I visited a church in Brazil where the pastor announced that his wife was a prophet. Since she had this gift,he explained to the church, any other prophets were surplus to requirements. Maybe he had a bad experience of false prophecy. Maybe he was a naive enthusiast, over-commending his wife‘s ministry. Or maybe he was a manipulator, deliberately or unconsciously reinforcing his family’s control of the church.

This Brazilian incident highlights a number of risks with prophecy. There’s a risk of cornering the market, turning prophecy into an elitist gift. The Apostle Paul, by contrast, expected many believers to prophesy from time to time (1 Corinthians 14:5). There’s a risk of false prestige, as if using this gift automatically turns us into Christian VIPs. But the New Testament insists that spiritual gifts are about serving others, not self-elevation (1 Corinthians 12:7). There’s a risk of spiritual abuse, in which someone claims such a hotline to God that even to question their words is to disobey God. Luke, by contrast, positively commended those who checked out Paul’s teaching against the Bible (Acts 17:11).

A city centre church told me about prophecies that they would be the strategic centre for spiritual renewal in Western Europe. Unfortunately I knew that several other leading churches had received similar prophecies, in each case announcing that their church was God’s key mission centre. We can easily confuse our dreams with God’s purposes, expressing our personal or church ambitions, however commendable, as a word from God.

Some churches have developed a habit of promising the earth just around the next corner. It seems strange that lively British churches have been claiming we are on the brink of great things for the past quarter century, while the world continues to hurry ever further away from church. Promising the earth is connected with the assumption that the church is guaranteed success. Don’t get me wrong; I certainly don’t imagine that defeatism is next to godliness. But the New Testament calls us to faithfulness and never guarantees instant success. Paul’s personal dream was fulfilled when he preached in Jerusalem and Rome, even though he was taken prisoner in Jerusalem and was sentenced to death in Rome. Paul’s effectiveness was measured in the advance of the Gospel, not by money in the bank, his name in the headlines, or a mega church in Rome.

We face a risk of vision inflation. When we have been promised glory on earth just around the next corner, some are tempted to block out the disappointment by promising even more glory around the next corner. When we have grown addicted to easy answers and a quick fix, rhetoric becomes more appealing than reality. Like miracle cures in the Wild West, inflated vision has been hawked to the credulous. But hope deferred eventually makes the heart sick. Those who drink deep of vision inflation are likely to find the wine of exaggeration turn to the vinegar of disillusionment. They may sink from enthusiasm to cynicism,from false hope to empty despair. If someone who is known to be obsessive about their hobbyhorses dresses up their strong opinions as prophecy, they need to be warned against confusing their own views with God’s.

We didn ’t experience the revival promised in prophecy, but we had a really good series of meetings.

During the 90s, several church streams made public announcements of imminent revival, often coinciding with the month in which they were running major events. But revival stayed away and the church in Britain welcomed the new century less with a bang than a whimper. One stream was courageous enough to be honest and say: “Sorry, in our enthusiasm we got it wrong.” Others were more inclined to explain away the disappointment —

“It may not have been revival, but we had a really good series of meetings.” There is far more credibility in acknowledging “we got it wrong” than in spin doctoring our mistakes. We best commend the gift of prophecy by being upfront about our failings and learning from them, not by covering them up.

Maybe revival is not a promising topic for prophecy. For a start, ‘revival’ is a word with many different meanings and the Bible never gives us a cut and dried definition. What’s more, many people’s expectations of revival have more to do with fantasy than church history: periods of revival are usually awesome and awful, uniting and divisive, the numerous public commitments to Christ prove genuine and lasting for some but superficial and passing for others. If revival really comes, praise God. But Christian hope is better invested in our secure future with the risen Christ, rather than in the latest promise of revival round the corner.

A self-styled prophet was proclaiming doom upon a church I was visiting. It was clear that she was thoroughly fed up with the church and had decided in God’s name to tear them off a strip. Her God was very keen on breaking bruised reeds. I strongly encouraged the elders to make a public response.

Weighing prophecy is multi-layered. Discernment is a task for each individual, sifting carefully and taking on board only what comes from the Holy Spirit. At the same time, pastoral leaders have a responsibility to protect the church from false prophecy, not least because some people still think that anything said at the front in church is infallible. What’s more, without public correction, visitors who hear a faulty prophecy could easily assume that it represents the actual beliefs of the church. We need to have confidence both in the prophet and in each individual prophecy; even experienced preachers and prophets may have off days when they hear less from God than they imagine.

The place of prophecy

So far we have concentrated on getting the most out of prophecy within the church, but is prophecy today more for the church or the world? One Christian organisation uses the phrase, “prophetic to society, provocative to the church”. I wonder whether that could be the wrong way round. In the Old Testament, the prophetic word of the Lord was given in the context of a common set of beliefs shared by the prophet and the society he addressed.

In our pluralistic and secular society, we are likely to receive one of two responses to a direct prophetic word, neither very receptive. Some may dismiss prophetic terminology as an authoritarian verbal technique to dress up our extreme dogmatism: after all, Islamic fundamentalists speak just as certainly of Allah’s blessing upon their fatwas and jihads. Others may be kinder, but still marginalise the prophecy, saying, “that may be true for you, but it’s not for me.”

I’m not suggesting that public prophecy is out of bounds. But we should certainly not put all our eggs into the prophetic basket. In the Old Testament we find God speaking not only through the direct words of revelation - ‘Thus says the Lord’ - but also through the wisdom tradition ‘This is how life works.’ One reason the Chief Rabbi is widely heard and respected in our secular society is that his wise insights help secular people make better sense of daily life. Even so, we need Christians in the public arena who are persuasive with the wisdom of God. Maybe public communication in the wisdom tradition is more likely to be heard in our kind of society than the words of prophets and preachers, which may come across as authoritarian and strident, intolerant and over-dogmatic.

The Thessalonians abandoned prophecy after getting carried away by bogus promises that failed to deliver. In their over-reaction they went from gullibility to cynicism. Paul urged them to test everything and to hold onto the good. Like them,we need to be careful not to put out the Spirit’s fire. The old saying remains true; the best response to misuse is not disuse but right use. A Ferrari is fabulous to drive, but dangerous in misguided hands. Even so, prophecy is an invaluable means of Christian inspiration, but prophecy without a wise framework of evaluation and discernment is like a sports car with a novice driver at the wheel. To get the most out of prophecy, it has to be handled well. When a healthy framework is in place, prophecy will release much encouragement, love and affirmation into the church. Then we are able to appreciate the ministry of the Comforter, just as Jesus promised.

The Apostle Paul explained that genuine prophecy is able to strengthen, encourage and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3). Why bother with prophecy when mistakes can so easily be made? Quite simply, because the real thing is an exceptional gift of God.