Four essentials of a church: shepherding

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.

Attending a hundred churches

I’ve attended over a hundred churches. Most were visits while searching for “home.” Some were on trips spanning a weekend. And a few were simply to see what goes on in there.

Of the “home” churches, there were Christian Reformed, Brethren, Baptist, nondenominational, and Evangelical Free. The circle of “visited” churches stretches to include Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Charismatic, Church of Christ, and megachurch. We even visited a Unitarian church when I was young. As we left, my dad asked me what the sermon was about. “I couldn’t tell,” I confessed. “Exactly,” he replied.

There’s great equity in a “churched” history. You learn that Jesus Christ is the way to God. You get to know the Bible. And the community supports you with much prayer, good books, real-life examples of saintliness, and guardrails bounding the swerves of life.

Which isn’t to say it’s not bumpy. Hypocrisy, division, cynicism, and self-righteousness are ever present, and so are casualties. Families break apart, people drift away, pastors come undone, and loneliness is not uncommon. After all, churches are comprised of broken people beset by self-interest. But not overcome by it. Church is a community of those who know grace and forgiveness, and never stop praying for one another. It’s the presence of Christ through His followers.

A churched history is a rich inheritance every generation deserves to receive — and it doesn’t take a hundred churches to receive it. As I’ve reviewed my journey, I’ve identified four themes* that wielded the greatest good in my life. If we were to move to a new city, these are the elements I’d look for in our next church. I’ll tackle one each for the next four posts.

*Matters of praxis, not doctrinal distinctives. 

Setting examples

I work with two men who are weeks from turning eighty. They travel the world, zealous for a cause, influencing millions.

Both are humble, friendly, sincere, and generous. They live in the present, tell the truth,  love their enemies, and view challenges as opportunities.

Both attended Moody Bible Institute back in the day, follow Jesus Christ today, and live to meet Him some day soon.

But not too soon. There’s much yet to be done.

What’s their secret? One told me, “God keeps opening doors and I keep walking through them.” The other quoted a verse from the Bible. That I may finish my course well.

Giants in the land. Serving others. Like their Lord.

Invasive technology vs. humans

Many of the recent classics feature invasive technology. 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Giver come to mind. The speaker on the wall, the camera in the room, the eye in the sky, always watching.

Today, we live with all of these things. We’re living the classics. The only difference is who’s watching, and why. In the right hands, invasive technology is a welcome convenience. But not all are right handed.

The threat isn’t with the technology, but with the humans who use it. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil. Which means the question of our time (and of every time) is not how to use technology, but how to redeem humans.

Here are a few words describing what “redeemed” looks like in day-to-day life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Dig deeply into any of these qualities and they grow even more appealing (e.g., love).

These are all descriptions of Jesus Christ, whose birthday is marked by Christmas. He was born to redeem humans, and December is a good month to read about Him.

Taking root and bearing fruit.

People leave. They leave marriages, families, churches, communities, and companies.

Leaving can be innate, as when birds leave nests. It can be natural, as in leaving town for a new job elsewhere. It can even be necessary. Dangers, deprivations, and emergencies insist.

But just as often, leaving reveals brokenness. Something isn’t working, so we leave.

Such departures seem mandatory in the moment, but there are reasons to reconsider. One such reason was featured in a New Yorker piece on Orange City, a multi-generational town in Iowa. It’s about being with the same people at the same stores, schools, churches, and coffee shops, every day, always. Consider this excerpt:

In his 1970 book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, the economist Albert O. Hirschman described different ways of expressing discontent. You can exit — stop buying a product, leave town. Or you can use voice — complain to the manufacturer, stay and try to change the place you live in. The easier it is to exit, the less likely it is that a problem will be fixed. That’s why the centripetal pull of Orange City was not just a conservative force; it could be a powerfully dynamic one as well. After all, it wasn’t those who fled the town who would push it onward, politically or economically — it was the ones who loved it enough to stay, or to come back.

There’s much to be said for the deepening of relationships (communities, churches, workplaces) through “voice” and faithfulness. There’s love in this. Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. And it’s reciprocal. It sees beyond.

As the third and fourth generations flourish.

Seven signs of a productive meeting.

Meetings will make or break your project. Don’t hesitate to shake up or decommission teams that aren’t working out. Here are seven ideals to shoot for.

1. The only people in the room are stakeholders and gatekeepers. They care about the outcome.

2. Everyone knows why they’re in the room. They also know what’s being decided, solved, or accomplished.

3. Preparations happen beforehand. “I don’t know — I’ll need to look it up,” should never be said in a meeting. That’s a pre-meeting commitment. If someone doesn’t prepare, it means they don’t care, which means they don’t belong in the room.

4. Establish mutual respect. Each member’s interests or expertise should be understood by the others. Politics, conflict, sensitivity, assumptions — resolve them beforehand. When four people tiptoe around a fifth, nothing gets done.

5. Focus on the customer. Begin by knowing the customer, and keep returning to the customer’s interests. Never assume customer behavior that serves the product. That’s backwards (and unlikely).

6. Squelch dieseling. Encourage participants to ask questions or make statements without extended explanations. Crisp comments yield clarity which fuels progress. Run-on remarks suffocate engagement as others grow weary of waiting.

7. Critical assessment is crucial to progress. If it didn’t work the first time, discover why not. If the solution is vague, clarify what’s fuzzy. Ask questions. Push into the uncomfortable. This may take time, but it yields spectacular fruit.

Seven keys to compelling presentations.

We all present, whether in meetings, explanations, or conversations. Each time we present, we’re wielding influence. Here are seven ways to strengthen your influence.

1. Know your stuff. The meaning, reasons, details, background, challenges, exceptions, and weaknesses. You don’t have to share it all, but you should know it. Uncertainty voids authority, and you can’t slake interest without substance. John Boyd, the influential military theorist, prevailed in presentations because he did his homework, didn’t sling half-baked ideas, and never used imaginary statistics. When you know your stuff, no one can discredit your argument.

2. Speak truth. There’s no point to presenting if you can’t be trusted. When you tell the truth, people respect you, even if they disagree. People who disagree can work together. People who don’t trust each other can’t.

3. Tell the story. We live, dream, and relate in story. We aspire, create, and prevail through story. We perceive, grieve, loathe, and love by story. Story is the universal language. It defines and divides us, motivates and sustains us. Seth Godin, marketing guru, observes about story, “People like us do things like this. There is no more powerful tribal marketing connection than this.”

4. Develop a style that serves your audience. Style speaks more loudly than words. Are you selling? Spinning? Posturing? Hiding? Fast-talking? Boring? Listeners don’t mind conviction, persuasion, emotion, velocity, or gentle pacing — as long as you’re speaking to them and serving their interests. Present as if to those you love.

5. Don’t wing it. Most people are smarter than you realize. The more prepared you are, the more respect you convey. Nearly everyone will endure respect. Few will abide condescension.

6. Feature the big news. Signal your bold strokes. Preparing the stage is fine, but don’t build the theater before platforming your point. The longer you wait, the smaller your audience.

7. Believe it. Even if you’re presenting for the thousandth time, delivering bad news, or running on no sleep, remember why you’re doing this. How it makes things better. That your message is the very thing someone needs. This will keep you alive in the process, and life is contagious.