A paradox worth expanding
Joshua and I offered a little epistle to the new congregation on Sunday at our full and electric first meeting together (seriously, you had to be there!), and I mentioned something about holding a tension between prophecy and evangelism. During talkback, someone asked me to clarify what I meant. I realized that I may have overstated the tension I mentioned, so I thought I should expand on that a bit.
I think Ephesians’ list of roles in the church, known some as the Fivefold Ministry, is oversold in books Christian publishers want to move, but I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. I think that the ideas of pastor, prophetic, evangelist, apostle, and teacher have enough merit to consider. I also think it is helpful to note where we can expand and grow, as individuals or on a team. And it is also helpful to not assume everything is all of them; that sometimes we’re needed as pastor, others times as apostles, and still other times as teacher (and so on). The prophet and evangelist stand out to me today, as I try to hone those two in my own character and discipline.
Who is prophetic?
The gift of prophecy is listed in 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, Romans 12:6. Brueggemann (see Prophetic Imagination) and Heschel (see The Prophets), two of my favorite thinkers, talk about how the prophet empathizes with the pathos of God. The prophet feels what God feels. The prophet feels like a refugee of sorts in society, not exactly sure where her home is. And as she finds it in God, she calls out where it ki is not in the world. The prophet is concerned with following God with zeal and without compromise.
The prophet is almost hyperbolic in her energetic criticism of the world, offended by even the smallest sin because God deserves that much honor and requires that much allegiance. It’s decidedly anti-social behavior. Prophets are then often alone because of how they name the evil in the world, because so many students of evil are unwilling to grow and repent and change.
The prophet is uncompromising in her conviction and especially place in society by God to ensure that God’s people stay on the straight and narrow path, doing right by God and right by others.
We see Jesus act in this way all the time. Jesus reserved his harshest words for the religious leaders who made a mockery of God. Perhaps his most explicit prophetic voice is in Matthew 23 to 25. He lambasts the religious leaders of the day, using hyperbolic language, to describe their lack of allegiance to God. He proceeds to prophesy about the destruction of the Temple and the coming of suffering, and concludes with a prophecy on Judgment Day when God separates the sheep and the goat; those who served the least of these brothers and sisters and those who failed to. It’s a dramatic section of Matthew and it’s similar in many respects to the prophetic texts in the Old Testament.
We need prophets today
The words of Jesus, and this is important, target religious leaders primarily. The Old Testament prophets do the same. They speak to people who they might think could know better. We need to do the same, as individuals, but also as a church.
Circle of Hope’s prophetic witness against the powers of this world and among the Christians allied to those powers has been an elemental part of our ministry and also our proverbs. For me, it was a key element that attracted me to the church. So often lacking in our high church and evangelical counterparts is dialogue or even interest for justice and peace, and for many people Circle of Hope’s passion in these matters makes it quite attractive and appealing, in fact.
But remember, we aren’t into justice and compassion because it makes it appealing to others. Those who have already heard God’s voice, and are looking for us, find that we are often a great match for them. But the prophetic voice doesn’t exist to bring like-minded people together, it actually is meant to disturb us in our complacency. If our prophetic word comforts us, it might not be prophetic at all. It should challenge and disrupt us. And so, I hope that as a body we can keep considering how God is leading us to challenge our growth edges and see where our apostolic edge might be (back to Ephesians 4).
The peril of prophecy alone is that it is condemning and exclusive. It can morph into moral superiority and fundamentalism. It is not necessarily sensitive to the needs of someone unfamiliar with God because it puts God’s needs above all. But there is no such thing as a prophet in a vacuum. The prophet is always in community, moving along with people who are differently gifted and capable.
What is an evangelist?
So then, what’s the tension between the prophet and the evangelist? The term “evangelist” is used only three times in the New Testament (Acts 21:8, Eph. 4:11, 2 Tim. 4:5) but the New Testament is filled with it. Rather than calling out all the wickedness in the world, the evangelist is interested in being at home in her time and place. She’s not compromising the Gospel, but rather bringing it to the present with great flexibility.
The evangelist is an expert in her time and place. She is culturally competent, and knows the needs. She’s aware of what the people around her are experiencing, what trouble they find, and she’s creating a church and a community that meets the needs of her time and place. She has a missionary mindset, ready to bring people into the fold and designing the fold in such a way that allows them to fit in nicely. She’s inclusive and hospitable.
She’s not unaware of the evil of the time, and she never accommodates it, but she’s gracious in how she welcomes. For the evangelist, people don’t need to have everything sorted out before they are include in the church.
If the prophet empathizes with the pathos of God, the evangelist is constrained by God’s love. Even the prophet knows that God’s love is longer than God’s anger, and the evangelist expresses that love in her inclusion.
She borrows from the Apostle Paul, who committed his life to being all things to all people. Who flexed and molded the Gospel to fit into a variety of cosmopolitan settings. In one famous story, Paul, who is running away from people in Thessalonica who want to kill him, lands in Athens as he awaits his friends. He checks the city out and notices an inscription that states, “to an unknown God.” While debating with the Epicureans and Stoics, Paul convinces them that this unknown God is none other than Jesus. He uses the culture and finds Jesus in it (in contrast, the prophet points out where Jesus is absent in the culture).
Paul’s biggest effort was in including Gentiles, or non-Greeks, into what a new faith that, up until Paul, was largely an offshoot of Judaism. He had to sort through Jewish traditions, eliminating the ones that were hindrances to the Greeks he wanted to include, while also helping the Greeks follow Jesus in a righteous path. This tension is not unlike the one I list about the prophets and the evangelists.
We need evangelists today
We need people who are interested in learning about our time and place and fitting the Gospel into it. We need to keep adapting to what’s next. We even need to let go of who we were in the past in order to move into what God has next for us.
And we need people who aren’t ashamed of the Gospel and can share it and will go to the greatest heights and depths to do it. It’s hard to be an evangelist in our hostile environment. I think the Gospel is abused so frequently by those in power, it can feel embarrassing to share it. The Gospel is wonderful news and I think we need to pray for courage to share it.
We need representatives of Christianity who are not afraid of the culture, and try to preserve what little of it they think they have left (please no more culture wars), but rather trying to bring it into a new world and a new time. Rather than trying to change the culture they’re in for their comfort (sounds a little like some of the popular Evangelical leaders, doesn’t it?), they adapt the Gospel to the present, for the sake of Jesus.
We need evangelists and prophets
But we’re not just interested in butts in seats, how many covenant members we have, or even how many ‘conversions’ we can give to the denomination. We are interested in evangelism for the same reason we are interested in prophecy: we want to redeem the world and restore creation. All of the parts of the body are employed to bring about this redemption. Sometimes those parts are in tension, and that’s OK; they work together too. We can’t do this work alone, and we need a body to make it happen.