The consistent biblical metaphor for caring for the local church is shepherding. Yet some believe this approach is outdated.
In the West, we are not the agrarian society we once were. In 1900, half of those in the labor force in the United States were farmers, but by the end of the twentieth century, urbanization meant that only 2 percent were. The church was affected, moving from being community based to interest driven. Today, the largest 10 percent of congregations contain about half of all churchgoers. In some congregations, a hierarchical business model has replaced the shepherding structure. Leaders are taught through books and conferences to direct the church more like CEOs than shepherds.
However, in pastoral theological works of previous generations, the shepherding metaphor was consistent. From Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule in the sixth century to Martin Bucer’s Concerning the True Care of Souls in 1538 to Timothy Witmer’s The Shepherd Leader in our own day, many works through the centuries have upheld a timeless shepherding model for the church. Indeed, the full title of Bucer’s book is Concerning the True Care of Souls and the Correct Shepherd-Service: How This Is to Be Established and Carried Out in the Church of Christ.
The Bible regularly tells us that the Lord is our Shepherd (Ps. 23; John 10:11; Heb. 13:20), that we are like sheep (Pss. 95:7; 100:3), and that those placed as overseers in the church must care for the sheep like shepherds (Ezek. 34:15–16; Acts 20:28). Indeed, the word pastor means “to lead to pasture” or “to shepherd.”
Churches should ensure that shepherding does not become outdated by fulfilling these three admonitions.
Know truly each sheep. In telling us that He is the Good Shepherd, our Lord said, “I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14). In a caring church, the leaders should know your name, who you are, your spiritual state, etc. When a church grows too large, indifferent, or callous to know its people, shepherding has become outmoded.
Feed faithfully the flock. Upon his restoration after the resurrection, Peter received this threefold admonition from the Lord: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). Leaders must teach God’s Word richly to the congregation. Proclaiming solid fare from the pulpit each Lord’s Day, offering regular Bible classes, catechizing the youth, and supplying the church with trustworthy resources are all ways to feed God’s people.
Protect earnestly God’s people. False teachers who come in sheep’s clothing but are instead ravenous wolves are a great spiritual danger to the church (Matt. 7:15). Paul told the elders of Crete that they were to silence those who were upsetting the families of the church with false teaching (Titus 1:11).
May the Lord’s words ring true in your church: “I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing” (Jer. 23:4).