Have you ever noticed that some people seem to be wired up to question everything? They’re always seeing what’s wrong, what’s unjust, what could be improved. They care about whether we’re living out the right values or not.
They tend to ask questions that upset the status quo and bring us back to our most fundamental values. These are people the Bible calls prophets, and they’re great! But they can also be terribly annoying and completely unproductive, especially if they’re immature in their gifting.
It’s important for us as leaders to be able to recognize the immature prophets among us, and disciple them to maturity so they can fulfill their ministry in the Body of Christ.
But discipling a prophet is a lot different than discipling someone gifted in another way, so let’s talk about the unique challenges and opportunities of discipling immature prophets.
This article is part of a series on discipleship and APEST, and it’s adapted from an article I originally published for the V3 Movement. Here are the links to other articles in this series:
- How To Disciple an Immature Apostle
- How To Disciple an Immature Evangelist
- How To Disciple an Immature Shepherd
- How to Disciple an Immature Teacher
Five gifts for the church
The way I’m using the word “prophet” comes from the Apostle Paul. They’re mentioned in Ephesians 4:11-13, where he is laying out five different gifts that God gives his church. These gifts are actually people that God has gifted and then given to the church to build it up and bring it to maturity and unity.
(This is sometimes called APEST – Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds, Teachers. If you’ve never heard of this, check out Alan Hirsch’s brief descriptions, or JR Woodward’s video introduction.)
Paul’s assumption is that the church needs to grow into the fullness of her identity in Christ, and that these five gifts are crucial to that happening.
In other words, we need prophets in our churches if we’re going to grow into maturity. The problem is that mature prophets don’t grow on trees. Prophets normally come to our churches immature, in need of encouragement and shaping. How can we do this faithfully and effectively?
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, “prophets” can be a bit of a polarizing term. It’s easy to think of Old Testament prophets with their fantastic visions and strange behavior. We can also imagine Nostradamus-like figures, predicting obscure happenings in a far-flung future.
But a better way to think of prophets is that they are simply people who are in touch with God’s values and care a lot about whether people and organizations are living those out or not.
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 from “true north” in these areas.
- They are able to stand back from circumstances and get a clear picture of what’s really going on underneath the surface.
- 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 (still feels weird to say that). This is how I’ve operated in almost every team I’ve ever been part of. I ask 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 make others feel inadequate and discouraged. I have trouble continuing to move and act on my convictions because I strive for perfection in everything. 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.”
- Because they think they are the ones who really “get it,” they can form elite cliques in churches that destroy unity.
- They jump from church to church because they keep finding problems 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 can’t hold their tongues.
- They have a hard time accepting people right where they’re at.
- They tend 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 notice these characteristics in yourself?
One temptation we encounter with immature prophets is to use them for their ability to think strategically and their willingness 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.”
But frankly, the easiest temptation is to simply reject an immature prophet, because they can be some of the most annoying people you’ll ever meet. It’s really easy to wish that immature prophets would just go away. I know leaders who have 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 loving or wise to use them or reject them. Instead, we learn to disciple them. How do we disciple immature prophets when we find them in our churches?
How to disciple an immature prophet
In some ways, what prophets need to grow in discipleship is the same thing that everyone needs: an abundance of both grace and truth (this is one of the main competencies we train for in our coaching).
We calibrate grace in discipleship by offering connection and compassion in an authentic relationship. We calibrate truth in discipleship by holding reality in front of others non-anxiously.
This calibration looks different for a prophet than it does for an evangelist or apostle. The grace and truth they need takes on a certain shape. So what does grace and truth look like for prophets?
Offering grace to an immature prophet
Here are a few things I’ve learned about offering grace to an immature prophet:
- Prophets need space in their schedule for prayer and connection with God. Affirm this and help them make space for it.
- Similarly, prophets need permission to rest and retreat. They tend to be “creatives” who need times of rest for their ideas to grow up.
- Prophets need to know their gift is important – affirm them and what they’re seeing. The rejection they often receive because of their harshness is very painful, even if they don’t realize it.
- Prophets need an atmosphere of permission to get it wrong. They need to know they won’t be rejected if they share something immaturely or if they’re wrong about something they were sure about.
- 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, rather than a “thus saith the Lord” approach.
- Prophets need to know they are valued apart from their gifting. That they don’t need to “have a word from God” or know what to do to be valued in community.
Offering truth to an immature prophet
Here are a few notes on offering 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). The prophet can never be the sole interpreter of her message.
- 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” that sets people free, instead of mere “fact truth” which can often bind people in fear and shame.
- Prophets need to remember that they need the whole body of Christ, that God is not just a “voice,” that the other gifts really matter.
Apostles and prophets together
It’s worth noting that the apostle and prophet gifts seem to work together well to establish and build new works. There seems to be something powerful about the apostle-prophet partnership that helps new things start.
- 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 every single day, probably, but you need them.
If you’re a prophet, pray for an apostle to join you! It will be hard to deal with their relentless push for movement, but it will be a good kick in the pants for you.
FREE webinar replay with Alan Hirsch
We hosted a FREE webinar with Alan Hirsch called Why Every Church Needs To Activate APEST… ASAP! Alan has been writing about the importance of fivefold ministry for awhile now, and has some important perspective on how activating APEST can revitalize mission and discipleship in your church.
Fill out the form below to sign up for this FREE webinar replay:
Questions for reflection and discussion
Do you know an immature prophet? Reflect on your experience with them.
- What did you find frustrating? What was invigorating?
- What have you done well? What mistakes have you made?
- After reading this article, what is your next step in discipling this person?
Have you ever intentionally discipled a prophet?
- What have you learned in this process?
- If you are a prophet, what has been most helpful in your growth?
Leave a comment below to join the conversation!
I’m thinking antagonists in the church may be prophets. I had one particular antagonist who was always seeing what could go wrong. This person would be sure his opinion was correct and everyone else was an idiot if they didn’t see things his way. This person would be in a different category than immature prophet. Immature prophet assumes a person trying to follow Christ. So, use one of your famous grids to categorize an immature prophet who is a Christian in name only. The person who joins the Vestry because they have concerns about the church that need to be addressed. They have little to no grace and truth unfiltered from Christ centered decency or ethics.
This perspective helps me have grace and compassion on that person. And I would try building them up as having value that needs refining. Maybe if I tell them their potential they may be more open to correction. Good food for thought.
Ben Sternke says
Yes, Chris. There’s a need for the immature prophet to be WILLING to be discipled, of course. As you offer grace and truth, you always watch the response… this will indicate someone’s readiness to receive input and be part of the community. Their willingness to both give and receive is key.
Patricia Nguyen says
Reading this makes me think that I’m an immature prophet myself
Ben Sternke says
Could be! As I wrote it, I definitely realized there were aspects of my ministry that looked like an immature prophet, too 🙂