Last Sunday we were privileged to receive the visit of Emma Stark and Sarah Jane Biggart at The 11. I have been moved by many people who have talked about how they have been encouraged, challenged, and inspired by what Emma brought and many sharing how they encountered God during the service – these are indications that God was at work and doing something significant. The message Emma brought was challenging as well as exciting; she delivered it in a style we are not used to, and this has raised questions or concerns for some. Let me say that if that’s true of you, that is OK. I offer these thoughts here with the hope and prayer that they will help us weigh, test and process what Emma brought with grace and wisdom. If you have not heard Emma’s talk and would like to or if you want to hear it again, let me know and I will send you a link.
There are two aspects of Emma’s talk that I would like to clear up straight away to avoid any misunderstanding:
Firstly, she used language like ‘God is saying’ and ‘God said’. We are not used to this. The risk of such language is that it makes people feel uncomfortable about questioning what was brought or having doubts about what was brought because they can feel like they are questioning God. Let me say that it is OK to have questions or to disagree. And it is certainly OK, more than OK, for you to speak to me or any other member of leadership about any questions or concerns you have. In fact, I would encourage it.
Secondly, at one point she suggested that if people were to find the way forwards too uncomfortable, they should leave the church. I want to state as wholeheartedly as I can that it is not our wish or desire that anyone leaves the church, in fact quite the opposite. I would always encourage anyone who had questions about any aspect of our vision, direction, mission or ministry to come and talk to us.
Let’s consider then how we process what Emma brought. Emma’s message was prophetic in nature, so firstly some biblical reflection on the role of corporate prophecy and how we weigh and test it to discern how God was speaking. Then some general thoughts on how we receive a visiting speaker well and how we move forwards.
Weighing and Testing Corporate Prophecy
We have expressed a desire and commitment to be a church led by the Spirit. Everything we do is a work of the Spirit: he must lead it all, set the direction, reveal his purposes, and empower us to do it. Our goal is to be a people of the Spirit and to live and work by the Spirit. Prophecy is a gift of the Spirit and a biblically important way we can receive the leading and ministry of the Spirit. So, what does the New Testament say about prophecy?
The gift of prophecy is one we are told to long for in scripture (1 Cor 14:1) and the ministry of ‘prophet’ is one of the five-fold ministry ‘graces’ given by Christ to the church to equip God’s people and help them reach maturity (Eph 4:11-12). Jesus himself, spoke about the ministry of the ‘prophet’ when he said,
‘Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.
He therefore aligns receiving the prophet’s ministry very closely with receiving his own. The implication of Jesus is that we must honour the prophet.
In essence, prophecy is one way we can discern what God is doing and what we should do about it. Here are some examples of biblical functions of prophecy:
Paul makes it clear that prophecy (along with the ministry of an ‘apostle’) plays a foundational role (Eph 2:20) in the New Testament People of God. This means it has a key role in shaping our understanding our God-given identity, how God is calling us, our vision, values, and vocation.
Prophecy is given to make sense of the times in an Issacharian manner (1 Chron 12:32). In Mat 24 and Luke 21, Jesus rebukes the religious leaders for not being able to read the signs of the times.
Prophecy is given ‘to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort’ (1 Cor 14:3).
Prophecy is given to convict people of their sin (1 Cor 14:24-25 and see examples of this in action in Acts 13 and Acts 8).
This means that we reject or ignore prophetic ministry at our peril.
Paul describes prophecy and the ministry of prophets as a normal part of Christian worship. Paul instructs us not to ‘hold prophecy in contempt’ but also to weigh and test prophecy. He writes to the Corinthians,
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said…The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. (1 Cor. 14:29, 32)
And he writes to the Thessalonians,
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. (1 Thes 5:20-22)
Receiving the ministry of a prophet, therefore, is a significant moment and demonstrates our desire and commitment to be shaped by God and led by the Spirit. But we don’t do this blindly or by simply accepting at face-value everything that was brought. We remember that all prophecy is filtered through imperfect humans and therefore needs weighing and testing. When a community receives corporate prophecy, it becomes the role of leadership on behalf of the wider community to weigh and test the input brought and discern how to respond to it. So how do we do this?
Asking question is a great way to do this weighing and testing, e.g.,
Does it agree with scripture?
Do we sense ‘prophetic resonance’ – does it resonate internally with our own sense of what God is doing/saying/leading?
Is it consistent with prophetic words spoken over us in the past?
Is it a word that will bear fruit?
Does it enhance/protect the unity of the church?
Is this a word for now or for the future?
What was the attitude and motivation of the person bringing the prophecy?
What is the character, gifting and anointing of the person bringing the prophecy?
These are the questions we will be considering as we weigh and test what was brought this past Sunday.
If we discern that God is speaking, of course it then becomes the task of leadership and the wider community to discern what to do in response to the word brought.
I am aware that we don’t often have visiting speakers at St John’s, so it is not something we are used to. Although the biblical pattern is that biblical teaching is in the most part best brought to the community by members of the community, there are also good reasons for occasionally inviting visiting speakers. But there also things to consider so that we do this well. So with the above thoughts on prophecy in mind, here’s a few more general thoughts on how we receive visiting speakers.
Receiving a Visiting Speaker
Hosting a visiting speaker and receiving their ministry if done carefully can be an important means of growth in the things of God. It is also a sign of humility because it is a recognition that we don’t exist in isolation, and we are part of the wider body of Christ. It’s a recognition that we have not got everything right and we need others who have different strengths to come and encourage us, equip us, and challenge us. The St John’s way is not the only way; the Anglican way is not the only way. In fact, in the great scheme of Christianity throughout history and in the world today, Anglicanism accounts for a very small corner of the wider church. Many of the places where the church is growing most rapidly and being most impactful are in other denominations or streams and in other cultures. We need to hear from where this is happening and learn from them. Although we worship the same God, Christian’s in other streams and nations worship in different ways and engage with the world differently. If, in humility, we allow ourselves to learn from these it can enrich our church life. But of course, we must do this with care.
When considering whether to invite a particular outside speaker, we consider various factors, including (in no particular order): whether we sense the Holy Spirit leading us to do so (will they bring what we need at the right time?), whether his/her gifting complement our own, our knowledge of and relationship with the speaker, our confidence level in their anointing and ministry and the extent to which that is recognised by people we trust, their biblical integrity and so on. As we invite them, we discuss with them the best way for them to minister and engage with us. But even if after carefully weighing these considerations we discern it is right to receive an outside speaker, that doesn’t always mean it will be easy or straight forward.
Receiving the ministry of an outside speaker can sometimes be encouraging and straight-forward, but at other times it can bring challenge. This can be for different reasons, including that God is leading the person to bring a word of challenge, their approach or natural cultural style are different to our own and can make us feel uncomfortable, they speak in a detached manner meaning that what they say may not be relevant or easy to understand or relate to and so on. It’s important to remember that the visiting speaker never has the final word.
It is the job of our leadership to receive, weigh and test what any visiting speaker brings. A visiting speaker if you like lays their input down at the feet of our leadership on behalf of the whole community. As we receive an outside speaker, we honour and recognise their calling and anointing but we also recognise that they like us are human and don’t have everything right. We invite them to bring a perspective and to model an approach. It is then the responsibility of our leadership to discern how God might be speaking through it and how we will respond. We do not need to copy their approach; we need to be true to who God has made us to be and what he has called us to do.
There are two possible dangers that we need to avoid when weighing and testing what a visiting speaker brings. Firstly, that just because a visiting speaker might be well known or have a ‘big name’ we don’t lay aside our critical faculties and blindly accept everything they say. With honour, grace, gentleness, and love we weigh and test what they bring. Secondly, our human nature is such that we easily take offence. What can happen is that we become offended by one or a few things the speaker says or does and then we write off the whole ministry of the person. This is dangerous and we must guard our hearts against this. God works through imperfect people. We must always with humility be ready to identify what God was saying doing even if we don’t like certain aspects of the content or style.
So how might all this apply to what we received on Sunday and how do we take this forward?
Emma brought to us a word that was encouraging and exciting, but challenging and, in some respects, hard to hear. She also preached in a style and used language that are very unfamiliar to us. Her motivation was to help us discern what God is doing in these times both in the wider church and within St John’s and to encourage and help us discern how to respond to it. Emma was very clear with us that what she was doing was in effect laying this at our feet so we can pick it up and do what we will with it. Clearly, weighing and testing, can’t be done quickly, we need to take time over it and give it careful attention. This is particularly true if we do discern that God was speaking through it?
In the meantime, to help us with this, it might be helpful to name a few observations about what was brought so that we can be aware of how these factors may influence how we receive what Emma brought:
The talk was long and densely packed with thought and concept. This means there is a lot to process which will take time. It also means that at times significant and even controversial topics were covered briefly and in an abstract manner. It is therefore possible some of what she said could be mis-interpreted or for it to be difficult to connect it to the here and now. We must be careful to look for the motivation and intent behind what was said.
‘Seer’ language is unfamiliar so, for example, when ‘seeing angels,’ is mentioned, it can be difficult to receive, interpret, and apply what was said.
The preaching style was proclamatory and expressive. This style is unfamiliar to us – we are used to a more analytical and reasoned style of preaching. Its possible then for the style of deliver to distract us.
Prophetic ministry plays this foundational role, so it is right and appropriate that we take our time to prayerfully and carefully reflect on all that Emma brought and not make reactive or rash judgements. Here are my early thoughts about how we will approach this, this of course will develop as time goes on:
Firstly, I encourage all of us to individually pray and reflect on what Emma brought. Please get in touch to share your sense of how God may have been speaking and share your personal stories of how God has impacted you. Also share any questions or concerns you may have.
Secondly, in small groups I encourage you to take time to reflect and consider. One of our groups has already committed to spending an evening in the new year focused on reflecting on Emma’s talk and will be feeding back to me where they get to.
We will spend time as a PCC reflecting and considering, weighing, and testing what was brought.
Within our core leadership team, we will be spending significant time talking, praying and reflecting on all this and will share with us all at the appropriate point and in an appropriate way so that we can invite further input from us all.
As a final word, let’s remember the principle of honour and how we speak well of people and one another. I ask you to join me in praying that we would receive what Emma brought with humility, weight and test it in a Godly way and have the grace to respond to how God may have been speaking to us through it.