Good Shepherd, Bad Shepherd

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If you’ve seen any number of cop movies you’ve inevitably seen the good cop/bad cop routine. The “bad cop” takes an aggressive and accusatory tone with the subject while the “good cop” positions him or herself more sympathetically. The subject is encouraged to cooperate with the “good cop” either out of trust or out of fear of the “bad cop.”

Jesus introduces a similar dichotomy during the Jewish Feast of Hanukkah with a parable about the Good Shepherd in John 10. “Shepherd” is a common designation for a leader in the Bible. Hannukkah celebrates a transition in leadership when true leaders took back control from their corrupt counterparts.

How can you tell the difference between a good shepherd and a bad shepherd in the church today?

Good shepherds act like the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

Jesus has a personal attachment to his sheep (v. 2-4). He loves you and knows your name. Like the prophet Jeremiah, God knew you before He formed you in your mother’s womb;  He consecrated you before you were born (Jeremiah 1:5). God knew Peter’s name and changed it to fits His work in Peter’s life (John 1:29). Your name is so important to God that it must be written down in the Lamb’s Book of Life in order to get into heaven. Revelation 20:15 says, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (NASB).

Jesus also provides for his sheep. The 23rd Psalm can be applied to our physical as well as our spiritual needs. He provides spiritual nutrition and refreshment. He provides rest and restores our souls. He also provides a path to righteousness when we don’t know the way.

The Good Shepherd, Jesus, also He protects his sheep. He laid down His life for his sheep. He laid down His life, so He could take it up again. (v. 17). He laid down his life voluntarily, it was not taken (v. 18).

Bad shepherds act like greedy charlatans.

Bad shepherds frighten the sheep. Bad shepherds are called all kinds of things in this passage: thieves and robbers, strangers, and hired hands. Instead of coming to the sheep through the doorway, they climb over the wall and scare the sheep.

Fear is one of the tools of a bad shepherd. They use their power to threaten or intimidate their followers. They scare people with stories of what may or may not happen. Fear is a good motivator, but a bad master.

Bad shepherds also feed themselves first. Bad shepherds only care about themselves. They steal or hurt the sheep for their own benefit. As far as I know, Simon Sinek is not a believer, but he has discovered the reverse of this biblical principle in his book, Leaders Eat Last.

Bad shepherds flee at the first sign of danger. The hired hand runs away when he sees the wolf coming because he doesn’t care about the sheep (v. 12-13), In the end, bad shepherds are really imposter and charlatans and it’s the onset of hard times that reveals them for who they really are.

According to Jesus, you can tell the difference between a good shepherd and a bad shepherd by the way they take care of the sheep.

I want to encourage you to only follow godly leaders in the Church. There are all kinds of influences and influencers in the local church and the church-at-large – some good and some not-so-good.  bad. Don’t be cynical, just be discerning.

I want also want you to evaluate your leadership in light of Christ’s example. You may not have an official position of leadership, but you have influence over others. Allow God to lead you so that you can lead others in His church.

The parable of the Good Shepherd is about sheep as well as shepherds. Check back tomorrow for a post about how you can tell if you are a sheep that has gone astray.

Why I Pray for My Church Members and then Tell Them About It.

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As a pastor, I have the privilege of shepherding a flock of God’s people through prayer (1 Peter 5:2). Prayer is just one of many tools of a spiritual shepherd. While I have always prayed for the church that I serve, I have just recently started to pray for the members of my church systematically.
After I pray for them I stop and write a note to let them know I prayed for them. The note is not a request for a pat on the back, but a line of spiritual encouragement and communication. Handwritten notes are meaningful and welcome these days because they are so rare.
I pastor a “mid-sized church” which allows me to pray through our church directory about once or twice a year. A weekly and daily goal allows me to make consistent progress without feeling rushed. A family-by-family approach ensures that none is left out.
This practice has yielded benefits for me and the people I serve. Here is a list of the benefits in each category:
Benefits for me
  • It helps me pray consistently.
  • It helps me learn names and make connections between families.
  • It helps me stay connected to quieter “sheep.”
  • It helps me move people forward in their faith.
  • It helps me encourage those who are struggling and hurting.
  • It helps me update contact information.

Benefits for my church members

  • It reminds them they are not alone.
  • It gives them a personal connection to their pastor.
  • It allows them to focus on the positive side of their pain and problems.
  • It teaches them about the importance of prayer.
  • It encourages families to talk about spiritual issues and the church.
  • It highlights the care of the whole church.

Churches come in all shapes and sizes, but they all need prayer. Pastors have the unique responsibility and privilege to shepherd their people through prayer. I hope this guide helps you pray for your church members more effectively.

Are you a pastor or a church member?

How often do you pray for others in your church?

How do you highlight the importance of prayer in your church?

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Why Plant New Churches? An Open Letter to Unity Baptist Church

plant in handsUnity has a strong history of church planting. Many of the Baptist churches in the Ashland area were started by Unity or by one of her daughter churches. In 1892, Unity planted Pollard Baptist under the leadership of pastor S. Hensley. In time, Pollard planted at least 7 mission churches, including Rose Hill Baptist, and Wildwood Baptist, who would plant their own daughter churches as well. In the early 1900’s, Unity was instrumental in starting 3 mission churches. In 1954, one of those missions became Belmont Street Baptist in under the eventual leadership of pastor Wesley Harris.   In 1974, Unity helped the 45th Street Mission organize into Blackburn Avenue Baptist under the leadership of pastor Thurman Jackson.[1] Some of Unity’s spiritual progeny have grown through the years, and some have disappeared, but her church-planting legacy lives on today.

Church planting has been overlooked for several years, but recently it has made a comeback. Some forward-thinking church leaders, like Ed Stetzer, Executive Director for Lifeway Research, believe church planting is essential for the future of the church in North America, but others have doubts.[2] Those who resist the idea of planting new churches think that there are already enough churches. Here are 3 objections to church planting that Stetzer addresses in his book Planting Missional Churches.

Isn’t one big church better than several smaller ones? It’s true that larger churches have more to offer than medium or smaller churches, but that doesn’t mean they are better at reaching people. Consider the findings from a recent study:

  • Churches under three years of age win an average of 10 people to Christ per year for every hundred church members.
  • Churches three to fifteen years of age win an average of 5 people to Christ per year for every hundred church members.
  • Churches over fifteen years of age win an average of 3 people to Christ per year for every hundred church members.[3]

Shouldn’t we help our struggling churches instead? It’s estimated that as many 90 percent of churches in North America are in plateau or decline. Some feel that the resources used to start new churches should be used to revitalize churches that are struggling. This is possible in some cases, but it’s not very common. Existing churches that are struggling are struggling for a reason, and they are often resistant to the kind of change that is necessary to revitalize them. The best strategy is to both plant new churches and revitalize existing churches that are open to change.

Haven’t we already reached everyone? Even after generations of evangelism and discipleship, the U.S. is the largest mission field in the Western hemisphere.[4] Our country’s largest cities are filled with millions of lost people, and there are thousands of lost people in our Tri-state area, too.   According to recent estimates, 40 percent of people in the Ashland area have no religious affiliation whatsoever, and only 15.7 percent of the people in the Ashland attend church on a given Sunday. That means that of the approximately 9,000 people who live within a 1-mile radius of our church property, 3,600 have no specific religious connection, and 7,600 do not attend church on a regular basis. It’s estimated that there are as many as 30,000 lost people in Boyd County alone.

The North American Mission Board is encouraging Southern Baptists to pursue church planting as the best way to reach the lost through the Annie Armstrong Missions Emphasis and the SEND City Church Planting Strategy. This year, we will all be encouraged to participate in missions in North America by praying, giving, and even going. But this is nothing new for Unity. We have been participating in missions and planting churches for years.

[1] Special thanks to Judi Little and her careful research on the history of Unity Baptist.

[2] Ed Stezer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2006), 5.

[3] Bruce Nichols, “Churches Die With Dignity,” Christianity Today (January 14, 1991), 69.

[4] Stetzer, 13.

How to Start a Prayer Support Team

prayerWhen it comes to prayer support, there is no such thing as too much.  I’ve never met a Christian leader, paid or volunteer, who complained because they had too many people praying for them, too often, or with too much passion.  If you  need more prayer support, you may want to form a prayer support team.

A few years ago I read The Book of Church Growth by Thom Rainer.   In a chapter on the power of prayer, Rainer listed 6 potential facets of a church-wide prayer ministry.  One of those ideas was to organize a team of prayer warriors called the “Pastor’s Intercessory Prayer Partners” who were devoted to pray for their pastor and his ministry on a daily basis.  Over the past few years I’ve taken this idea and put it to use in my own ministry with some modifications.  I call my team the “Pastor’s Prayer Team,” but you don’t have to be a pastor or a church staff member to benefit from this approach.  You could use it with your Bible study group, international mission ministry, or non-profit organization.  All you need is a ministry, a group of people who are willing to pray for you, and a way to communicate with them.  Here is a 5-step process for starting or improving your own prayer support team.

1. Teach and model the importance of prayer.

Jesus did more than just talk about prayer. He taught his disciples how pray and modeled prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane among other places (Luke 11:1-13, Matthew 26:36-46).  People will not be motivated to pray if they don’t know how to pray or why prayer is important.  They will not be eager to join you in pray if they are not convinced that you are passionate and persistent in your own prayer life.

2.  Ask people to commit.

Some people are not ready or willing to join a prayer support team, but some are!  Those who are willing are just waiting for your invitation.  This can be done in a number of ways, but I would recommend doing it in writing so you have a list of people for follow-up. Depending on your situation you could use a sign-up sheet, a commitment card, but I prefer email.  I ask those who are interested in joining the team to send me an email to let me know.  Then, I use those email addresses to send a return email acknowledging their request and to build a distribution list for future use.

I do not ask my prayer support team members to commit to a specific frequency of prayer.  Instead, I ask them to pray for me, my family, and my ministry on a “regular” basis. If that ends up being daily, great; if it ends up being once a week or every other week, I’ll take it.  My goal is to equip and organize people to pray.  I don’t want to discourage anyone from participating just because they can not make a daily commitment.

3. Share regular praises and prayer requests.

Once again, this can be suited to your situation.  You can send out regular praise and prayer requests via “snail mail,” email, or social media.  They could also be added to a newsletter, either in print or online.  I choose to use email because it is faster and easier than “snail mail,” but more manageable and accessible for the people on my team.

Praises should be shared along with prayer requests because people like to hear good news along with your needs.  Sharing praises is a way of thanking your team for their prayer as well as reminding them that prayer really does make a difference.

Every ministry has its own cycle.  A non-profit organization or missions ministry may operate best on a quarterly or monthly cycle.  The local church runs on a weekly cycle, so I try to send out my praise and prayer requests on a weekly basis.  Whatever your frequency, let your team know your intentions and stick to them.

4.  Be humble and transparent.

This is not as much of a step as it is a general principle.  One of the pitfalls of kingdom work, especially if it is perceived as successful, is pride.  Pride causes us to keep others at a comfortable distance because we are afraid they might see our flaws.  This simply will not work with a prayer support team.  Put yourself in the shoes of one of your team members.  Would you be motived to pray regularly for someone who came across as superficial or fake?  This does not mean you should share every sin and struggle with your team.  It does mean, however, that you need to be open and honest about your needs

5.  Show gratitude and appreciation

Who doesn’t like a little appreciation for their efforts?  Being a part of a prayer support team is usually something that is done behind the scenes.  In order to keep your team inspired and engaged, you need to let them know they are not alone and they are making a difference in your life and ministry.  You should tell your prayer support team how much you appreciate them every time you share your praises and prayer requests. You may also want to send a separate “thank you” note sometime throughout the year.  If you use email like I do, you may choose to send a “pen-and-paper note” for emphasis.  If possible, you could organize a reception once a year to recognize your prayer support team and let them interact with each other.

What methods have you found effective for recruiting prayer support?  Have you ever formed a prayer support team?  How have you benefited from the process?

Is Your Church an Externally Focused Church?

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 “Externally focused church are internally strong, but they are oriented externally.  Their external focus is reflected in those things for which they staff and budget.  Because they engage their communities with good works and good news of Jesus Christ, their communities are better places in which to live.  These churches look for ways to be useful to their communities, to be a part of their hopes and dreams.  They build bridges to their communities instead of walls around themselves.  They don’t shout at the dirty stream; they get in the water and begin cleaning it up.  They determine their effectiveness not only by internal measures – such as attendance, worship, teaching, and small groups – but also by external measures: the spiritual and societal effects they are having on the communities around them.  Externally focused churches measure not only what can be counted but also what matters most – the impact they are having outside the four walls of the church.  They ask, “Who lives are different because of this church?”

– Rick Rushaw and Eric Swanson, The Eternally Focus Church (Loveland, CO: Group, 2004), 17

Devotional Thoughts for Leaders: Are You Carrying a Bronze Shield?

bronze sheildAre you carrying a bronze shield?

Revitalization is tough.  When difficult times come into an organization, there is a temptation to ignore reality and pretend things are just fine.  That’s what Judah’s king, Rehoboam, did. When his nation fell on hard times, Rehoboam went into denial and built a set of bronze shields.

To understand the significance of this, we need to rehearse a little Old Testament history.  In 1 Kings 14:21, we learn that Rehoboam was the son of Solomon.  Because Rehoboam acted foolishly during his coronation, God split the nation of Israel and only allowed Rehoboam to rule over the much smaller nation of Judah. As king, Rehoboam took evil to a whole new level, leading his people to do everything that the Canaanites had done that had gotten them kicked out of the Promised Land (v. 22-24).

When Solomon was king, he had so much gold, that silver was worthless.  Solomon lined his palace with 200 large and 300 small golden shields that eventually became a symbol of Israel’s prosperity and security.  These shields were passed down to Rehoboam, but not for long.  In Rehoboam’s 5th year as king, God allowed Egypt to defeated Judah and take away all their treasure, include the golden shields.  This loss signaled the end of an era and the loss of God’s blessing and protection (v. 25-26).

Instead of facing reality and admitting his sin, Rehoboam had a set of bronze shields made to replace the golden shields that were lost.  In order to show that things were just as spectacular as they were in his father’s day, Rehoboam had his palace guards carry the bronze shields out in public whenever he went to the temple.  But when they returned to the palace, they put the “show” shields away (v. 26-28).

Rehoboam will forever be remembered as the king who spilt the nation of Israel and lost Solomon’s treasure.  His legacy should be an eternal warning to Christian leaders and even churches today who construct and carry a “bronze shield.”  Instead of being open and honest about their present difficulties – and changing – some people would rather recreate things that were successful in the past so they can preserve their reputation.  Ministries, programs, or emphases can all become “bronze shields” when they become excuses for going through the motions.

Here are 3 warning signs you or your church is carrying a “bronze shield.”

  1. Consequences, conclusions, and change are avoided.
  2. Energy is expending to recreate the past.
  3. Things that are done in public are not repeated in private.

Does that describe you or your church?  If so, are you willing to put down your “bronze shields” for a chance to be restored?

Devotional Thoughts for Leaders: There’s Hope for a Withering Ministry

seedling 2Ministry is similar to gardening in that both activities require a lot of time and energy before anything develops.  It takes patience and dedication to prepare the soil, sow the seed, and water and fertilize the seed so it has a chance to grow.  The Apostle Paul made this comparison while warning the Corinthian believers against jealousy and strife.  As “fellow workers” in God’s field, we are responsible to plant and water as we have opportunity, even if we aren’t the ones who ultimately produce the harvest (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).

Summer can be a tough for churches, like it is in the garden.  Most churches experience a dip in attendance, participation, and even giving as members celebrate holidays and travel with their families over the summer break.   Numbers of guests may dry up as they try to make the most of summer’s long days and warm weather.  In ministry, like gardening, water is especially important during the hot, dry summer months.  In ministry, watering could mean investing in a budding ministry relationship or it could involve some extra planning and preparation for the upcoming fall.  In addition, watering should include prayer remember that it is God, Himself, who brings the harvest.

What will you do this week to “water” your ministry?

What will you do this week to invite God’s provision and blessing?