• Aaron Clark

Are Your Sheep Machines?

Goats Aren’t Robots

Something I always like bragging about is that I was once a goatherder.

That’s right, a goatherder. My family started with 4 and they multiplied to around 18 at the height of our little herd. I would lead them into our little pasture to graze, “deworm” them, attend births, nurse the abandoned kids, bury them when they died.

Although I do hope that the members of my congregation are sheep and not goats, I look back and realize that God did in fact give me introductory lessons in the pastorate through the shepherding of goats. Of course, our family’s mindset was also spoiled by the industrialist way of thinking, so it wasn’t perfect. What I mean by that is that my family initially did not look at them as beasts to care for, to love and to cherish. That was not our immediate purpose. Our immediate purpose was to lower taxes and to gain a little money by selling the kids for meat (which sounds pretty bad, admittedly).

In the end, we lost more money than we gained. But we learned a lesson. Goats aren’t robots.

That’s right. Goats aren’t robots. And I’m not Captain Obvious. What I mean is that they aren’t an “efficient” machine. It’s not “input x equals output y.” Things are a lot messier with organic, living beings.

One thing we learned very quickly was that we couldn’t help but love our goats. We knew we were going to sell them for meat. We even called them names like “Beef Jerky” in order to detach ourselves emotionally from them. But when the day came that an Asian family came to cook up little Beef Jerky for Ramadan, we couldn’t help but weep as a family. We loved our goats. And in the end, that’s the reason we ended up getting rid of them. You can’t profit off of meat goats if you love them.

The Meaning Of The Parable Of The Non-Robot Goats

Why do I tell that story? Well, there’s this concept going around among industrialist-type Pastors that sheep are robots. Don’t google it, you won’t find any conferences with that title. What I mean is that pastors are starting to look at their ministry through the lens of the industrialist metaphor – that is, the metaphor of the machine.

This leads to all sorts of evils – the list is indefinite and hard to measure, but here are a few directions that way of thinking can lead to:

  • It can lead to looking at your sheep like meat goats – commodities and not people to love.

  • It can lead to looking at your congregation as a source of profit.

  • It can lead to looking at your church as a personal means and not a Christological end (for example, a means of fulfilling personal ambition).

  • Perhaps most subtle and dangerous, it can lead to demanding “spiritual efficiency” from your people – which I think is a new ‘religious yoke’ that I do believe Christ wishes to dismantle in our churches.

Without calling out anyone in particular, I’d like to introduce to you this industrialist, efficiency-centered philosophy of ministry that has crept into the “shepherding style” of Industrialist Pastors. I use the word “industrialist” because I trace the roots of this philosophy all the way back to the industrial revolution and the industrialist mindset.

People don’t realize just how much the industrial revolution affected the way we think. The West did not merely revolutionize the way we produce, but even the way we perceive ourselves and others. Our whole culture was revolutionized. Even Christianity and theology (including the pastorate) have not been spared of its weighty influence.

Fair Warning: I am not going to speak of this in typical “objective” terms (quoting statistics and facts like Bible verses – one could say this also is a symptom of this way of thinking). I am simply going to speak in the manner of the prophets directly to the issue, and as a man whose intuition has grasped its reality. I don’t expect you to accept it wholesale at first, so I'll start by first painting a picture of the Industrialist Pastor.

Painting A Picture Of The Industrialist Pastor

The Pastorate used to have with it the idea of “taking care of” and “nurturing.” It used to be tied into the metaphor of a shepherd. That’s what a pastor was – literally, a shepherd. And it used to be that a shepherd was one who cared for his land and cared for his beasts. Interestingly, the word “husbandman” from the Old English husbonda, which carried with it the idea of a household owner or the “master of the house” – see Bible Hub on “Husbandman”).

Effectually, the husbandman (or shepherd) was once a cultivator and nurturer of creation and creatures.

Well, this might hurt, and I certainly hope I’m not the one to break this news to you. But, a pastor is no longer someone who cares for and nurtures people.

At least, not the Industrialist Pastor. He is no longer the classical pastor-shepherd. “Shepherd” is no longer a metaphor that he can understand. It is a metaphor as far removed from him as lightsabers. He cannot effectively understand and apply the metaphor because hardly anyone in his industrialist culture has any relationship whatsoever with anything like that in their lives. In fact, neither does he. And so, he assumes the posture not of a spiritual shepherd (which he knows very little about) but of an industrialist businessman (which he knows very much about, since it pervades his culture). He is first and foremost a businessman. His goal is not ‘nurture’ and ‘grow,’ but efficiency and reproducibility.

The Parable Of The Transformation Of The Farmer Into The Agribusinessman

Of course, we don’t have to limit ourselves to the metaphor of the shepherd to see this clearly – it is the ‘vocation’ of all cultivators and nurturers of organic, living beings that has been upended and redefined in industrialist terms (terms such as “efficiency,” “reproducibility,” “output,” “production,” the pursuit of “bigness,” “programs,” “coordinators,” “strategy,” etc.). Chief among the cultivators upended by the industrial revolution is the farmer. For our purposes, the shepherd (or the husbandman) is essentially the same person as the farmer. And it is the farmer whose practice we have lost.

The small-time farmer was driven off his farm by legislation, regulation and philosophy in the American Industrial Revolution. They had to. They were told by then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz in 1973 the following words: “Get big or get out.” And so, when once 83% of Americans were farmers in the year 1800, now they are less than 2%. And for those that remained, a good deal were transformed into something quite unlike famers – an Agribusinessman, a sort of farmer-businessman hybrid.

Is it any wonder hardly anyone in America knows anything about the cultivation or nurturing of anything – let alone souls?

This is my point. As the farmer has undergone his transformation into an agribusinessman, so has the pastor become the meta-pastor.

The Industrialist Pastor is no longer connected to the living examples of organic progression exemplified for us in the cultivation of land or animals. He is an industrialist. He is a businessman. He is an entrepreneur. He is a Ted Talk speaker. He is a guru, minus the spirituality.

The Neo-Industrialist Pastor

More recently, the Industrialist Pastor has added a new item to the list of industrial mutations. He is a technocrat.

I have actually heard it said of church planters that they could employ the same principles they use in church planting to be successful in Silicon Valley. That should give us some pause.

The technocratic Neo-Industrialist Pastor implements tools, strategies and methods to try to grow spiritual fruit quickly and on a mass-scale. He often values shininess over substance. He favors instant connectivity often to the disappointment of real, tangible connectivity. He enjoys the heavy usage of statistics and demographics.

What He Is Not

Although I have been describing what the Industrialist Pastor is, what is far more terrifying is what he tends not to be.

Most disturbingly, He is not a master of shepherding souls. He is not a skilled laborer in the ‘caring of individuals,’ in the art of loving God’s people, in the ministry of the Word to wounded souls, in the cherishing of the Bride of Christ, in the work of ‘filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the Church,’ in the pleasure-inducing burden of bearing the burdens of the weak, of caring for the sick, of visiting orphans and widows. He is not a master of his household. He does not possess spiritual ownership (in its most nurturing sense) of souls. He possesses ownership in a manner that tends toward exploitation.

He is a master of much, but what if he is not a master of these? Then, indeed, he is master of very little.

What Says The Great Shepherd Of Bad Shepherds?

I'd like to turn your attention to the Word for meditation on this point. Indeed, the Word of God says much about generally bad shepherds that I think can be applied to Industrialist Pastors. Read carefully these words of prophets:

If the shepherd-pastor is not seeking the Lord, they will not prosper in their work.

The shepherds have become senseless and do not seek the LORD. Therefore they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered. (Jeremiah 10:21) 

If the shepherd-pastor does not care for his sheep – even above and beyond his own needs – he is not fulfilling his duty:

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and tell them that this is what the Lord GOD says: 'Woe to the shepherds of Israel, who only feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed their flock?' (Ezekiel 34:2)

As Jesus said three times to Peter, "Do you love me?... Then feed my sheep."

The Lord despises such shepherd-pastors, calling them worthless:

"Woe to the worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May a sword strike his arm and his right eye! May his arm be completely withered and his right eye utterly blinded!" (Zechariah 11:17)

Ultimately, whose flock is it anyway? The Lord’s.

You are My flock, the sheep of My pasture, My people, and I am your God,' declares the Lord GOD." (Ezekiel 34:31)

Clearly, we have a serious stewardship from the Lord, and must treat His flock as such. It is interesting that as part of the indictment against shepherds, the Lord promises to bring His people good shepherds.

I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:4)

Who is The Good Shepherd?

More wondrous still is His promise of setting up a new Shepherd over His people. Read these selections from Ezekiel 34:

As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.  (v.12)

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice. (vv.15-16)

And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken. (vv.23-24)

And who is this one Shepherd? This servant, David? It is Christ the Lord. Christ is the Good Shepherd. He Himself says in John 10:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. (John 10:11-17)

May we be sincere vessels of the Spirit of the Good Shepherd – by the grace of God.

In Conclusion

I must add – I am not speaking against all the tools that Industrialist Pastor employs. However, I would encourage everyone to avoid carrying about the spirit of an Industrialist Pastor. Far better to be a spiritual pastor – a shepherd of souls. A spiritual pastor can certainly employ some of these techniques and tools while still retaining his nurturing, husbandman spirit. But there certainly is a difference between the two identities, and I have tried to draw them out in this article.

Regardless, keep in mind your attitude toward the sheep. See that you love them dearly. Christ died for them! They are not robots. And, by God’s grace, they won’t be goats!

Vermont Church Planting exists to move church planters forward in engaging communities throughout Vermont with the gospel.
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