I was speaking to a denomination several weeks ago and a pastor asked me how many people we had in our church. I responded, “324.” He looked at me strange as if I had said something weird. “Wow, you know the exact number?” He asked.
“Well of course. How else are you supposed to shepherd people? If you don’t know them or their names, or the issues in their life, I don’t think you can actually do more than preach at them.”
As I pondered his curiosity over my ability to “know the sheep” in our ministry environment it brings up a lot of serious issues I think every pastor must come to terms with.
The big issue is related to the main call we all have from God. “To Make Disciples.” I’ve learned over 20 years of church leadership and church consulting, that many pastors have no real interest in making one of these. That is a person who is transformed by the gospel of Jesus and who allows Christ to overwhelm and invade every aspect of their lives. I find that we most often settle for drawing followers, fans, attenders, and churchgoers, but these do not fit inside the definition or ideal of what we know Jesus meant.
Disciples are essentially apprentices and therefore will require massive amounts of time and friendship to see transformation happen. When I look at the lives of our 324, almost every person has significant life issues that keep them from gospel transformation. Every pastor wants their church to be “missional,” but you don’t just get your small groups to go on mission. You don’t just start preaching missional sermons and see the church change. The reality is that people can’t go on mission or even function inside a missional community unless they have quite a bit of life transformation in process. Some don’t know how to relate with non-Christians, some have no functional marriage, some have no clue how to parent their screaming kids, most are in debt, sexually perplexed, socially awkward and mired in deep social insecurity and on and on and on. Apprenticeship that takes time, real time! And your church, your missional communities, your small groups will only be as missionally functional as the people become functional.
There are no short cuts to gospel transformation. Jesus spent 30 years living in the neighborhood before he even started the formal process of preparing a people to carry on his mission. Even during his three years of focused mission, he grabbed just a handful to pour his life into. Books have been written on the method of apprenticeship Jesus used and we’d all be wise to stop reading magazines that tout the “fastest growing churches.” It simply isn’t real kingdom growth. Argue if you want, but any pastor with real stories will confirm, growth takes time, time takes people, and true shepherding is about knowing your sheep, walking with the sheep, and it’s a kingdom slug in through the mud that is what Jesus is after.