Thriving is usually traced to nurture. Whether it’s through healthy parenting, husbandry, or guardianship, things well-cared-for tend to flourish.
This is especially true of spiritual development. Since it is personal, less tangible, and takes greater determination to cultivate, spiritual well-being can’t be homogenized or mass-produced. People need to be personally invested in.
Which sets up a consequential challenge for the determined church. Skillful shepherding is a central reason why followers of Jesus gather, and anonymity doesn’t breed thriving.
The Apostle Paul signals this in his letter to the church at Colossae, where he describes toiling with all his energy to present everyone mature in Christ. The Apostle John also reveals such an interest in his third letter: I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. Jesus, preparing Peter for his future work with the church, repeated it three times. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.
The writer of Hebrews adds the element of accountability to church leaders for the well-being of those under their care: for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Accountability to a higher authority lends weight to any endeavor, and it makes sense here. God loves His children and wants them to thrive. So, He entrusts them to us.
What does it look like to “shepherd” each of God’s children? The two best biblical descriptions come from Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34. The first boasts of God’s shepherding, and the second describes healthy shepherding inversely by citing its absence. Here are highlights:
A good shepherd looks after the flock, meets their needs, provides rest and good pasture, strengthens the weak, heals the sick, binds the wounds of the injured, searches for the lost, rescues the strays when they scatter during dark times, deals with bullies and abusers, protects them from predators, and blesses them. (Click here for a more complete list.)
The idea of shepherding is central to “church.” It’s how we love one another toward thriving, which is why Jesus felt compassion for those who were missing out.
The obvious tension here is how one person (or three or eight . . . ) can possibly shepherd a church full of people. I don’t believe it’s possible, and especially not when the only gathering point is a group meeting. That’s why the second element I’d look for in a church is a shared investment in the group.