Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these other things?
Simon Peter: Yes, Lord. You know that I love You.
Jesus: Take care of My lambs.
Jesus asked him a second time . . .
Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love Me?
Simon Peter: Yes, Lord. You must surely know that I love You.
Jesus: Shepherd My sheep.
(for the third time) Simon, son of John, do you love Me?
Peter was hurt because He asked him the same question a third time, “Do you love Me?”
Simon Peter: Lord, You know everything! You know that I love You.
Jesus: Look after My sheep.
John 21:15-17, The Voice
Strap in while I get my rant on.
Chaplain Mike introduced this week’s topic as scandals in the church. I know of scandals that make scandals look tame. As a literary agent I worked for a law firm that represented hundreds of ministries and churches across the country. I heard and read and participated in discussions about abuses of power, fraud, embezzlement, theft, rape, abortions, homosexuality — all done by men and women who were looked up to as leaders in the church. Even though I’ve been gone from there for three years now, I am still not at liberty to share the details of these with anyone, and really why would I want to? Why do I want to talk about what best belongs at the bottom of a trash bin? Besides, these are not the worst scandals to rock the Western church.
The greatest scandal that I see, one that has such far-reaching consequences that I wonder if the church will ever recover from it, is the desertion of the sheep by those called to be shepherds.
You will notice I don’t often use the word “pastor” on this blog, simply because so many of those we talk about here are not pastors. A pastor is a shepherd, and shepherds care for sheep. I use the term “leader” in reference to those in charge of a church. Shepherds focus on sheep entrusted to them; leaders focus on the structure of the organization that employees them. Shepherds walk behind their flocks to be sure that they stay together and no one gets lost; leaders walk out ahead, “casting the vision” so that all know who is in charge. Shepherds are filthy and dirty from caring for filthy, dirty sheep; leaders are dressed for success. Shepherds get very little recognition; leaders get book contracts.
Being a leader of a church, no matter what size the church, means to study demographics and business models. It means reading case studies and taking cues from the latest research published by business school teachers. Being a leader means setting goals and establishing benchmarks and, at the end of the day, mastering the latest business catchphrases, like “at the end of the day.”
Being a shepherd, meanwhile, involves visiting MaryLou in the hospital where she will want to talk with you about her medical history for the entire afternoon. It means meeting for breakfast with three men who resent even having to go to church, but do so to only please their wives. It means sitting bedside with a man whose wife is dying of cancer, and then taking the brunt of his anger as he accuses you and God of taking the one thing from him that mattered.
Leaders are professionals. Shepherds are laborers. Listen to what John Piper says about the danger of professionals taking over the church.
Brothers, we are not professionals! We are outcasts. We are aliens and exiles in the world. Our citizenship is in heaven, and we wait with eager expectation for the Lord. You cannot professionalize the love for His appearing without killing it. And it is being killed. (Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, John Piper)
Church leaders have professionalized the love for Jesus’ appearing, and it is being killed. As are the flocks of sheep in desperate need of shepherds. Shepherds are not cool, are not hip, are not trendy. As soon as you try to create a formula for tending to the sheep, you have a corporate farm, and not a place where sheep are nurtured. Sheep need a lot of nurturing, for they are perhaps the neediest of all livestock. They can’t even rest without help. Phillip Keller, in his classic A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23, writes,
The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free from all fear. Because of the the social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger. A flock that is restless, discontented, always agitated and disturbed never does well.
So, whose responsibility is it to get the sheep in a place where they can rest if not the shepherd’s? Who is going to lead the sheep to green pastures? Who is going to repair the pastures so they remain green? Who is going to care for the sick and wounded sheep? Who is going to hunt after strays? Who is going to protect the sheep from enemies who prowl and growl like wolves? This is the job of the shepherd.
The great scandal facing the Western church today is the desertion of sheep by shepherds who would rather be hip and cool CEOs. The largest church in Tulsa—where I live—is led by a man who openly advertises that he never—and I mean never—meets with those in the congregation. Oh, he has built a very successful business. There is a youth building with lots of video games and a concession stand. There is a thriving Christian school. They have a western-themed camp and a train you can ride at Christmas time. This church leader oversees a very successful enterprise. On Sundays he comes out on stage, gives his motivational speech, and then goes back into the inner recesses of the building. He is surrounded by “ushers” who see that no one gets too close to him. He would tell you that he can not possibly care for the needs of so many who attend his church, so he turns that duty over to others. I call that desertion. I call that dereliction of duty. Yes, I realize Moses was working himself to death before his father-in-law gave him some sage advice, but Moses knew a thing or two about sheep and sheepherding from his 40 years in the heat of the desert. I’ll wager he still stayed very close to the people whom God called his sheep.
I ran into a friend this week at a local Starbucks. He is now on the pastoral staff of a multi-site church that is about to open a new campus on the west side of Tulsa. He told me about demographic studies showing how many young families (i.e., those with disposable income) are within five miles of their new site. I know that he knows full well that many of these families are already attending a church, but will come running to the new kid in town just like they would to a new restaurant opening up. My friend used to be youth pastor at a small Methodist church with an aging congregation in a not-so-fashionable end of town. Yet when he was there he would talk about individual kids in his youth group and how he loved to see them grow in the Lord. Now he wears a trendy Mountain Hardware jacket emblazoned with his new church’s logo and talks of demographic surveys.
Ezekiel had a dire warning for those who abandoned their flocks for their own gain.
The word of the Eternal came to me with a message for Israel’s leaders.
Eternal One: Son of man, preach against Israel’s shepherds! Speak directly to the shepherds and tell them this is what the Eternal Lord has to say: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel whose only concern is to protect and nourish themselves! Isn’t a shepherd’s job to look after the sheep? Yet you exploit them in every way. You devour their fat, make soft clothes and blankets out of their wool, and slaughter the best sheep for your table. Meanwhile you don’t take care of the sheep at all. You have not sought to nurse the weak. You have not gone out to tend to the sick. You have not bandaged the injured. You don’t bring back the strays or look for the lost. You have led them with neglect, ruled them with harshness, shepherded them with cruelty! They had no real shepherd, so they have scattered; the entire flock was prey for wild beasts. My sheep drifted aimlessly through all the mountains and up and down every hill. My flock was scattered all over the world, scattered like the stars in the night sky,and not a single shepherd went looking for them.”
Now pay attention, shepherds, to My word: As surely as I, the Eternal Lord, live, because My sheep are without a shepherd, because they have become prey for all the wild beasts to feed upon, because my shepherds have not gone in search of My sheep but have only looked out for themselves and not watched after and cared for My flock; I encourage you, shepherds, to listen to the word of the Eternal.
Those self-centered shepherds are My enemies! As far as I am concerned, they are no longer shepherds. They will not help themselves to My sheep any longer. I will recover My flock from those corrupt shepherds. I will snatch My sheep from their mouths! My sheep will no longer provide milk, clothing, or meat to them. I will personally go out searching for My sheep. I will find them wherever they are, and I will look after them.
Ezekiel 34:1-11, The Voice
Do you hear what the Lord is saying? The Chief Shepherd has come to check on his flocks and finds them in disarray. They are not cared for. More than that, they are being used for the personal gain of the false shepherds. Now the Chief Shepherd is coming in judgment, and those shepherds who have not cared for the sheep are directly in his sights.
If this does not cause great fear among all those who have been given charge of sheep, it is only because they are the greatest of all fools.
Want another picture of what is in store for those who leave the sheep they are to care for?
Watch out, worthless shepherd who abandons the flock!
You will be made defenseless.
May the sword strike his right arm
and pierce his right eye!
May his arm hang limp at his side so he has no strength,
and may his right eye be forever blinded so he can’t shoot an arrow!
Zechariah 11: 17, The Voice
I have been told not to lump all church leaders together. I’ve been told there are still plenty of shepherds out there. Ok. I know there are some who do care, who labor outside of the spotlight and thus go unnoticed. And I know not everyone who attends a leadership conference or reads a John Maxwell book on leadership has abandoned his flock. But so many have. So, so many have given up on the day-to-day care of the sheep in order to build their own brand and image.
Jesus gives a test for how to tell if someone is a true shepherd, and it holds true to this day.
The hired hand is not like the shepherd caring for His own sheep. When a wolf attacks, snatching and scattering the sheep, he runs for his life, leaving them defenseless.
John 10: 12, The Voice
When the enemy comes in, where is the man in charge? Is he standing in the breach, daring the wolf to come one step closer? Or is he huddled with his advisers, trying to find a legal loophole out of the matter?
If you think I am overstating my case and that this is not really such a scandal after all, I will say that, if anything, I am understating my case. The church is rotting from the inside-out from a lack of shepherds, leaders be damned. The sheep are scattered and are falling prey to predators, to disease, to hunger and thirst.
My cry is to church leaders is this. Put down your GQ magazine and pick up your Bible. Step out of the newest trendy coffee shop and go to visit the sick and dying. Forget writing a book or making that TV appearance and begin to get to know your flock by name. To be a shepherd is hard, dirty, thankless, anonymous work. It is also the highest calling God can offer. After all, Jesus is our shepherd. How can we be better than he?