I’m not a big fan of devotional books. I’m talking about the ones that have a verse for each day along with a short paragraph relating to the verse, followed by a short prayer at the end. I’m not suggesting that no one should read them but they aren’t my choice of devotional material. I love to read books in my devotional time each day that challenge me and make me think.
One of my favorite authors is A.W. Tozer. He was a Christian and Missionary Alliance Pastor during the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in Newburg, Pennsylvania in 1897. After several pastorates he came to Southside Alliance Church in Chicago in 1928 and remained there until November 1959.
He then moved to Avenue Road Alliance Church (now Bayview Glen Alliance) in Toronto where he remained until his death on May 12, 1963.
My aunt who was a member of his church in Toronto likes to tell the story of him bringing candy for the children who would come up to him after a service to receive their treats.
Tozer was a mystic who spoke a prophetic word into the church of his time. Even though he wrote and preached more than a half century ago, he still has much to speak into our lives and the lives of our churches today. I love to read him because it is a rare instance when I read Tozer and am not challenged.
This week I was reading Tozer when I received something of a shock. I was used to being challenged in my own life when I read him but I didn’t expect him to speak so powerfully into the present day church scene as he does in the quote that follows.
Prophetic words from the past
Here is the quote. It comes out of an essay entitled The Prayer of a Minor Prophet.
“Lord Jesus, I come to Thee for spiritual preparation. Lay Thy hand upon me. Anoint me with the oil of the New Testament prophet. Forbid that I should become a religious scribe and thus lose my prophetic calling. Save me from the curse of compromise, of imitation, of professionalism. Save me from the error of judging a church by its size, its popularity or the amount of its yearly offering. Help me to remember that I am a prophet – not a promoter, not a religious manager, but a prophet. Let me never become a slave to crowds. Heal my soul of carnal ambitions and deliver me from the itch for publicity. Save me from bondage to things.”
Some things never change. It sounds as if there was the same lack of appreciation for the value of the small church in Tozer’s day as there is today. He spoke out against a mindset that judged a church “by its size, its popularity or the amount of its yearly offering.”
Church leaders still need to pray that prayer today because the danger is as real now as it was then. It is so easy to become fixated on numbers when we judge our church by its size.
The role of a prophet
Prophets aren’t always popular. If pastors are going to be prophetic in their ministry they will need to preach sermons that members might not like to hear. They will need to speak on issues that will challenge the comfort level of people in their churches.
Old Testament prophets were interesting people. They often did things that would probably get them kicked out of most of our churches. If a pastor married a prostitute (Hosea), he would probably not last long in his church. If a pastor lay on his side doing nothing for more than a year (Ezekiel), he might have to answer to the board for his inaction.
Prophets had a definite role to play in Jewish life. They were G0d’s spokespersons. They were commissioned by God into the work that they were doing. They conveyed God’s message in a variety of different ways. They were part of God’s plan for his people.
What they weren’t though in most cases was popular. In fact many times the work that they did made them very unpopular. The author of Hebrews describes the lot of many of the prophets.
“Others were tortured and released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging while still others were chained and in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wondered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground.” (Hebrews 12:35b-38)
I’m not suggesting that the mark of faithfulness today should be persecution and death but a prophetic voice does not always produce popularity.
Prophet or promoter
Tozer suggests that every person, called by God into leadership, has a choice to make. Is she going to be a prophet or a promoter? Too great an emphasis on numerical growth runs the risk of turning a leader into a promoter. A strong emphasis on fulfilling the Great Commission and making disciples means that to some degree the leader must be a prophet.
I would encourage you to read all of Tozer’s prayer at the link above and let a voice from the past help shape your present ministry. Tozer challenged people in his own day and we still need to hear his challenge today.
Prophet or promoter?
As leaders in small churches we constantly need to ask ourselves that question because there is a whole culture out there that is telling us that numbers measure the worth of our churches. The temptation is to do whatever it takes to achieve the numbers because that is what people are looking for.
God never calls anyone to be a promoter. He doesn’t call us to be a religious managers.
He does, however, call us to be his instrument in producing transforming change in the lives of those people – few or many – that he has entrusted to our care. That is the work of a prophet.