I have been giving thought recently to what it might look like in a school were God to be released, by the agency of his Holy Spirit, and the obedience of his disciples, to speak prophetically and pastorally into the community of learners that we comprise.
One of the expectations of the New Testament (and the Old, for that matter) is that God chooses to speak, in many and various ways, to and through his people, through his Spirit acting upon the hearts and minds of those who follow him and who are attentive to his ways. Often I have longed for God to speak into situations at Christ the Sower – to guide and to reveal the heart of problems so we could take action. The New Testament has this as a basic expectation, despite what many in the west have been conditioned to believe about God. The idea that God is sitting on the sidelines where the Enlightenment put him, waiting out the game, is as bizarre as it is insulting.
So, how might God speak to us? Of course, the writer to Hebrews has told us that “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son” (Heb 1:1 NLT). We would expect therefore that God’s main word to us would be through the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, as he intended, but that is mediated mostly to us, as is all we do as disciples of Christ, through relationship. And it is into that relationship that God longs to speak, to equip us with the authority and insight with which to heal, fix, mend and teach a largely dysfunctional education system. Why would he do this? Because Jesus came so that we might have abundant life, and those who are disciples, living in his inaugurated kingdom ahead of his glorious return, will want to see a level of human flourishing that includes a godly and upright system for the education of the young.
There is much debate, of course, about the nature of prophetic ministry in the church. Some see it, at one extreme, as the church speaking into the world and challenging it to live rightly and do rightly with respect to the poor and marginalised, the weak and disturbed. This is good, and must be done, but often it is done without the power of the Holy Spirit, or even without any awareness that the Holy Spirit might motivate and transform the situations we are speaking into.
Others view it as a part of the “charismata” – the gifts of the Holy Spirit given for the building up of the church. These are often highly transformational within individual lives and in church practice, but are frequently regarded as being applicable within the confines of the church only. The idea that God might want to bring a word through the prophetic gifting to reform a local council, school, business, multi-national, prison or hospital seems as though God is operating out of his territory. We fall prey to Epicurean enlightenment thinking again, and forget that when God was shown a red card at the end of the 19th century, he resolutely refused to leave the pitch. His is a life intimately involved with humans – with us, for us ahead of us, as Rob Bell has argued in his book What We Talk ABout When We Talk About God.
Jesus of course, exercised his prophetic ministry in both ways. He challenged the power of the Pharisees, the Romans, and the teachers of the law in different ways and with different consequences (mostly bad for him) but he also acted as a conduit and servant for the word of God to come from his Father to his disciples – as the Father sent him, so he was sending the disciples. He functioned in a supernatural way, knowing only that which his Father could have told him, such as in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4.
So, in the light of this, we must conclude that God is both able and willing – longing, in fact – to speak into the lives, teaching, plans and purposes of school. And a school that allows this will be blessed, because it has submitted iteself to the possibility that God might speak. It will also be challenged and possibly unsettled, because God’s word to his people is rarely comfortable, though always ultimately for our comfort.
A friend of mine speaks of the prophetic as God “speaking from eternity into the moment”. I think that this is helpful, because it frees us from generating “principles” and “ways God speaks” and forces us to listen for each other and to each other and to God, and reminds us that God rarely shows himself the same way twice and is never as predictable as we would like to make him. When we get him into a box and are satisfied that prophecy is just for nice words from the front of a church, he blasts us with a view from the 8th century prophets and alarms us with his commitment to the poor. When we bang on about confronting the powers, he gently puts his finger on something painful in our life with the promise to heal it if we let him.
So what might the prophetic ministry of the body of Christ look like in school? Here are some start points for individuals:
- The conscious asking of, and listening to, the Holy Spirit for the compassionate word for each other, expecting to hear God on behalf of those who need it, who might need the comfort of a scripture, a picture from the Holy Spirit or a word of knowledge about a circumstance in their lives. This hearing from God for each other is a natural part of the functioning Christian community, but often it can guide our prayers and dealings with those who are not yet part of the Christian community within a school. For those who have never encountered Jesus, the fact that a God, who they do not yet know or even understand exists, would speak to somebody about their need can be startling but deeply reassuring and comforting. It has brought many to faith and to a realisation of our need for him.
- The humble willingness to challenge fellow Christians about aspects of their character which are not in line with God’s truth is a valuable way of releasing God’s love and authority into one another’s lives. As a leader, I try hard to be open to this from those around me, and to allow my leadership team to challenge where I have made mistakes or where the all-too-human unreformed aspects of my character get in the way of the godliness I desire to pursue. Again, I would hope that this “iron sharpening iron” would be standard practice in churches, but it rarely is.
- We may be challenged by God through our devotional life or a prophetic revelation, to speak to those who lead us, to challenge ungodly laws or regulations that afflict the community we serve. This is very hard, and must be done with kindness and appreciation for the burden of leadership, but “speaking truth to power” is a key aspect of our prophetic calling.
- If we are leaders, we need to submit our leading to God, and find ways of placing ourselves under authority so that we make space for God to speak to us through the considered understanding of others. Whilst this may not be as “supernaturally” prophetic as the insights required above, there is good biblical precedent for taking advice from those who care for us. This is a critical aspect of mutual submission, and has many different means of being represented.
For groups of Christians within a school, or for schools as church schools, or for the church school community as a whole, there are other aspects of the prophetic ministry we should explore and question:
- The making of prophetic statements is frequently a function of relationship. If we are seeking to urge one another on to love and good deeds, to form a community of affection and belonging to one another, this will have a prophetic impact on those who are disaffected or are just here to “do their job”. We model, prophetically, some aspects of what God’s beloved community ought to look like. This had a huge impact in the early church.
- Extending this, we can seek to establish relationships of affection across our schools, whether people regard themselves as being in the Christian community or not, so as to model a better way of inclusion and acceptance. This is a powerful witness to those heads and managers who insist on a business model for schools.
- Challenging authority to respect and live under God’s expectations of the treatment of the poor and marginalised, to exercise forgiveness and restoration, to respect children and to allow them access to Jesus Christ’s teachings (“let the little children come to me” is a highly political statement, by the way).
- Esteeming the things that God values – marriage, births, new life of all sorts, diversity of experience and background, animals and nature, play, rejoicing, singing and art, agriculture and hard work, imagination and generosity, craftsmanship and community life: all of these things help make a strong prophetic statement to those who we live and work among and around that there is a God who sees education as a whole lot more than just English and maths.
- Prayerful and clearly God-directed use of our funding. This is an area that many governing bodies have given no consideration to, but I know that ours has a very strong and clear understanding that we use the money we have to bless the poor and underprivileged first. Time and again I have been grateful for their commitment to supporting the poor and being supportive of our initiatives towards equality and equity. Is there a prophetic way of spending Pupil Premium? This is money which the government has released to support the least well off. Is there a godly way of spending this? And have we asked him?
- If we can get this last aspect right in our schools, then as public bodies, part of a greater polity, we can legitimately challenge government (local and national) to change and to redirect their efforts to that which God wants established. This is where Tom Wright finds his strongest arguments in the essay in Surprised by Scripture entitled “Our Politics are too Small”.
None of this seems like rocket science to me, but I am aware that the narrative behind it will be strange to some Christians on the evangelical wing and liberal wings of the church. The challenge to all of us, I suppose, is to create the space, reflective and attentive, so that God might speak.
In the BBC “reality show” The Big Silence, from Worth Abbey, one volunteer revealed how that even though he didn’t expect God to speak or even to be there, by the end of a day, God had spoken to him. This is exactly what we should expect if we create space for God to do so. God prophetically spoke to Jean Potter at Loyola Hall in the late nineties to start this school, and we must never forget that if God’s word to a frail human was enough to start his work here, he is committed to its completion, and will have something to say about how we go about that.