A couple of years ago a movie was released that I suppose a few have seen, although I have not and hopefully presume that not many of you have either. Indeed, it is astonishing that there was a market at all for Black Sheep. The film is set on a sheep farm in New Zealand, and tells the story of a farm where a bit of genetic engineering goes terribly awry, creating a new breed of—wait for it—Zombie Sheep. Yes, Zombie Sheep. The generally docile creatures turn bloodthirsty, devouring whatever humans they can find, and in true Zombie film fashion, develop the ability to turn some of the bitten farmers into mutant were-sheep—hideous creatures covered with wool, frenzied and ready to join the attacking horde-flock in their quest to devour the remaining humans.
This may well be a parable of the church.
While much attention continues to be given (appropriately) to training leaders and discussing the evolving model of elderships within churches, but we need to talk more about the other side of the relationship—what we sheep bring to our relationship with our shepherds. Like any relationship, we can’t work on only one side of the equation. For our model of shepherding to become truly effective, it can’t just be about the shepherds. We have to also develop our sense of what it means to receive shepherding. You can’t have good healthy shepherds in a church full of bloodthirsty zombie sheep.
Scripture says something really interesting about this in Hebrews 13, which reads “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would not be beneficial to you.” Working on the sheep side of the relationship with shepherds doesn’t just make their job more enjoyable for their sake, but it actually helps us, the sheep. When we engage our shepherds and willingly receive the shepherding they offer us, it is to our great advantage, because it creates the possibility of the sort of shepherding relationships we need—shepherds who show us grace, teach us the word, and help us carry our burdens when we are weak.
But how can we have shepherds who show grace if we don’t have sheep who show vulnerability? How can we have shepherds who teach if we don’t have sheep who are eager to learn? How can we have shepherds who help the weak carry their burdens unless we are willing to freely admit our own weaknesses and accept help when it’s offered to us?
The shepherds don’t function in isolation from the body, but function as a part of a body, as an expression of what God is doing in the church as a whole. And the relationship between how the shepherds do their work and how we do ours is one in which the church grows as every piece does its part, as each one of us contributes to the sort of community in which good healthy shepherding naturally happens. The eldership has a role in helping us become the kind of church we need to be, but we must also recognize that the church has a role in helping the elders become the kinds of shepherds they need to be.
We need shepherds who help us hear the word, so that we can be formed by it and hear exactly what we need to take the next steps in growth. But to be able to do that, the elders need us to be willing to share with them where we already are in our process of growth. They need us to become candid about where we have grown, where God is working on us now, and where we are struggling in our faith. This is challenging, because we want to pretend that we’re all in the same place, that we’re all growing in exactly the same way, in exactly the same time—or worse, we want to pretend like we don’t need to grow at all. We treat Christian maturity as if it’s an all or nothing deal, as if we come up out of the water as fully formed disciples and there is nothing left to do but just hold on and hope we don’t mess up. But in reality, we always need to be fed, we always need to grow.
Elders have a teaching role, not just in classes or big public settings, but as a part of their relationship with their sheep, they naturally feed the sheep with insight from the word. I remember hearing Brent say that an important part of his role is to help people in struggle see their situation from a spiritual perspective, to help them see themselves in a way informed by scripture. And we need that, don’t we? We need people who can come alongside us to speak to where we’re at. But, how can that happen unless we’re willing to be honest about where we really are—not just in times of obvious crisis, but in the routine times that make up so much of our lives and where most of our growing takes place.
We need shepherds who will walk with us in all of life. Not just because they’re elders, but because they are simply part of the church, and that’s what church folk do—we walk with each other. We take care of each other, experience life with each other. Like Paul says:
“But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” -1 Cor 12:24-26
That’s for everybody, whether we think of ourselves as leaders or not—the church is built to be a community of people who live life together, and who share the ups and downs of life together. Good pastoral care doesn’t happen in a church where the shepherds are the only ones doing it. It happens best in communities that understand that we all—each one of us—has an obligation to look out for each other. Ken has talked with me about continuing to build a culture of pastoral care in the church where it’s not just about the elders, but about all of us pitching in to care for each other. In that culture, the elders are shepherds who lead by example. Shepherds give care to the hurting, but not alone. They lead a community that cares for the hurting among us.
And not just in times of struggle! As we walk together, we learn to give God glory for all the different ways he is at work in our lives. Lance wrote to me that one of the things that has most surprised him about being an elder is how he started noticing how the Spirit was at work in so many lives around the church—Not because of anything special about him being and elder, but because he started opening his eyes and noticing more. He wrote, “I am constantly amazed how the Word of God transforms, grows and matures the believer…To increase my awareness of God growing so many members’ spiritual lives has been a surprise I was not expecting.” Maybe our shepherds could help us recognize more and more of those ways God is at work—but how will that happen unless we make a commitment to share more of our lives with them, to let them walk with us? How will we recognize God’s work in each other unless we’re walking with each other?
As we developed the process we’re using this time to appoint additional elders, Tom reminded us that we needed to build in, from the beginning, some way of gauging the willingness of men to serve. The concept of willingness is critical to the role—we must have willing elders, willing shepherds. First Peter uses that language, that elders should serve willingly, not under compulsion, even eagerly. It’s also true on the other end—we must have members who willingly receive shepherding. Willing shepherds, and willing sheep. Willingness may come easily to neither. But that spirit of willingness is at the heart of the church.
Remember Mark 10? It was in a discussion of who in the community of disciples would lead and who would be led that Jesus told the disciples that he himself “had come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In discussing their willingness to serve each other, Jesus called the disciples to consider his own willingness to walk the way of the cross. To close this morning, I want to call you to do the same: consider Jesus. Is there anything in this sermon that exceeds the cross? In the cross, Jesus becomes the ultimate willing shepherd, and paradoxically, the best example of a willing sheep.
In this, as in everything, may we only follow him.