immature prophet v3 2016

How to Spot an Immature Prophet and What To Do About It

This is the second in a series of articles on recognizing immaturity in fivefold ministry and what to do about it. If you have no idea what fivefold ministry is, check out Alan Hirsch’s brief descriptions here, or JR Woodward’s video introduction here.
Missional church planting isn’t easy. You’re trying to grow something from the ground up in a healthy way, but the vagaries of people’s schedules and commitments makes it difficult to gain momentum and critical mass.
That’s why it’s so tempting to release gifted people into leadership too soon. If a competent leader comes along, it’s easy to just let them “go for it” without really evaluating their character.
Unless we also have a way of evaluating how mature these gifted people are, we are asking for trouble. Why? Because putting people into positions of leadership before their character can bear it is a recipe for disaster.
[Tweet “Putting people in positions of leadership b4 their character can bear it is a recipe for disaster.”] One of the most devastating mistakes we can make as church planters is to assume that giftedness is the same thing as maturity.
So how can we avoid this scenario? How can we be more discerning about the people we release into leadership?
This is the second article in a series on recognizing immaturity through the lens of fivefold gifting (sometimes called APEST – Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds, Teachers).
I talked about apostles last time. Today it’s the prophet’s turn!
How can we recognize an unhealthy prophet? And what should we do about it if we spot one in our church?

You Might Be a Prophet If…

Before we talk about immature prophets, let’s talk about prophets in general. How are they Christ’s gift to the church?
First of all, please don’t think that APEST prophets are the same things as “Old Testament Prophets.” They don’t really “predict the future” like we typically think. A better way to think of prophets is that they are people who are in touch with God’s values and speak those things into other people and organizations.
You need some of these people in your church! Here are some signs of prophets in general:

  • They often enjoy spending time alone with God and sense his heart clearly.
  • They care deeply about values and integrity, and often sense before anyone else when an organization is drifting.
  • They are able to stand back from circumstances and get a clear picture of what’s really going on.
  • This clarity oftentimes enables them to come up with creative and innovative solutions that others don’t see.
  • They are outside the box thinkers, and tend to disrupt the status quo.
  • They are future-oriented, and tend to see opportunities and dangers before everyone else.

I know this gift well because I am a prophet (always feels weird to say that). This is always how I’ve operated in every team I’ve ever been part of. I ask pesky questions that can disrupt the status quo, because I want things to be better and more aligned with (what I see as) God’s values.

Signs of an Immature Prophet

But prophets need to grow from immaturity to maturity, just like all of us. Their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.
In my relentless drive for better, I can oftentimes make others feel inadequate and discouraged. I have trouble continuing to move because I strive for perfection. People have told me they feel like they can never “measure up” with me, and that it’s hard to disagree with me.
Here are some signs of an immature prophet:

  • They talk about their perspective as though it was simply “the truth.”
  • They jump from church to church because they keep finding issues in each.
  • They become frustrated when their ideas aren’t accepted and implemented immediately.
  • They have to point out every inconsistency or problem they see.
  • They have a hard time loving people “where they’re at.”
  • They want to live in their heads, because their idealism is cleaner than the real-world messiness of ministry.
  • They tend to isolate themselves or only associate with those who think like them.

Does that remind you of anyone? Maybe you’ve got an immature prophet in your church plant. Maybe you notice these characteristics in yourself? Read on for what to do with the immature prophets in your life (even if it’s you!).

Two Things NOT To Do with an Immature Prophet

Before I talk about what to do with an immature prophet, I want to outline two temptations every church planter will feel when they encounter an immature prophet: the temptation to use them, and the temptation to reject them.

1. Use Them

One of the strengths of prophets is that they have a lot of vision, they tend to think strategically, and they’re willing to work hard. Immature prophets create a culture where people are trying to do the right thing, and it can be tempting to ignore their immaturity in order to keep everyone “motivated.”
This is such a bad idea. In using an immature prophet to keep everyone “in line” you are creating an atmosphere of moralism and fear. And that doesn’t bring anyone to maturity in Christ.
[Tweet “If you submit to the temptation to use people, you’ll never be able to bring anyone to maturity.”]

2. Reject Them

The second temptation is to simply reject the immature prophet.
Let’s be honest: this is really easy because immature prophets can be some of the most annoying people you’ll ever meet!
It’s really easy to wish that immature prophets would just leave. I know church planters who have literally prayed for God to “move them on” because the criticism just would not stop!
But while some immature prophets will leave your church of their own accord (because you’re doing it wrong), it’s not wise or loving to simply reject them.

What To Do with an Immature Prophet

But our job as equippers in the church is not to “get things done” or avoid conflict and messiness. Our job is to bring the church to unity and maturity, “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
So if we don’t use them or reject them, what do we do if we find we have an immature prophet in our church?
We disciple them.
We bring them to maturity so they can become the gift to the church they’re called to be.
After all, this is what Jesus did with the ragtag bunch of immature apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers that were his disciples.

How To Disciple an Immature Prophet

So how do we disciple an immature prophet? In some ways, we disciple them like we disciple everyone else: we love them by offering them an abundance of grace and truth.
But discipleship looks different for an prophet than it does for a shepherd or apostle. The grace and truth they need takes on a certain shape.
So what does grace and truth look like for prophets?

Grace for a Prophet

Here are a few notes on bringing grace to a prophet:

  • Prophets need space in their schedule for prayer and connection with God.
  • Prophets need permission to rest and retreat.
  • Prophets need to know their gift is important – affirm them and what they’re seeing.
  • Prophets need an atmosphere of permission to get it wrong. They need to know they won’t be rejected if they share something immaturely.
  • Prophets need “safe spaces” to experiment. Create a playful, no-pressure environment.
  • Prophets need language that helps them qualify their revelations as something God “might” be saying.
  • Prophets need to know they are valued apart from their gifting. That they don’t need to “have a word from God” to be valued in community.

Truth for a Prophet

Here are a few notes on bringing truth to an immature prophet:

  • Prophets need to learn empathy and patience with those they disagree with. Challenge them to take the long view when it comes to discipleship.
  • Prophets need to submit their ideas and revelations to the community for interpretation (1 Cor 14:26).
  • Prophets will need training to help them deliver their ideas with humility and grace. Instead of “Thus saith the Lord!” try “I could be wrong, but what I sense God might be saying is..”
  • Prophets need to be reminded that they don’t have the whole picture. The interpretation and application of their revelation is for the whole community to discern.
  • Prophets need to learn to speak Jesus truth, which sets people free, instead of “facts” which can often bind people in fear.
  • Prophets need to be remember that they need the whole body of Christ, that God is not just a “voice.”

Apostles and Prophets Together

It’s worth noting that the strongest church plants and start-up organizations seem to have both apostolic and prophetic energy at the core. We need all the gifts, of course, but there seems to be something powerful about the apostle-prophet partnership that helps new things start.
When apostles and prophets can work together and honor one another, it provides an incredible secure foundation for a church plant to build upon.
Apostles without prophets tend to be all frenetic and aimless energy that eventually drifts from the core vision. Prophets help to keep apostles on the “straight and narrow” with their inconvenient questions about why we’re veering from the vision.
Prophets without apostles tend to be endlessly tweaking their ideas until they’re perfect, but there is a lack of movement. Apostles help prophets “get moving,” and decide when things are “good enough,” so we can launch something that will bless others.
If you’re an apostle, pray for a prophet to join you! They’ll rub you the wrong way daily, but you need them. If you’re a prophet, pray for an apostle to join you! It will be hard to deal with their need for movement, but it will be a good kick in the pants for you!

Questions for Discussion

How about you? Have you had experiences with immature prophets? What have you learned about discipling prophets? If you are an prophet, what has been most helpful in your growth?
Hear Ben at Praxis 2016. It’s not too early to sign up!

About the Author

Ben Sternke

Ben Sternke is an Anglican priest, church planter at The Table, leadership coach/consultant with Gravity Leadership, and also helps churches and nonprofits hone their messaging and cultivate their online presence with Lifesize Digital. He lives in the Indianapolis area with his wife Deb, their four kids, and a little dog named Edith.

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