Why we need more shepherds

jesus shepherdSeveral weeks ago, Carey Nieuwhof wrote a piece titled “Why we need more entrepreneurial church leaders, not more shepherds.”

Though Nieuwhof presents this as if he’s a minority voice seeking a hearing, I see the same mentality and the same proposed solutions everywhere I look. What does the church need? New ideas! Bigger vision! Charismatic leaders!

If Nieuwhof were really such a minority voice, I wouldn’t bother to write this. But I see his call for dynamic entrepreneurs becoming the norm.

You’d think I would have been amening right along with the piece. I fashion myself a bit of an entrepreneur. I fit Nieuwhof’s standards, at least––I’ve done some experimentation in the church and business world, and if you’ve read this blog long, you know I have a restless discontent with the status quo.

But I think Nieuwhof is wrong. I think he (a) misunderstands the role he characterizes as “shepherd,” (b) misrepresents the church’s past, and (c) misdiagnoses the church’s current problems.

To be clear, I think the church could use more “entrepreneurs” (though I think that’s a terrible term to choose). But I think we could use more shepherds, too. And if forced to choose––though I’d rather not––I think we should be focused on adding more “shepherd” leaders.

What’s a shepherd?

Nieuwhof describes shepherds and apostles this way:

A shepherd cares for a (usually) small group. An apostle launches dozens, hundreds or thousands of new communities of Christ-followers.

The church today is flooded with leaders who fit the shepherd model, caring for people who are already assembled, managing what’s been built and helping to meet people’s needs.

According to this, a shepherd takes care of a few people. (S)he meets their needs, manages what’s been built, preserves status quo.

That’s a tragic under-representation of the pastoral task––a focus on preserving the status quo in a few people’s lives. Is this what Jesus meant by calling himself the good shepherd? Is that all he was after when he said to Peter, “Take care of my sheep” and “Feed my sheep”? Surely not!

Let’s compare the role of a shepherd to that of a parent. The parents’ role is to meet the basic needs of their children––food, shelter, clothing––right? Well, that’s part of the role. But if that’s all you’re doing, you’re not going to win any awards.

Good parents don’t just provide. They cultivate and develop. They help their children grow into full-functioning adults––people who will contribute something good to the world. Though we’re charged with only a few, it may be the most important task of our lives. Good shepherding is the same. It aims to develop a next generation stronger than the last.

If we describe shepherds as managers of the status quo––supplying the basic needs of a few people––we’re describing some low-level shepherds.

Shepherds and apostles in the church’s history

Nieuwhof asks, “[W]ould you ever have heard about Jesus if a rabbi named Saul hadn’t sailed all over the known world telling every Jewish and non-Jewish person he could find about Jesus, planting churches almost everywhere he went?”

First––I think I would have.

I don’t want to discount the incredible apostolic work of Paul. I don’t need to defend his importance to the early Christian movement (see, the Book of Acts). But I don’t think the gospel spread solely, or even primarily, by Paul’s work.

How did it primarily spread? I think Rodney Stark’s researched observation is better: “Mostly, the church spread as ordinary people accepted it and then shared it with their families and friends, and the faith was carried from one community to another in this same way—probably most often by regular travelers such as merchants.”[1. The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (p. 69)] Generally, he observes, “the spread of religious movements is not accomplished by dramatic events and persuasive preachers, but by ordinary followers who convert their equally anonymous friends, relatives, and neighbors.”[1. Ibid., p. 70]

It’s hard to make heroes out of ordinary, anonymous people in history. As a result, we focus on the extraordinary, known people. But that can make us forget that lots of ordinary people have driven a lot of the extraordinary movements of history.

Methodists have done the same. We revere the old circuit riders who transformed the American religious landscape, but Donald Haynes notes that the local elders and class leaders were “the pillars and backbone of local churches.”[1. “Wesleyan Wisdom: GC 2008: Outsource Study on Itineracy,” United Methodist Reporter (April 2008)] The circuit riders helped start new communities in places where there were none, but those communities survived, grew, and strengthened thanks to all those anonymous local shepherds.

Second––I find it interesting that Nieuwhof uses Saul/Paul as his guiding example.

Why should we prioritize “spiritual entrepreneurs”? Because Paul, the greatest Christian leader ever, was an apostle.

What if we asked a different question, though? “Would you ever have heard about Jesus if a rabbi named Jesus hadn’t gathered a small group of disciples, cared for them, fed them, and developed them into the people who would lead the earliest Church?”

The work of rigorously preparing a few preceded the work of sending them out. That leads to the final point.

The church’s current problems

Nieuwhof diagnoses our problem as a lack of innovation. We need more big, bold, risk-taking. We need business leaders who can cast big visions and dream big dreams. That’s what’s missing.

First––really? That’s missing?

Haven’t our churches been crafting “vision statements” since the ’80s? Innovating new structures (multi-site, satellite, online “churches”), new ways to take the gospel to the streets, new worship styles?

Maybe I’m seeing an odd segment, but I see lots of new things being tried. And then the things that work being marketed as the answer to the church’s problems (see, e.g., Willow Creek conferences). And then the innovators of those great new methods lamenting that they had generated big crowds but developed very few mature disciples (see, again, Willow Creek).

Second––what’s really missing?

Why is the church in decline? Is it really because of a lack of new, entrepreneurial energy? Are we losing more people in each generation because we haven’t started something new and exciting?

I think the better answer goes back to what a prominent Christian theologian, leader, and adamant advocate for church planting said to me recently: “What a lot of us are saying in our private discussions is that we don’t need more Christians.”

Why would anyone say that?

My summary of that leader’s position: Essentially, we have a large number of professing Christians, but very few disciples, few leaders, few who see themselves as pastors, or have any expectation of becoming pastors. [I’ve written about this at length in “The Christian Bubble.”]

How has this happened? Over the past 200 years, the church in America has actually done a lot of apostolic work––”entrepreneurial” work, if you must. We have a large number of professing Christians. Our “base” is pretty wide, but it’s also pretty shallow.

Why? We don’t have enough good shepherds, helping believers become disciples and helping disciples become apostles. Nieuwhof says “the church today is flooded with leaders who fit the shepherd model.” I think he’s wrong. Or if they fit the model, they’re not doing the work.

Nieuwhof is looking for his next spiritual entrepreneurs from the business ranks. Where did the early church find its apostles? The disciples became apostles!

Why isn’t he looking for apostles from our discipleship pipelines? Probably because we don’t have many strong discipleship pipelines.

Connecting the dots: why don’t we have more apostles? Because we don’t have enough disciples. Why don’t we have more disciples? Because we don’t have enough good shepherds doing the hard work of discipleship.

Conclusion: More apostles and more shepherds

If you know me, you know I celebrate church planting, apostolic leadership, bold new ideas. Let’s have more apostles!

But frankly, I believe those are addressing secondary concerns. The American church’s primary concern is that we have lots of believers but few disciples. We need to do the hard work of discipleship––caring for small groups of disciples so that they can become the next pastors and apostles in the church.

We need more shepherds! Lots more shepherds! And if I have to choose the leader of my church, I’ll choose a shepherd who will do the hard work of discipleship for a small group of leaders who can be apostles and shepherds in the community.

Entrepreneurial work is big and flashy and exciting. I understand the appeal. All those anonymous shepherds throughout Christian history don’t get much attention or credit. But they’re the pillars and the backbone. Let’s quit assuming we don’t need more of them. We don’t have nearly enough.


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