Last week, I led our youth ministry's junior high and high school mission trip to Milwaukee. While there, we served at a warehouse in the inner city called Adullam. The warehouse is located very near what police have deemed to be the worst intersection in Milwaukee. There, prostitutes work, drugs are sold, and shootings between rival gang members regularly occur.
In the midst of this violence (and poverty), Adullam seeks to be a safe sanctuary for those who live in the area. It's founder, Steve (a white guy with dreds), has a huge heart for Milwaukee and an even bigger vision for what Adullam will one day include. Currently, it hosts frequent prayer and worship nights as well as something called Katie's Closet. Katie's Closet is a free store through which Adullam gives away dozens of items every week to community members.
While at Adullam, our team met with it's worship pastor, Rachel, for an afternoon of prayer. To be honest, I was immediately uneasy with this. Rachel's idea of prayer was different than mine. It involved no ancient prayers read in a community of believers, nor did it involve simply asking someone to share their concerns and then praying for those specific things.
Instead, Rachel had us ask God to show us a vision, which we then prayed over someone else. To “prove” this was God speaking through us (and not us making things up based on what we already knew about a person), she divided our group in half. She then had one-half the group spread out around the room, close their eyes, and ask God for a vision. Then she asked the other half of the group to go up to a person and tap them on the shoulder. That served as the cue for the person with their eyes closed to share their vision with the other person and pray it over them.
Despite having spent time in both evangelical and mainline circles, stuff like this makes me nervous.
It's not that I don't believe God speaks to us today. I do.
I'm just a little skeptical that he speaks on demand. I worry our own experiences and theology will impact what we believe God is saying. As a result, things like this often seem like a stretch to me, sometimes even a dangerous one. Because they do, I also assume they'll confuse or frighten my mainline students.
Even so, I'm a big believer that there's nothing that can't be processed with kids.
So I played along.
Initially, I was in the group being prayed over. I waited for my students to choose their person and then went up to the person who remained – a friend of Rachel's who I'd met 5 minutes earlier, who literally knew nothing about me.
I tapped her on the shoulder. She then proceeded to tell me about the “strange” image she'd received for me – a book – which had reminded her of a testimony she'd heard earlier about a friend who began tithing one-tenth of her time each day to writing.
Now in some ways, maybe a book is a safe image. Different people could interpret a book in very different ways and still have it mean something to them.
Even so, a book meant something very specific to me. Exactly one week earlier, I'd turned in my manuscript to my publisher. About three hours after this prayer, I received feedback from him.
So I don't know. Could a virtual stranger have made this up?
I suppose so.
But it seems equally likely that maybe she actually heard a message from God for me that day.
Despite that, I was still skeptical as we reversed roles. Nevertheless, I waited for the tap to come, shared the image I'd “received”, prayed for my person based on that image, and opened my eyes to a sobbing student stunned by what I'd just said. In that moment, it was clear that this student had encountered God – one who hears and speaks (almost) directly to her in a very real and tangible way.
That night, we processed this experience as a church group. Some students confessed being terrified by it. Others talked about feeling utterly inadequate. What had they done to prevent God from speaking to them in the powerful way they were seeing God speak to others? Still others shared how this experience changed their perception and understanding of God. For some, it was the most powerful (and deeply intimate) encounter they'd ever had with God.
That night, we listened intently to one another (and to God). We also explored some of what Scripture says about prayer and how God speaks to his people. As we did, I was reminded of the many different ways God speaks to his people throughout Scripture. That's when I realized that if God can speak to his people in a variety of ways throughout Scripture, maybe it's possible he can still do the same today.
To me, it feels dangerous to say God only speaks through visions.
But after this experience, it feels equally dangerous to say God never speaks through visions.
After all, both understandings limit God.
In actuality, isn't our God limitless?
With that in mind, I affirmed those students who didn't hear from God during that prayer activity. I assured them of their value and worth before God. But I also affirmed those students who, like me, had encounters with God during that prayer activity that were very real and poignant.
In my ministry, I want both types of students to feel welcome. More than that, I think maybe – in order to gain a fuller picture of God - we actually need both types of students. Without either type of student present, it becomes easy to make God in our own image; To see and hear from him only in expected, comfortable ways when in fact, God is anything but.