I heard an interesting quotation from Pastor Mike Bickle, to the effect that over forty years of charismatic ministry he considered that 80% of the prophecies and miracles he’d witnessed were false, but that 20% were genuinely from the Lord. Let’s look at that idea, which roughly matches my own, more limited, experience… or to be brutally honest, is a lot more optimistic than my experience.
Bickle was the founder/pastor of the Kansas City Fellowship (as far as I know despite a lack of theological training), in which arose the international phenomenon of the Kansas City Prophets in the 1990s, which intersected with John Wimber’s Vineyard movement (“signs and wonders”), the “Toronto Blessing” that sprang from that, and a plethora of other increasingly bizarre “revivals” thereafter. The Kansas City prophets became discredited by the sexual abuse perpetrated by its leading member, Bob Jones, and the later revelation of Paul Cain’s alcoholism and concealed homosexual practice during his ministry. And, incidentally, by the failure of all their major prophecies, which was kind of the whole point.
In other words, Bickle’s percentages come not from the first tentative steps of an Evangelical fellowship experimenting with the gifts of the Spirit, but from the very heart of a charismatic movement that had been in full-flow for a generation.
Or far more than a generation, if you consider that the “charismatic renewal” was only the spread to other denominations of a pentecostal theology that had been popular in working-class circles in America and Britain for a century or more.
It happens that I was “on the scene” quite close to the start of the renewal in Britain, being drawn into the nascent “Jesus Movement” through my music evangelism, around 1971. My home town, Guildford, had a Baptist Church led by the (now recently deceased) David Pawson, whose young people were enthusiastically embracing prophecy, tongues and whatever other blessing they could lay hands on, or have hands laid on for.
It was, indeed, a lively church (though it later split, like so many churches, over the business of prophecy), but even at my first exposure, I saw problems, though I glossed over them. I was invited to play at an open-air concert with the likes of Graham Kendrick, and Ishmael and Andy (Ishmael becoming noted for children’s work, and Andy for his role in the chart-band After the Fire and later as worship leader at Holy Trinity Brompton, my old London church and home of the Alpha Course).
Several prophecies by both “acknowledged” leaders of the youth and Spirit-filled newbies agreed that 1,000 people would be converted at this event. Instead it was actually almost rained off, only a few hundred folks came, and to quote organizer John Russell (also later in After the Fire and a good mate), only a dozen were converted. Assuming those decisions lasted, that was a good result – but very far short of what the Holy Spirit had, supposedly, promised.
What intrigued me as an outsider were the explanations offered at de-briefing. One was that 1,000 conversions would come from the dozen actually saved, which might be true but wasn’t what had been prophesied, except in the most Delphic sense. The prevailing one was that “We were over-confident.” That, as I saw even at the time, was complete self-contradiction: the point of the prophecy was to increase faith (aka “confidence”). The best way for the Lord to avert over-confidence, therefore, would have been to avoid raising hopes through a prophetic word in the first place.
The one explanation that was not mooted was the most obvious one: that the prophecies were false, and not from God, and consequently that there was something wrong with the theological model in use. False prophecy is a very serious error in both Testaments, but not in charismatic circles, where it’s fine 80% of the time or more.
At the time all of us were, we thought, feeling our way in a ministry of the Spirit suppressed in the Church for centuries. It was all new ground, so it was not surprising if people got prophecies wrong, didn’t know when they could heal with authority, or even (as I well-remember from Fountain Trust meetings) had to glance round the room to see when they should “spontaneously” raise their hands in the air like the seasoned worshippers.
But the Kansas City Prophets were operating 20 years later than this, and we’re now over half a century – two whole generations – into “operating in spiritual gifts.” In any other field, an 80% failure rate would constitute an abysmal record. Imagine that your doctor misdiagnosed or mistreated you 80% of the time: would you ever consult him again? Or consider the press – the Soviet Pravda (“Truth”) is paradigmatic of the newspaper peddling lying propaganada – but I’ll wager that even Pravda told the truth more than 20% of the time.
Or look at it this way: if as a matter of sheer habit, whenever someone gave a “word of knowledge,” or a “picture,” or a full blown predictive prophecy, I were invariably to stand up and say that this revelation was not from the Lord, and false, then I would be right most of the time – I would be four times more accurate by blindly applying my rule than were the people speaking, in their own estimation, “by the Spirit of God.” Does that not strike you as a problem?
That is not how prophecy is supposed to work, and furthermore it makes the whole business entirely useless in practice: Paul, comparing prophecy with tongues in 1 Cor 14, says: “If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” He’s assuming that any prophecies given, or at least those accepted by the congregation after the due diligence completely lacking in every charismatic church I’ve ever encountered, are true. Trumpet calls that are false alarms 4/5 of the time are a recipe for armies being caught napping. That matters.
But most charismatic prophecies are bland enough that it’s almost a matter of indifference that they don’t come true, or were bound to anyway. There the danger is that 80% of the people making them are falsely believing God is speaking to them or through them, when they’re simply baptizing their own imagination as a work of the Spirit of the Living God. And it’s not far from that conceit to prioritizing personal revelation over the word of Scripture. Why study when God speaks to you directly all the time? Teach, as many do, that every believer receives words in this way and you’ve only yourself to blame for doctrinal illiteracy and divisions in the church.
Now, the issue here is not cessationism as such. Bickle’s quote included the validity of miracles, and if it were simply the case that only one in five of the people we pray for are miraculously healed, we would be learning about both God’s supernatural grace in our times, and the need for humility regarding his sovereignty. But as soon as you tie that figure to a theology of authoritative pronouncement of healing, then an 80% failure rate raises problems which you will either attribute to your own imaginary failings, or to those of the sick person (which is spiritual abuse of the worst kind). Maybe what should be doubted, instead, is the pentecostal model of theology itself, which is by no means indispensible to an understanding of the Spirit’s being active in the personal experience of the Christian, in supernatural healing or other miracles, or even in prophetic ministry.
But such a theological recalibration might modify our concept of what “prophecy” means, wresting it from the context of people saying the first thing that comes into their head in a service, and being largely indifferent to whether it comes true, or is even doctrinally sound.
I used to work with Dr Clifford Hill on a magazine called Prophecy Today. Cliff was, and still is, widely regarded as having a prophetic ministry, and I agree. He was deeply critical, even at the time, of the Kansas City guys, the Toronto Blessing, and all the other excesses of charlatans. His own tendency was to do proper exegesis of Old Testament end-times prophecy and, often using his training and involvement in sociology, to apply them to our own times. That’s how he got endorsements from the likes of F. F. Bruce .
His overall message has proven to be true again and again – that Britain’s, and particularly the churches’, failure to repent of its worldliness and false teaching are bringing a crisis of judgement on the nation. The current deep pessimism amongst thinkers, both Christian and otherwise, about the immediate political, moral, social and religious future of the West confirms what he was foreseeing back in 1982.
And yet, as someone I have both known and respected for over thirty years, I believe he speaks most truth when he combines his knowledge of the Scriptures with his deep knowledge of the society around him. He is, in point of fact, less incisive when he veers towards the “charismatic model” and hears directly from the Lord. I have before me his 1982 book, The Day Comes, which builds on Isaiah’s “little apocalypse” in chapters 24-27 to point to the dark days ahead for the world, if repentance is not forthcoming.
But the second part of the book fleshes that out for our present world by pointing to the indicators of how the future crisis is likely to come. And here, 38 years on, the book becomes dated, because it mirrors the fears of society back then, and does not see the threats that have actually materialised.
So, for example, he has a chapter on the fashionable 70s and 80s bogey of “pollution,” which since so much has been done to clean up industry, has nowadays become focused almost entirely on anthropogenic climate change (unmentioned in the book, and supposedly caused by a natural substance, not a pollutant), together with some concerns about plastic waste.
Hill’s chapter on moral pollution correctly projects the upwards trends on crime, addiction, abortion and sexual immorality, but has nothing to say on the questions of third-wave feminism, LGBTQ confusion, or the intersectionality that is currently causing genuine fears of civil war in America and even over here, as national heritages are dismantled under the banner of “anti-racism.”
I don’t want to give a detailed critique, because Cliff never intended to provide a detailed picture of the future, but a spiritual diagnosis and call to arms. This is quite unlike the current batch of televangelists making detailed predictions that are less reliable than a horoscope in the newspaper, even a month ahead.
Yet, as I say, Hill is least accurate where he strays closer to such “spiritual” predictions, because in retrospect it is clear that his thinking in the 1980s was guided by the common concerns of that time, rather than divine revelation about this. For example, he agrees with Marx’s economic analysis of the world (whilst disagreeing with his solutions). That was de rigeur in sociology at the time, yet now even the remaining Marxists have forgotten about the class struggle in favour of identity politics. Who would have predicted that?
He also repeats the “population crisis” idea made popular by Paul Ehrlich in 1968: a tangle of projections in the charts in the book seems to make societal collapse inevitable in the next decade or two because of resources running out. There are still echoes of that fear in our time, from David Attenborough and Prince Philip to Bill Gates, but even the official UN projections now show population levelling off at a manageable level in a few decades, and world poverty was decreasing, at least until we shut down the global economy this year.
Despite the inaccuracies then, I would argue, Clifford Hill is a true prophet because he has consistently read both the times and the Scriptures coherently and under the guidance of the Spirit, and because he calls us to do the same, rather than to snatch thoughts out of thin air and call them “words from God” as a less burdensome option, and/or to claim the mantle of apostleship and so demean its Scriptural importance.
My belief is that the church will only begin to play a prophetic role in a terminally sick society if it learns from the mistakes of a century of pentecostal teaching on the Spirit as a “quick fix” for immature spirituality. It must return to a theology of submission to the whole Scriptures, and careful, critical, study of the times in which we live rather than submission to their values. That’s what you’ll find in the practice of Isaiah, Jeremiah or Daniel, but seldom, if ever, in charismatic churches in the current mould.