“You need to know your people and they need to see you as their pastor. It’s important.” Bill said this to me on the weekend before I was installed as pastor. Bill was in his late seventies at the time. I was not yet thirty. “Everyone today says that visits are a thing of the past, but I’m telling you that they are important.”
Like most young leaders, I didn’t realize how important Bill’s words were until I was well into my pastorate. His advice—know your people—was the most valuable advice I received. I think it’s advice that, unfortunately, a lot of young leaders don’t understand.
I’m realizing this even more now that I’m not a pastor. For the first time in decades, I’m not part of a pastoral team, not preaching or setting up the service on Sunday. I’m simply attending church, with my family. It’s amazing what this perspective is doing for my view of the pastorate.
People come weary and broken into the doors of church on Sunday. They need to hear a word from the Lord. Yes, they often need to be challenged, stretched, exhorted, and rebuked. But if all they ever hear is that they don’t love Jesus enough, aren’t making disciples fast enough and with enough urgency, aren’t praying enough and are sinning too much—if this is all the people hear every single week—they will be crushed.
As much as God’s people need a preacher, they need a pastor. And if you are going to be a pastor, you have to be a shepherd. You must ascend to the pulpit with the weight of their burdens and their brokenness on your shoulders.
There are a lot of good preachers today, men who faithfully declare what God has already said about Himself. But there are far fewer pastors. Men who are living in faithful and broken gospel community with their people.
I’m not the expert on pastoral ministry, but I found these four practical ways to faithfully shepherd our people:
1. Our preaching should reflect the Scripture’s balanced spiritual diet.
If you have preached for any length of time and have not spent time in the Psalms or Lamentations or Jeremiah or Job you should start soon. Why? We need to teach our people how to properly lament.
Guys like me who love theology and are passionate about discipleship and missions; we can tend to be ranchers instead of shepherds. This is especially true if you are leading a revitalization project, trying to push people to think beyond their stuffy traditionalism and invigorate them to live on mission. But we can quickly forget that broken people are sitting in our pews. It’s a good idea, when preparing our messages for Sunday, to ask ourselves:
The woman who just had a miscarriage but hasn’t told anyone about it—will she hear of the Great Comforter of souls this morning? The guy who lost his job but is too ashamed to tell anyone—will he be reminded that his worth is not defined by a few lines on his resume but by his identity as a blood-bought child of Christ? The pimpled and overweight teenage girl—will she find a Jesus who can release her from the bondage of her insecurity? Will she find a friend in the Savior that she cannot find anywhere else in her life?
2. Spend time with your people.
There is a temptation to isolation for pastors who labor long and hard to craft substantive, weighty, gospel-rich sermons. We can get so cloistered in our study with our books that we stay removed from the people we are called to serve. While it is important to have structured and jealously guarded time for study, it’s equally important—for our preaching—to live among our people. If we have not spent precious time with our people, hearing their struggles, listening to their concerns, understanding their day-to-day work lives—we’ve failed. We’ve become producers of biblical content, preachers, but not shepherds.
Of course every church and every pastor structures this a bit differently. There is wisdom in having leaders with different roles, some to do the administrative work, some to do counseling work, some to do teaching work. And yet we should not so organize our churches that we isolate the main pastor/teacher from the people. On Sundays, people will fill the auditorium and hear an inspirational speaker, perhaps a good preacher, but they will not hear the voice of someone they consider their pastor. The preaching will be harsh, impersonal, and vague.
So go out for coffee with your people. Have them for dinner. Visit them at their workplace. Email them, call them, text them. Know what is going on, at least in some sense, in their daily lives. Cry with them, laugh with them, plan with them. When you do this, I promise you, it will change the way you preach.
3. Keep the people’s hurt in front of you.
People come to church, most Sundays, needing hope. Not Joel-Osteen hope, but the hope of the Savior who leads them like a shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death. Perhaps I feel this more now than I ever have, as a member of a church who needs refreshment on Sunday. I recently heard Mike Glenn, senior pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church, say on a podast, “People use up all their faith just getting in the door on Sunday.” One of the things I tried to do in my pastorate was to reflect, in my pastoral prayer, the brokenness of the people before me. Regardless of my text, I would always begin our service with a prayer that went something like this, “Father, be with those who come today, broken and bloodied, in deep sorrow over things only you know about. Help them to find refuge and comfort in their Great Shepherd. Help us to see how these trials of life are shaping us into your Son’s image.” To hear their pastor express solidarity in prayer, before the Heavenly Father, is a gift you can give to your people every single week. Do this and then when you push them toward more faithfulness, they will know that they are being provoked to love and good works by someone who genuinely loves them, not just someone who is preaching at them.
4. Shape your worship service to reflect the diversity of spiritual emotions.
Much of our worship music music of triumph in the victory of Christ over sin and death. And this is how it should be. When we gather on Sunday, we gather to declare that Christ is the sovereign King and is to be worshipped and adored and praised. But it seems that there is often no room for lament in our services. Every song is upbeat. Every song is a celebration.
We would do well to include some somber, sober songs in our worship sets. After all, what would the Scriptures be without the Psalms, where David laments and cries out to the Lord? Or Jeremiah, the weeping prophet? Even Paul, who often was vivid in describing his trials. Jesus wept at the passing of Lazarus.
We live in a fallen, broken world. Our worship needs to reflect the wide range of human emotions and a sensitivity to people’s needs. Laughing and weeping, sad, but not despairing, sorrowful and yet rejoicing.