There are many pastors who feel like a failure because they do not have mega churches. It can be painful coming to grips with reality, particularly when you have fancied yourself at a level of giftedness that you think should be attracting the masses. You watch in bewilderment as the next blow up church explodes on the scene. You can find yourself thinking, “I thought I was doing it right? What’s wrong with me?”
When you feel that way, consider this quote by John Brown as found in Mark Dever’s, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church:
I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at his judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.
I was asked when I came to my current church, “Are you just coming here to get a bigger church?” I said, “I left a church of 7000 to go to a church of 400 and now I’m looking at a church of less than 100. If that’s my goal, I’m going the wrong direction.” I appreciate what John MacArthur has always said, “You take care of the depth of your ministry and let God handle the breadth.”
On the day when God’s shepherds give an account for the souls entrusted to them, I think we will concur with Brown, we had enough. Timothy Wittmer’s memorable wisdom rings true, “a sheep retained is as valuable as a sheep gained.” (The Shepherd Leader, 4)
Yesterday on the blog, we considered the priority of shepherding, today I want to put some meat on the bones and offer a model for shepherding. How do we get started and do this thing called shepherding? This is far from the final word on shepherding.
Train Your Shepherds. I know readers of this blog probably have all different forms of church government. I firmly believe the design for polity squaring best with the Bible is a plurality of elders. That said, I recognize this is not the only way to care for people. Whatever leadership structure you have in place, it’s hard to imagine that one man can effectively shepherd a flock, even a small flock.
For our context, we have elders who meet twice a month. At the top of our agenda is a standing item entitled Shepherding Accountability. This is a biweekly reminder for each of us to make sure we are actively praying for, contacting, and shepherding the folks in our group.
We spend a lot of our time talking about shepherding. Sometimes we will read a book together and discuss at our elders meeting. We have done The Deliberate Church, The Trellis and the Vine, The Shepherd Leader, Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus, among other books. Just like many vocations which require continuing education to stay sharp in your trade, it’s a good idea to keep your shepherding tools sharp by regular education. We are currently studying a portion of our doctrinal statement, line by line. Sometimes our training time will be more doctrinal in nature. Many times our training is focussed on thinking biblically through the situations that face our church and people. We want to care for our people well and collective wisdom is an immense help. This is a shaping and sharpening time.
Identify Your Sheep. If we are accountable for souls, we have to ask, “which souls?” Is it realistic to actually account for everyone connected to our church either through membership or regular attendance? I think it’s essential and expected. The vehicle by which you shepherd will be a result of your polity and church size. Our system is simple. We are not a huge church so we have a practical advantage. We have 5 elders currently serving. Our church family is divided up amongst all of us. No system is absolutely perfect, but this at least gives us a paradigm. There are of course other ways of shepherding, using small groups, Sunday school Classes, or leadership teams. The important point is to actively and intentionally identify your sheep.
I understand the logistical challenge associated with this especially in large churches. I was on staff at a large church and then a medium sized church. If I may mix my metaphors, it’s hard to create a net tight enough to capture all those sheep. This will often require many people engaged in leadership. I was talking to a pastor friend who has a similar vision for shepherding. He said he tells those with huge churches and building campaigns, “You have to trust the Lord to provide funds, I’m going to trust the Lord to provide shepherds.” Exactly. I don’t see shepherding as optional.
Communicate with Your Sheep. Having great ideas and structure is not particularly useful if you do nothing with it. We have to make contact with our people and communicate our intentions for shepherding. Our church has been using shepherding lists for years, but we have renewed our efforts even in recent days to be more intentional about how we are shepherding. I understand the hesitation with not wanting to appear to be exalting yourself in a position of authority. Many times elders have the responsibility of shepherding a friend or family they have known for years. We need to understand that the Bible speaks of elders having actual authority, to the point that they are supposed to be obeyed (Heb 13.17) but their authority must never be asserted in a haughty, micromanaging way so as to “lord it over” those they lead (I Peter 5.1-5).
When we are having shepherding conversations, here are 3 categories to explore. Rather than a static set of questions, we use these categories as conversation guides. It’s simple and not original with me. Reach Up, Reach In, Reach Out.
Reaching Up. We encourage regular worship of God on Sunday mornings. We believe unless providentially hindered, people should make corporate worship a regular part of their weeks. We do not take attendance and we do not tell people how many absences they can have. Our goal is to encourage our people as much as possible to draw a circle around Sunday and protect it.
Reaching In. Reaching In breaks down into 2 categories in our system. The first is to “reach in” in terms of connecting with the body of Christ. Given the many one anothers in the Bible, find out if they are loving one another, serving one another, and encouraging one another. Christians aren’t islands. The second way we reach in is by feeding our own souls on the Word. In addition to regular worship, we feel like we all need to be taking in the Word in some additional way. Ask questions about how your people feed their souls.
Reach Out: We believe the purpose of the church is disciple making. As we worship regularly, fellowship with believers, feed our own souls on truth, we see living intentionally with an eye towards disciple making as a natural and necessary outflow. Our encouragement for all believers, no matter how young or old they are in the faith, is to be looking for ways to pour out to others either unbelievers who do not know Christ or perhaps younger believers who are new in the faith.
In God’s wisdom, he has established this glorious institution called the church. He is pleased to do his Work through the church. I’m profoundly thankful to God for the privilege of serving and I pray for all those who share this privilege and responsibility to “watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17)