Is being prophetic killing the church? Can being apostolic save it?

As a spiritual director, coach, and therapist working primarily with pastors, I’ve found the present struggles of so many pastors to be heart-wrenching. Pastoral ministry has become incredibly hard, especially as we emerge from the pandemic, but our situation is not completely new.

Photo by Soff Garavano Puw on Unsplash

As a spiritual director, coach, and therapist working primarily with pastors, I’ve found the present struggles of so many pastors to be heart-wrenching. Pastoral ministry has become incredibly hard, especially as we emerge from the pandemic, but our situation is not completely new. The terrain surrounding pastoral ministry has gotten more and more formidable over the course of two generations as the culture has swung dramatically away from the church. With most churches willing to only glacially adapt, and too few pastors with training and insight into organizational transformation, ministry has become a deeply painful vocation. But some of that pain may be self-inflicted.

A coaching session I had with a pastor several years ago captured this dilemma. She was smarting over the backlash to her recent sermon on the need to stop being a social club and to start being a mission center.

I responded, “You were just being prophetic, right?” “Yeah,” she said. “I was calling them to do more.” I replied, “Hmmm, so you were being a prophet, yet you’re surprised that they treated you like a prophet? Isn’t this why most prophets lived in the desert? They had to hide from everyone trying to kill them for their prophecies.” She stopped, looked at me for a moment, buried her head in her hands, and laughed: “Oh Gawd. So what am I supposed to do?”

Why do we want to model our ministry after prophets? It’s not like ancient Jewish prophecies prevented the Assyrian conquest or the Babylonian exile. They rarely led to change. Why do we think being prophetic should work better today? A half-century of decline says otherwise.

Most pastors were trained to be prophetic by tenured seminary professors who have typically never led congregational transformation. I believe the Bible offers us a much better example of ministry in Acts: the apostolic model. What’s the difference between the two?

Prophetic preaching and leadership, grounded in bold, critical truth-telling, often delivers messages and directives like a bomb. Meanwhile the apostolic speaks truth, but it does so through “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23), which is more effective at inspiring transformative living, being and doing.

Prophetic preaching has its time and place. When done well, as in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it poetically points out the evils of the world while inspiring people to follow God’s call to transform it. But it only rarely has a major impact, and usually only through the voices of a genuine prophet (who often is abused or killed for their prophecies).

The apostolic approach is deeply relational, establishing communities of diverse people working and eating together, praying for one other, worshiping and serving together. Transformational truth arises out of the relationships with each other and God. As the Mennonite historian Alan Kreider wrote in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, “The sources rarely indicate that the early Christians grew in number because they won arguments; instead they grew because their habitual behavior (rooted in patience) was distinctive and intriguing. Their habitus … enabled them to address intractable problems that ordinary people faced in ways that offered hope.”

Rather than dropping an explosive prophecy and then, like Elijah, fleeing the wrath of those who can’t handle the truth, the apostle becomes part of a community — learning its language, rituals, families, food, experiences and establishing deep relationships. The apostolic recognizes a deep truth: people who feel loved by us are much more willing to be transformed by us. It’s why, despite times of persecution, people joined the early Christian church. Aware of the danger, they still wanted to become like Christians.

To me, the apostolic approach is summed up in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23: “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

To be apostolic means seeing people as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). It wants to gather them together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:34). It’s firm but gentle, truthful yet understanding, principled and healing.

What does apostolic leadership look like? It’s leadership seeking to transform people morally, spiritually, psychologically and relationally through worship, education, groups, relationships and outreach. It often encourages and challenges but rarely berates. It nurtures a deep awareness and sense of God’s immediate presence and personal call. It believes that encountering and experiencing God will transform people and transformed people act differently.

The emphasis on spiritual transformation becomes the foundation for everything else — worship, ministry, mission, care for the building, child and adult education, stewardship, pastoral care and preaching.

Going back to the pastor I worked with, I encouraged her to stop trying to drop truth grenades and instead focus on the relationships. Preach and teach and organize and lead in a way that fosters personal transformation through awareness of God’s presence and call in their midst. Challenge them but do so in a way that’s invitational and encouraging rather than critical and blaming. Let God be responsible for delivering the personal prophetic message that calls on them to transform the world in their own unique ways. In my experience, leading people to listen for and follow God is what leads to the creative transformation of the world. In essence, lead them to be transformed by God and let God call them to transformational acts. In my experience, this works.