The church and world need prophetic and provocative voices. We need them greatly. But, here are eight concerns I have about many of the modern Christian self-styled “prophetic” and provocative types:
1. A failure to see that being conflictual, divisive, and oppositional isn’t necessarily prophetic. Such behaviour may merely reflect (or fuel) the conflicts of an antagonistic age. Similarly, the goal seems to be provocation and getting personal attention through shocking, provocative, polarising words for many of these people. True prophecy isn’t only about naming collective injustice and sin (it is that, but it is more). True prophecy is a message of compassion, hope, renewal, and a positive (eschatological) vision of shalom and the age to come. True prophets speak boldly about injustice and sin, but they also lament their complicity and failings, paint a picture of a better world, and, like Jesus, suffer in the hope of creating a better life for all people and creation. That’s a different spirit than being polarising for the sake of shock and personal exposure and attention.
2. A failure to see peacemaking and bridgebuilding as prophetic acts. Alternatively, talking about peacemaking but not pursuing it in practice.
3. A failure to critique the people and systems directly paying their bills. (These people often show enthusiasm for critiquing people and systems outside their “in-group” but a failure of nerve to engage in examinations that may cost them their livelihood).
4. A failure to perceive how their narcissism and ego feed their words and actions. (For instance, putting themselves centre-stage in every critique to highlight their own “virtue” and commitment to “justice”).
5. A failure to lament and mourn – as a recognition of their complicity in the failings and shortcomings of others. (In fact, many of these types seem to relish others’ failings).
6. A failure to build a constructive movement. Deconstruction and critique are easy. Building something constructive that will last is much more challenging.
7. A failure to understand that it takes little courage to be bold, outspoken, and antagonistic on social media. (As we’ve seen recently in the Ukraine, true courage is usually found offline and often comes at a high personal price).
8. A failure to take feedback well. (These types love to confront others and name their failings but are very sensitive when challenged themselves).
You may think I’m too hard. But the alternative to the eight traits mentioned above is to be a prophetic and provocative voice while:
(1) Avoid merely reflecting or fueling existing divisions and antagonisms.
(2) See peacemaking and bridgebuilding as prophetic, and act on that conviction.
(3) Begin speaking up about issues close to home and among your in-group.
(4) Be humble and don’t put yourself centre stage.
(5) Lament and mourn and own your failings and complicity.
(6) Build something constructive (don’t default to the easier deconstruction work).
(7) Turn off social media often and do something courageous in action that will cost you personally. Don’t just speak about poverty, exploitation, or injustice. Get your hands dirty and learn from those already serving in these contexts in the field.
(8) Take feedback well. (Accept feedback with humility, generosity, and grace).
In summary, choose not to be a pain in the posterior.
A common defence among these types and their followers is that they are merely standing in the tradition of the prophets. But I don’t buy it. The differences between them and the biblical prophets are found in points 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7. The biblical prophets were counter-cultural; social media provokers reflect the antagonisms of this age. The biblical prophets spoke up about issues close to home and paid the price; social media provokers rarely confront people and systems that directly pay their bills. The biblical prophets did not usually put themselves centre-stage, preferring to put the LORD God centre-stage; social media provokers always seem to have a way of putting themselves in the spotlight. The biblical prophets lamented and mourned and owned their complicity in national and collective sin and failure; social media provokers are often gleeful at the demise and public exposure of others and rarely admit that they have been complicit in systems that caused or contributed to these failures. The biblical prophets often got their hands dirty and paid the price; social media provokers throw stones and accusations from keyboards. There are critical differences between the biblical prophets and self-styled online Christian “prophets” and provocateurs.
Endnote! Please note a few key things:
1. I firmly believe that we need prophetic voices to challenge the status quo. But the eight traits I’ve mentioned diminish and pollute those voices.
2. Not all self-styled prophetic types have all these features.
3. I do not have any particular individual in mind. This post is merely a critique of the modern and increasingly common type.
4. I am not advocating for minoritized or marginalized groups’ silencing. The people I have in mind are usually middle-aged, privileged, white people.
5. Please feel free to critique this post. As I say, anyone who speaks up should be willing to take feedback.