To read part one, click here.
In processing the idea of sheep stealing, I’d like to go through a few questions.
- Who is the Shepherd?
- What does it mean to hear the Shepherd’s voice?
- What does it mean to feed sheep?
- When is sheep stealing wrong?
Who is the Shepherd?
I think the foundational question behind the idea of sheep stealing is “Who is the Shepherd?” If we mess up the answer of this question, then we are already headed down the wrong path. The answer is simple, yet often forgotten in the context of pastoring and where one goes to church. The Shepherd is Christ, not a pastor and not a church. He is the one that the sheep are called to follow. Now some might chide back with Jesus’ instructions to Peter at the end of John as to how Peter was told to feed “His” sheep, and there is validity to this, and I’ll get into that, but let us not confuse the role of feeding sheep with being the Shepherd. Jesus Christ is the Shepherd and about that we cannot be confused.
What does it mean to hear the Shepherd’s voice?
An often repeated phrase in the church world is that “the sheep will know the shepherd’s voice.” I believe this is a critical statement that needs to be understood in the context of people choosing to leave one church to attend another. The end game is not finding the right church or aligning yourself with a certain denomination or following your favorite pastor. All of those could be helpful (and sometimes harmful) to the real task and agenda and that is an ever-growing relationship with Jesus. It is my hope that thebridge as a church is never seen as a destination (see here). I believe there are numerous reasons why people leave one church and choose to go to another. These reasons include your standard disappointed, confused, left out, not being fed (we’ll get into this one), moved, got married, and kicked out. But I honestly believe and have known a number of great people who have been called out of their old church. Not through solicitation, enticement, or trickery by the newly attended church but by the Lord himself. I believe some people actually leave the church they were attending because God put it on their heart to do so. It is funny how we give pastors full permission to leave one church leaving behind a bunch of “sheep” and go lead another church but for a member to have the same calling is down right sinful. Some of you may be reading this and thinking that is easy for you to say, your church is probably the one growing by transfer growth, and you would be right. That is our reality. I believe some have come because God has called them. But I don’t think that is true of everyone. I think some are checking out the newest thing in town, others are church shoppers which is another blog post all together, and still others are bitter, hurt, confused or angry for one reason or another and have chosen to get away from what they view as the source of those emotions. I fully anticipate our fair share of people who will leave and go somewhere else for these reasons and others. As the pastor of thebridge, some of those who leave I am to own, some of those I am to encourage, and some of those I am supposed to just trust God with because I’ll never know.
Let me close this section with a short analogy. There is a Master Shepherd who has many sheep. He hires workers to help care for the sheep. At times, certain workers are in places that are dry and less fertile while other workers are in an area that is full of grass and water. Would it not seem feasible then to have the Master Shepherd encourage some from the dry area to switch herds and go to a more fertile area. Now I’m no shepherd, and I have no idea if that is how it works, but that is how it works in my head. Please don’t hear what I’m not saying either. I’m not saying that those who are losing members or having people leave are dried out churches or churches that aren’t fertile. The greater point I’m trying to make is that the Master Shepherd makes the call, and He is doing what is best for the sheep and as hired workers, we are called to care and steward those with whom He has entrusted us.
What does it mean to feed sheep?
Certainly one of the top phrases I have heard by people who have left a church and chosen to come to thebridge is, “I just wasn’t being fed at my old church,” and that very well may be true but in no way is your former church to own all of that. I really enjoyed Vince Antonucci’s comments on this in a blog series he did entitled “Waaaaa. I’m not getting fed!” (click here), and if you click ahead, you can find more of his thoughts on his blog under the same heading.
I think one of the challenging things about all of this is our western mindset of consumerism. Many Christians believe the church is here for us/them, but isn’t it healthier to believe that we are the church, and Christ left the church for the world? Once-a-week feedings hardly goes well for anyone when it comes to nutrition, how much more is this the case spiritually when one expects a diet of an hour a week to last them an entire week. That entire mindset is unhealthy and part of the problem.
So what does it mean to feed sheep? I don’t think it should be surprising to think that different sheep have different eating habits and thus feeding the flock is going to very from one sheep to another. For some, they need to relearn entirely new habits on what to eat, and for some it might mean teaching them to eat for themselves and quick being spoon or bottle-fed, and for some it might mean helping others to eat (and that ruins the analogy all together because then they are no longer sheep but rather one who feeds sheep but that is besides the point).
It is very important to understand what is and isn’t our job. There are some angles of feeding the sheep that I am very much responsible for, but it would be ill-advised for me to own more than what is mine or to confuse what I do with what God is doing.
One final thought on this. I am aggressively trying to go after those who have no church home. I’m attempting to become all things to all people so that some might come to know Christ. I use mass mailing, modern worship, an awesome location, and everything else the Lord brings to us in order to promote the saving message of risen Christ. I am not ashamed that this has caused some to leave their existing church because I know this was never our intent at thebridge. If we set out to market Christians from other churches that would be wrong. That is not we have done. I think Jeff Kapusta says it well here.
When is sheep stealing wrong?
There are the situations when sheep stealing is just that. Not to long ago I was confronted with a situation in which a person who faithfully attends another church and I became acquaintances. This person is rocking awesome, and I found my mind wandering to what it would be like for this person to jump ship and join us and what we are doing. I confess I let my mind slip to the day where we might have a conversation to that nature. Later that night as I was wrestling with God in trying to go to sleep, my sin was exposed. God spoke clearly to me and let me see the error in my thoughts. I’m thankful I never acted on any conversations and have repented from this sin. I can honestly and joyfully say that this is not only is no longer a temptation to me, but I take great delight in championing the cause for people to stay and serve where they are.
Closing thoughts on Sheep Stealing
I belive sheep stealing as it exists in error and sin is rare and a completely different issue then transfer growth. I believe God is active and calls people to move around and those who are faithfully growing in their relationship with Him will know when to stay and when to go. I believe pastors who are bitter or hurt by people who leave their church are missing what God has called them to be. I believe we have one Shepherd and we are to follow him anywhere he might call us.