As Vivian and I near the end of the work that has brought us to many countries of the world and has allowed us to work with many dozens of churches, it has caused me to do a bit of reflection on what I have seen.
I have said many times that I have considered the opportunity to work with the church of Jesus Christ to be a great privilege. The church is, after all, the fullness of the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23), and in the book of Revelation, it is depicted as the bride of Christ.
For this reason, when we work with the church, we must realize that we are working with the beloved of Christ. If we should criticize the church, we must do so only with the highest motivations, so that our criticism brings healing instead of further division.
Therefore, when I make the following criticism, please know that I am doing so because I am concerned that, in many ways, we as a church have lost our direction. Instead of trying to pattern our individual churches based upon what we see in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, we have looked to the success patterns of corporate America to try and build what will be perceived as “successful” churches in our society.
Success in our culture usually has to do with size and wealth. A successful company is one that has a large market share of their product, is a leader in innovation, and turns in a healthy return for their investors. It also helps the company’s image if they have a large and glitzy head office. Companies hire CEO’s that have proven that they are “company builders” and are able to turn a mediocre company into a market leader.
This, I am afraid, is often what we in our churches expect when we look to our pastors. We want a pastor who can take our church, which we see as struggling, and by using the world’s definition of success, transform it into a successful church. We are looking not so much for a pastor, but for a proven CEO for our church.
We have forgotten that the term pastor is really a shepherding term. The pastor is a shepherd. Of all of the images that Jesus used to depict His ministry, the most endearing is that of a shepherd.
This is the shepherd who knows His sheep (John 10:4); this is the shepherd who would risk his life to find the one sheep who is lost and in danger (Luke 15:4-7).
This is what Jesus was trying to impress upon Peter when He asked His disciple three times if Peter loved Him. Much has been said about the fact of the different Greek words for love that were used by Peter and by Jesus, but the greater lesson is that Jesus was teaching Peter that he was to tend and shepherd the sheep (meaning the early church, the followers of Jesus).
Many of our pastors in our churches today are expected to be great orators, great expositors of the Bible, and especially great entertainers. All of these can be positive things and some of them even necessary, but above all of this we must allow our pastors to tend the sheep and to care for those of his flock. I know that this is an old way of talking, but the truth of it has largely been lost.
Through these years of working with many churches in many countries, this has become one of my concerns. But I am also very optimistic, since I see many promises in the Bible concerning the church. I have written on all of these matters in my book, Portraits of the Church.
In some manner, we must regain the role of the pastor in our churches. I believe most pastors have felt called into the ministry because they have a genuine concern for people, but the pressures of expectations have caused many to instead focus on running a company called the local church, instead of being a shepherd of his flock.
Peter seems to have learned well the lesson that Jesus was teaching him. When writing to the elders of the churches, the word that he used to describe their task was to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2). His concern was not that the church should meet the world’s standards of success, but that the people of the church should be nurtured.