No Place for Shepherds?

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One of the ongoing themes of the Bible is the importance of those who shepherd God’s people. In Ezekiel God speaks powerfully against those who don’t shepherd his people well, “The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” (Ezekiel 34:1–6 ESV). In John 10 Jesus points out that he is the good shepherd and that those who hear his voice follow him. In 1 Peter 5, Peter calls on elders to “shepherd the flock of God” by “being examples to the flock”. 

All of this is old hat to many of us, but there seems to be a movement afoot that would deny at some level the importance of shepherds and the body of Christ which shepherds are called to oversee. I won’t name names or organizations, you probably know who they are already, but there is a dual trend happening. The first trend is the call for people to be “self-feeders” when it comes to growing in faith. Certainly we want people to study the scriptures, but the self-feeding movement points to a people who do solo scriptura, rather than sola scriptura. Self-feeders can also be self-interpreters, rather than listening to the wisdom of the community (a community that extends back 2000 years). Self-feeders can quickly believe in our individualistic culture that they are the measure of truth and so they see no need for the “shepherds of the flock”. The second trend is to step away from the body of Christ, believing it has little to offer since I have grown beyond it as I have matured in my faith. Since I can now feed myself and join others through whatever organization in doing some good in the world, why would I bother with heading off to join the body of Christ for worship, for service, or anything else? 

So how is your new church or established church working to call people to study the word, be people of the book and still be those who live under the care of shepherds? Or does the idea of shepherds that oversee the flock need to be rethought? Do we need to redefine how people grow in faith and are cared for in a less communal and more individualistic society?

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Thanks for sharing this, a great topic, one that I have been personally wrestling with. I would avoid the extremes (no need for shepherds at all, calling people only to be 'self-feeders'), but would encourage a rethink of how we think about shepherding. I would like to add to this discussion, and to hear what your responses to my 'rant' might be.

1) An important qualifier is that we are under-shepherds, working for the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4). My fear is that instead of helping the sheep hear His Voice (John 10:27), we are training people to know our voice. They come to rely on us to interpret scripture for them. Or if they don't like our voice, they look for a shepherd who's voice they prefer. The shepherds need to improve their voice to keep their audience, and compete with others in order to satisfy their sheep... or they look for greener pastures. Somehow we need to teach the sheep to hear His Voice whenever scripture is opened, whether the sermon is good or bad, the speaker is dynamic or bland, ordained or not ordained. For me, the Voice of God (Logos, Jesus) is more important than the mouthpiece (which we need too); whether the mouthpiece is a professor, pastor or pew-sitter, a sunday school teacher, a parent, a youth group leader, or a stranger on the street, God's Voice needs to be heard. 

2) I would suggest adding another image to help us explain the shepherding image: a parent (1 Thessalonians 2:7-12). When children are young, they need to be fed. But eventually they need to learn to feed themselves, and eventually even feed others. This does not end the parents role, they still help them get the food, help them prepare it for a time, but the children eat for themselves. And soon they are able to prepare a meal, and maybe even surprise their parents with a meal prepared for them. And one day, they will have opportunity to feed their own children. By feeding themselves, I don't mean 'self-feeding' as you characterized it (independent, individualistic). Eating and feeding should always be communal affairs, but at some point the kids need to grow up and eat... with the support of the community. My experience is that we make 'food preparation' so complicated that you have to have a seminary degree to do it rightly. We not only lead our sheep to the table, we precut the food, we decide on what to eat, when and how, we even make them sit quiet and still while we spoon feed them. This makes sense for babies, but when do they grow up? See Hebrews 5:11-14, where eventually the babes become teachers, who by constant use they have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

3) How many of us have heard those dreaded words, 'I'm not being fed'. They make it sound as if they are deeper than we are, that their maturity level has grown beyond our shepherding skills. But that is not what I hear. I hear baby robbins squawking in the nest, demanding that we give them what they want - feed me, love me, help me, teach me, care for me, comfort me... This is the kind of SELF-feeding that I think we need to address. They have not grown up, they are still in their high chairs, with their clean bibs, waiting for us to spoon feed them. Is this cycnical... maybe? True of everyone... of course not. But it is I fear a common pattern, one that is related to our traditional shepherding/preaching ideas and practices.

4) I am presently serving in a long time 'church plant' setting. We have lots of babes in Christ, and they do not know how to hear God's Voice. But they have learned enough of churchianity to know that some shepherds provide better sermons than others. I have felt the pressure to perform better, to compete with the mega-shepherds. But that is not the way I want to go. I am who I am, and I do the best I can. I need to instill in them a love for God's Voice in scripture, and an ability to feed themselves in community, to grow up and eventually become teachers, who by constant use of Scripture have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. My sermons are not all great, and some of them are pretty bad, but the scripture is always great, and God's Voice can always be heard. 

5) So I am trying something, and praying that it will help. I've adopted a three year bible-reading schedule. I hand out the readings each week, and highlight which reading from that list I will be preaching on next Sunday. The handout has open space for them to answer the question beneath each reading, 'what do you hear God saying?'. I blog my own reflections for each reading, each day, and ask them to post their own thoughts. I email 5-10 members each week and ask them to share their responses to the upcoming Scripture passage, and incorporate their responses into the message (I would love to meet weekly with some, as I've heard other pastors do, but in my busy, commuter culture meeting time is at a premium). On Sunday morning, I attempt a partial 'lectio' by reading the scripture, pausing, then reading it again. Then I ask them to share what they hear God saying in the scripture. Finally, I share some of my own reflections, trying to model how we need to all hear God's Voice in scripture. I am letting them know that one day I may be asking them to publicly share their own reflections in a 'sermon'. So far only two have done so... but in time.

6) I have discouraged them from saying 'good sermon' to me after the service (that was easy, not too many did). Instead I've urged them to share with me if they heard God speaking to them - teaching, rebuking, correcting, training, comforting, blessing, etc. - in the service. Sometimes it was in a prayer, sometimes in a song, sometimes in message. One time a young girl shared with me what God said to her in the passage, and it had nothing to do with my 'sermon'. Thing is, after I heard what she said, I myself heard God differently, through her 'sermon'! I am often surprised and blessed by what others hear God saying in scripture. I realize that all my training and experience gives me tunnel vision, seeing things that others don't see, and missing (obvious) things that others do see. Reading scripture and hearing God is indeed a communal activity - we should stop restricting it to the educated and qualified few. 

7) I fear that our emphasis on ordination and the formal 'preaching of the word' has held back the church. We stress the anointing of the pastor, but scripture also stresses the anointing of the disciples, so that they do not need anyone to teach them (1 John 2:26-27). It is the Spirit that teaches us, it is the scripture that is God-breathed and useful, a double-edged sword. Why is it that so many christians do not know how to proclaim (preach, share) Jesus in the marketplace? Because we've hired that task out to a limited few. When the early church was persecuted, the disciples that scattered preached the word wherever they went (Acts 8:1-4); today they just look for another church to preach it to them. Think of the story of the church in China, when the communist government killed the pastors, burned the bibles and books, sent away the missionaries, scattered the churches, closed the seminaries. The west thought for sure the church was toast; but they (and the Chinese government) forgot about the Holy Spirit, the Chief Shepherd, and the power of God's Voice. When the walls in China finally opened a little, the west found a thriving church. Still to this day ordinary people (without seminary training) are being used by God to speak, and be heard. We need to learn from them!!!

Conclusion. Do we still need shepherds? Yes! But do we need to rethink what shepherds do, and how they do it? YES! Reading scripture for yourself is not the self-feeding that concerns me. I feel the bigger problem is the SELF-FEEDING of baby sheep that never seem to grow up and learn to feed others.

Contributor

Hi Norm,

Thanks for taking the time to dig deeply into the "shepherd" and the work of the "shepherd" under Christ. I sense that you are seeing things pretty clearly in Ajax; and doing some great things to take people out of the baby stage and into a mature faith. Your blog is a great picture of an interactive method to take people into the text. It's a strong encouragement to me to think about how I both prepare people at EverGreen for the coming week and how we step out of the message and into living it in the following week. 

In that light, I would love to hear how others have done this. So for all of the readers...how about some of your ideas. You can check out Norm's blog at http://www.jesusfollower.ca/ and see the way he engages his congregation.

At EverGreen we have done a number of things over the years. Right now we are writing a weekly sermon based study for our small groups, as well as, using SOAPS (as Norm does) to have people reflect on the passage of the week. In the past one of our bigger pushes to get people reading and thinking about the Word was something called "Explore the Story, Discover Your Life". This was a year long sermon series and a daily reading of the scripture with a daily commentary.  If you are interested, you can see it at  http://www.explorethestorydiscoveryourlife.blogspot.com

One of the things that I wonder about is figuring out the balance between teaching/preaching that really does reveal new wonders in the scriptures and what I might call an ESV Study Bible level of understanding. I think that the ESV level of understanding is pretty much what most people pursue and is what is needed for discipling and teaching many. However, what shepherds/pastors bring to the conversation is not only a theological education, but also the time to spend on the task of digging more deeply into the passage that can unearth treasures in the text (although, as you point out, sometimes a child does that in a surprising way). People working their regular jobs, doing that killer commute and the rest don't have this time. This deeper digging can keep the text fresh and make people wonder at the reality that the Scriptures never get old and there are always new things to discover--that can impact their lives.

Thanks for engaging, Norm

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