The Pattern for Church Growth (6)
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. 1 Peter 5.1-4
Except pastors retain this end in view, it can by no means be that they will in good earnest proceed in the course of their calling, but will, on the contrary, become often faint; for there are innumerable hindrances which are sufficient to discourage the most prudent. They have often to do with ungrateful men, from whom they receive an unworthy reward; long and great labors are often in vain; Satan sometimes prevails in his wicked devices. Lest, then, the faithful servant of Christ should be broken down, there is for him one and only one remedy, ― to turn his eyes to the coming of Christ.
- John Calvin, Commentary on 1 Peter 1.4
A new pagan servitude?
In 1520 Martin Luther unleashed three broadsides against the ecclesiastical status quo, the effect of which was to finally turn the ire of Rome against him.
And to spark a long-needed and much-hoped-for reformation in the Church.
The most damaging of these pamphlets, as Church leaders considered, was his brief book, The Pagan Servitude of the Church, commonly known as The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In this book Luther argued that the freedom of Christians to realize full and abundant life in Jesus Christ was being kept from them, because they had been chained in a false system of sacramental religion. This system was everywhere in practice but was without Biblical basis; it required of the people of God only their faithful participation, but yielded nothing of spiritually transforming value.
In many ways, a new form of pagan servitude has, like the twin petals of a Venus flytrap, enfolded the Church of our Lord Jesus, and it is sapping the life of believers everywhere. This servitude has not been imposed on the people of God by enemies, but by well-meaning theologians, pastors, and church leaders, who insist that the proper way of making disciples and growing healthy churches is to imitate and import the ways of the world, rather than follow the plain teaching of Scripture.
Those ways are well-known and widely adapted: Hold classes, run programs, set up committees, adjust as much as possible to the pop-culture-casualness of the day, demand little but offer many opportunities, count heads, repeat. The methods of secular business, marketing, entertainment, education, and psychology work well enough in that realm. Why should we not employ them in the work of building our churches?
We may indeed use such methods, as the Lord leads and according to His Word. But when those methods are found to have supplanted and replaced Biblical methods, to the extent that Biblical methods are no longer considered useful, then we have clapped our churches in the chains of worldly means, and it should be no surprise if we bear but little evidence of vital spiritual life.
Jesus said that He had come to give life and to give it abundantly. Where is the evidence that Christians today are living full, abundant, joyful, gracious, bold, buoyant, and world-upending lives as witnesses for Christ? Where are the churches that, brimming with such holy spiritual ebullience, overflow the truth, grace, and peace of Jesus throughout their communities, bringing the transforming power of the Gospel to every niche and nook?
Every church has its programs, classes, departments, budgets, membership lists, organizational charts, committees, and facilities. But where in any of God’s Word, which has been given to equip us for every good work, is any of this recommended?
And where is the work of shepherding God’s flock – exemplified by Jesus and taught by Peter and Paul – anywhere to be found?
We have taken on every conceivable and respectable worldly method for growing our churches, but the one method consistently taught throughout the Scriptures we have resolutely refused to employ.
We will not realize healthy, growing churches – where unity and maturity are flourishing and truth, grace, and peace abound – so long as we insist on doing the Lord’s work in the world’s ways. Some of us in pastoral leadership must begin to chart a course for a return to shepherding God’s flock as chief among the Lord’s priorities for building His Church.
The neglected work of shepherding
Jesus outlined the work of shepherding in John 10, where He showed this work to be grounded in relationships of mutual trust and love, encompassing and caring for all the Lord’s sheep, devoted to helping them grow in the truth and grace of the Lord, and committed to earnestly seeking the lost sheep of the Lord.
In Acts 20 Paul charged the elders of Ephesus to shepherd their flocks carefully and well. Peter echoed that solemn commission in 1 Peter 5. Shepherds must be with their people. They must know well the condition of each sheep in their fold. They must feed and protect their flocks so that every member can grow to full health. They must be with their sheep, adjusting their ministrations to the needs of each one. And they must not be content for any of the sheep entrusted to their care to neglect the Lord or His good and perfect will for their lives.
This work is almost nowhere to be found in churches today. Pastors preach, teach, counsel, and run meetings. Elders make decisions about programs, facilities, budgets, and staff. Churches offer opportunities for learning Biblical information, but provide almost nothing that is focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ who are equipped for ministry as a way of life.
If we will not shepherd the Lord’s flock as He demonstrated and taught, we have no right to expect that He should build our churches into healthy, growing, world-transforming communities of the faithful.
And if we are content with this situation, then we should consider other work; for a day of reckoning is coming, and as the situation presently stands, those charged with shepherding the flock of God shall most certainly be found wanting.
Pastoral Hope Initiative
Prayer for Revival: A Jonathan Edwards Reader
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“While thinking of himself as a martyr to be, Cyprian did not allow himself to forget that he was still a bishop and was more anxious about the account he was to give to the chief shepherd concerning the sheep committed to him than he was about the answer he would give to the unbelieving proconsul, concerning his own faith.”
- Augustine, Sermons 309.4
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T. M. Moore
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).