n 1992, while serving as assistant pastor of an Assemblies of God church in England, I sensed God was calling me to return to Ireland to plant the first-ever Pentecostal church in Drogheda.
A terrorist gang headquartered in Drogheda, led by a notorious murderer called “Mad Dog” McGlinchey, had been strongly implicated in a gun attack that killed three elders during a Pentecostal worship service in another city. Now God was calling me to plant a similar church on their doorstep. This was not a time for saying, “I think God might be saying. . . .” I needed to know definitely what God was saying!
During this time, our church in England hosted a visiting preacher─an Australian named Brian Houston, who was not well known then. This was before “Shout to the Lord” had been written and before Hills Christian Life Centre became Hillsong Church. During his sermon Brian called me out of the congregation and, without even knowing I was Irish, began prophesying that God was calling me back to my homeland. The prophecy said God would pour the Holy Spirit out on me as He had done with Saint Patrick centuries earlier.
That prophecy, combined with other events and confirming prophetic words, gave me a certainty as to my hope and calling. It has sustained me and enabled us to build a historic multicultural ministry in Drogheda. We have encountered much opposition, including death threats and a crippling financial recession that more than halved our church’s income, but quitting was never an option. Why? Because we had a word to stand on.
I believe this is why Scripture tells us to “especially” desire the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1 NASB). Jesus does not want His church to do business as usual. He wants us to take outrageous steps of faith which are so bold, so pioneering, that we will require supernatural words of confirmation from the Holy Spirit.
Of course, for prophecy to function in this way, we need to be able to distinguish the true from the false and the flaky. Many Christians, and even some pastors, have become cynical after being burned by false prophecies. Many of us have heard people “prophesy” because they think they’ll stand a better chance of getting what they want if they preface their opinion with the words, “Thus saith the Lord. . . .”
I once witnessed a young man declaring over a young lady (whom he just happened to have developed a crush on) that it was the Lord’s will for them to get married. I am happy to report the young lady had the good sense to say, “No, thank you. I’ll wait until the Lord reveals that to me Himself.”
I have heard believers deliver “prophecies” which mirrored their own pet peeves or hobby horses, or which reflected their strongly held political viewpoints. I have also encountered church leaders who tried to use prophecy as a tool to advance their personal agenda, or as a manipulation to try to stop someone from moving to another church. (“Thus saith the Lord, ‘If you leave the place of My appointing, then I will never use you again for My glory.’”)
Some years ago I had to interrupt and rebuke a sister midway through a pretended “prophecy” in which she was airing her dissatisfaction with the church. She began by saying, “Thus saith the Lord, I am not here!”
I responded by asking, “So if He’s not here, then who do you think it is speaking through you?” Things went rapidly downhill from that point!
The Bible tells us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1 NASB). What does this testing look like in a local church?
In our congregation’s worship services, anyone wanting to bring a word of prophecy will first speak to one of the pastoral team. If we know the person, and they have a track record of delivering genuine words from God, then in all likelihood they will be encouraged to go to the microphone. However, there are times when the pastor will respond by saying, “Tell me what it is that you think the Lord wants to say to us.” Then, depending on whether the pastor agrees that the word is from God, permission to go to the microphone is granted or denied.
Sometimes a word is just plain wrong or unscriptural. At other times it may indeed be from God but needs to be shared in another setting. Sometimes we have to say, “Yes, we agree that God has given you this word, but perhaps it is just for you and doesn’t need to be shared publicly with everyone else.” It is vital that those with a responsibility to protect the flock do so with sensitivity, courage, and integrity.
In my experience, prophecy operates most powerfully when it is confirming something God has already made someone aware of through other means, rather than a totally new idea coming like a bolt from the blue. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (2 Cor. 13:1 NIV).
When I prophesy to people, I often know I’m hitting the mark when I see their eyes widening in surprise as I repeat the very words that they themselves had used with someone in a private conversation, or a phrase that had pierced their hearts in a sermon from another preacher.
Often the one doing the prophesying doesn’t know the import of what they are saying. I remember one incident in particular. I was preaching to a congregation in England about Jacob and Esau, describing how Esau took the short-sighted view when he sold his birthright. For some reason I felt strongly impressed to go over to where the church’s pastor was sitting, and to say, “God wants you to take the long view.”
Then, as I walked away from him, the Spirit prompted me to turn back and directly address the pastor twice more, each time saying, “Are you listening, Pastor Dave? God wants you to take the long view.”
It was only after the service ended that I learned the story. That pastor had been offered the leadership of a church thousands of miles away─in Longview, Texas. He wanted to make sure it was God’s will to accept the invitation, and he had been fasting and praying for God to give him a direct confirmation.
Prophecy is a vital gift to the church that we dare not neglect. We need to use spiritual discernment and sanctified common sense to avoid abuse of the gift, but such precautions should never dim the sense of awe and wonder that accompanies the delivery of a genuine word from the Lord.