Jesus Did Not Say 'Teach the Sheep to Self-Feed'

In John 21:15, Jesus asks Peter a question. Basically, “Do you love me?”

Peter says yes.

And Jesus didn’t say, “Then teach my sheep how to self-feed.” No, he tells Peter, “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus is referring to a shepherd’s personal care for the flock, and specifically he is helping Peter see that his (Peter’s) role must reflect the work of Christ himself. “If you love me,” in other words, “you will do for others what I have done for you.” And we do not see Jesus simply handing out resources and programs to his disciples, but sitting with them, walking with them, eating with them, praying with them, touching them and encouraging them and counseling them and correcting them. He does not hide behind his office door labeled “Messiah for Preaching and Vision.” He is sweating and crying and sleeping in front of them. And he dies for them.
Jesus the pastor knows that the sheep need a shepherd (Matt. 9:36).

This doesn’t mean an end to programmed provision. It doesn’t mean we abandon our classes or our resource centers. What it does mean, though, is that we ought to put an end to the notion that The Program is the key to spiritual growth. It means we cannot install an event, and when we see it doesn’t work, install another event and hope it succeeds.

Systems may aid the discipleship process, but discipleship is not a system. Discipleship is following Jesus. It requires help that is much more personal and relational.

The programmatic approach, and even the self-feeding approach, assumes that what people lack is a set of skills to address their felt needs for success or competence. But what any Christian enterprise ought to assume is that, beneath all our confusion and ignorance, what people really lack is a heart for God and neighbor. Underneath our felt needs is an entire industry of idols emerging from a foundation of sin and longing for glory. Only the gospel can get to that level and deal with it. This is why Jesus doesn’t say, “teach my sheep,” although he certainly wants us to teach. He says, “feed my sheep.” Because he knows what we all really need first and foremost is the word of life that satisfies and sustains.

Isn’t it odd that for so long we have begun with the idea that we must demonstrate how practical and applicable to everyday life Christianity is, yet so few people are actually being matured by the process that begins that way? I think it has something to do with the fact that we aren’t beginning by addressing the real problem. We assume it is dysfunction or lack of success, when really it is sin. We need skills, sure. But we need grace first and most.

What good is it anyway to win people to the life of a church’s programs if they aren’t in love with Jesus? The attractional church too often holds up Jesus as more of a role model than the sovereign God, not so much as the Door as merely the doorman to success and happiness.

And so we have to give permission for someone to ask us the uncomfortable question at any given time: Are we trusting our programs, or are we trusting God?

I don’t believe the right response to “the programs aren’t working” is to conclude that the life of the church is not the place for Christians both new and “old” to be fed. I don’t believe the right response to “our goods and services aren’t having their desired effect” is to work on creating more independent Christians, trusting them to get it right somehow all by themselves. Whatever our programs, our churches’ leaders need to take seriously the command of Christ—in as many ways as possible—to feed his sheep.

But this may require a radical reorienting not simply of programs or expectations but of the leader’s aims. If we simply want more people or better people, a different set of programs and events might accomplish that. But if we want Christ-exalting, Christ-loving, Christ-following people, we have to get more personal and go deeper.

We have to get beyond simply trying to move warm bodies around through the systems and actually try moving the gospel into the system of those bodies. And that means figuring out the difference between managing people’s activities and pastoring people’s hearts.

– from The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo (pp. 144-146)