vein imagination.
Insights the senior pastor may possibly have developed over decades of prayerful study are chinese whispered down two / three layers of ministry until conclusions are left hanging without any biblical scaffolding to sustain them. If we’re not careful the weird is valued for being weird. It has a power, as it is secret knowledge. This means people will come (back) to hear it believing that they need this gnostic mediator between them and God. While this is good for getting invites to conferences, and getting people to return to our meetings it is profoundly anti charismatic, in that it takes people away from ‘every member ministry’ to a secret ministry of the privileged few. At worst the platform speaker is the new gnostic high priest, propped up by those who imitate and honour him, trained in schools of ministry that could not possibly be externally validated.
So is it the minister’s fault?
Obviously we are responsible for what we say, but another factor is at play: Is it possible the visiting speaker may never have had critical feedback on random, wrong, or weird conclusions? They may never have been encouraged to learn from or listen to other streams different to theirs so that iron can sharpen iron. They may have always been kept within the same, very tight family, stifled by a culture of honour unable to name nakedness for what it is.
The Wimber / Watson example
One of the things that really strikes me about John Wimber, founder of the vineyard movement, was his relationship with the likes of the UK Anglican, David Watson. Wimber had an incredible experience of the Holy Spirit, and clear hunger and desire to learn more. Accounts of those who knew him well are that he wanted to test everything against the Scriptures and formed great relationships with people like David Watson who had come from very strong expositional bible teaching backgrounds. This was a marrying of the spirit and the word together. The streams of Conservative Anglicanism and the fresh Californian waves of the spirit in the new vineyard movement were mutually beneficial.
What would our prophetic visitor last night have been like if he had benefited from such a cross-stream relationship. Would that have provoked him to think he is in fact a fairly young believer, like most of us, with a great adventure ahead of understanding scripture and church history (and geo-politics). And could that adventure grow him into a well rounded minister of the gospel in years to come?
I have a hunch that sometimes a culture of loving critique is more a culture of honour than simply telling people what they want to hear.
Perhaps the Emperor in the fairy story would like to have been told his birthday suit was not as substantial as it could have been before he walked down that street.