I’ve been struggling hard with my church life for a long time and trying to put my finger on what the problem is. It’s complicated, and there are many factors at play – but one in particular has captured my attention so distinctly that I feel the need to share.
It began with a heaviness, a sadness. Every time I would watch a service from my church on TV, or go there in person. A feeling of being invisible and on the outside. Despite attending a cell group the entire time I’ve gone there, and serving as I’ve been able.
And a repeated thought, playing again and again in my mind: Sheep without a shepherd. Sheep without a shepherd.
The word “pastor” comes from the Latin for “shepherd.” Now we all know that the Lord is our perfect shepherd. We’ve heard Psalm 23, again and again: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want” (verse 1).
But have we forgotten the many verses, in both the old and new testament, in which God seeks to admonish and/or stir up the human pastors/shepherds that He has anointed over His flock? He has given them a most pivotal role.
Consider the story found in Luke 9. Jesus is attempting to withdraw from the crowds, but they follow Him. What does He do? Welcomes them. Speaks to them. Heals them.
And then: “Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here'” (verse 12).
The disciples want to send them away. These people have too many needs! They can’t fill them all.
But Jesus says, “You give them something to eat” (verse 13). And of course, what follows is that Jesus takes their meager supply of five loaves and two fish, and feeds the entire crowd of five thousand.
He could have rained down bread from Heaven, but He didn’t. He wanted them to offer whatever they had to the people, and then He multiplied it.
So yes, Jesus is our perfect shepherd. He’s the one who’s actually taking care of us. But sometimes, I think, He’s waiting for His human pastors to make the first move.
And often, they don’t.
Where are my pastors? Where are my shepherds?
They are on the screen of my TV. They’re on the stage. They’re behind an impenetrable barrier of polished, picture-perfect social media accounts.
Their pictures and names are on the church website, but not their email addresses, so I could contact one of them if I were in need. (There are staff and volunteers to field those requests. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I could make an appointment to see a pastor. In a month.)
If I see them at the grocery store, they probably won’t know who I am.
What kind of a shepherd knows nothing about his sheep?
In the midst of this loneliness, God led me to Ezekiel 34. I felt like it was written just for me, in this moment. It was like a balm for my soul. I was finally seen – if not by my human shepherds, then by my heavenly One. (You’ll have to forgive me for the long quote below. It was difficult for me not to type out the entire chapter, because it resonated with me so strongly!)
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?…You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost…So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them…I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land.”Ezekiel 34:2-13
“I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”Ezekiel 34:16
If you are feeling unseen, unknown, and excluded at church, I’m sorry. I know what it’s like. I try to remind myself, though, that being a pastor is a tough job. Pastors are fallible; pastors are human.
Nonetheless, God is noticing. He is holding them to account. And where they fail you, God is ready to scoop you up, and save you.
And finally, although this message is focused on the people set apart to be pastors, we sheep – the members of the flock – have something to take from it as well. What do we have, that God is asking us to give, so that He can multiply it? Just like the loaves and fish – whatever we have, it’s not too little, it’s not too unimportant. He wants us to give it away to His people, so that He can do something larger with it.
How are you feeling about church? Do you feel at home there, or do you feel like you’re on the outside?
And is there anything that you think God is asking you to give away to His people?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.