Thursday, March 30, 2023

Who’s Minding the Store?

I’m seeing more and more of those “self-checkout” units at the local stores. They always creep me out a bit. There just seems to be something really weird about the idea of walking up to a mechanical box, shuffling around my own transaction, and then leaving, going out of a store without passing by a person.

I feel as if I owe somebody some kind of explanation, like “Here’s my purchase, and here’s my money, and they match up; so don’t call the cops.” And then this person is supposed to give me the nod, like, “Okay, you’re alright this time; but when you come back, we’ll need to see each other again.”

Maybe it’s just habit. There’s no reason anybody actually has to see my purchase, now that automation has taken over; the security is, if anything, greater. But when the day comes (and it soon will) when complete automation happens — when you’re scanned when you walk in the door and scanned again on your way out, but without even having to stop — I’m pretty sure that’s really going to give me the heebie-jeebies.

I guess it doesn’t matter: but somehow, I just think someone ought to be minding the store.

Am I Going Somewhere With This?

Recently, I’ve been guest speaker at two special congregational events. These were for a special demographic; and since this was new for me, as well as for the organizers, I asked them to give me some idea of what need they thought they were addressing by creating the conferences.

In both cases, they couldn’t really tell me.

And I found that odd. Why would someone organize a big event, and not have any idea of what need that event was supposed to address? It seemed like a lot of work to put into something for which you had no idea of the payoff. But in both cases, the elders and leaders involved were kind of non-committal.

Some said things like, “Well, whatever you say will be great, I’m sure” (Ooh, thanks — no pressure there!), and others said, “Just let the Spirit lead.”

Okay, good advice, so far as that goes. But how far does that really go, when I’m parachuting in from some distance, and have never met — let alone had a chance to get any idea of the needs of — the congregation to whom I’m obliged to speak? How do I prepare for that? Where do I begin my study? What tone and vocabulary do you want me to adopt? What issues are pressing for your people right now? How can I add value for you? Isn’t there somebody who is keeping an eye on things, figuring out why we want this or that kind of teaching at any one time?

Apparently not. Or if there were such, they were not prepared to say.

So I’ve been thinking … why is that?

The Past

I grew up among Christians who left a lot of things kind of “loose” in order, as they told me, to “leave room for the Spirit” to lead. In a lot of ways, I think this was very wise. If our churches are to remain sensitive and open to the particular ways in which God wishes to lead his people, there are going to have to be a lot of things we leave flexible and adaptable. If, when the Lord speaks, the local church is already locked into iron-clad institutions of its own, with fixed rules, schedules, habits and procedures, how will the Spirit of God be able to modify what the church is doing? Where is the place for further obedience then?

In ministry: if everything is predefined by curricula, offices and prefabricated ideological systems, how will the Spirit of God, our promised perfect Teacher, find room to speak freely to the local needs, or to the particular needs of the congregation or of the individual heart, as they arise? Some opportunity for hearing and responding seems quite essential to the life of faith, does it not?

And in worship: if we are already bound to a calendar, a liturgy and a rote practice of meeting, how will the spontaneity and timeliness so integral to passionate love burst forth from the Lord’s people to glorify him?

The Stewardship of the Spirit

So I don’t want to denigrate the leading of the Spirit. Indeed, we could all use more of it. At the same time, though, is it not possible to recognize in scripture a certain division of responsibilities that endures, even while we are keeping a reasonable flexibility of application? Not everybody is gifted for every function or gifted for every task.

In the churches where I grew up, we sometimes erred on the other side. We might not have had “one man ministry”, the whole show run by one charismatic leader, but sometimes we tipped from that over into “every man ministry”, in which we allowed just anyone to lead or speak about anything — as if we had forgotten that not everyone is gifted to speak, or to lead, or even to serve in particular ways. And the results were sometimes that meetings became dominated by the most theatrical, the most obstinate or the most ardent person, instead of the wisest and most godly.

It’s a tightrope act, really: when too much is preset, a church suffocates from lack of spontaneity and adaptability; when too little is defined, it wanders in crazy directions. There’s no ultimate answer on one side or the other: just another way to fall.

Big and Small

The Church is both particular and universal. As a universal body, there are things the Bible says about it that are most encouraging — that Christ himself will build it, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it, that it has been showered with the gifts of the Spirit of God, and that it shall be a pure bride prepared for eternal union with the Lord.

But at the local level, we are told that the church is often vexed, persecuted and distressed, that it can be vulnerable and weak, can be spoiled by corruption, and can even lose its love for the Lord and be closed down completely. The Church Universal is entirely in the hands of God; but in particular ways, the local church has been committed as a stewardship into the hands of men. Whether or not this or that local church will end up contributing to the glory of the Universal Church is a contingent matter: it might or might not work out that way.

It all depends on whether or not there is a lampstand left at the end of the day.

That means that while there are certainly things the whole Church needs to know, there are also a lot of things that pertain more to the local, the particular and the temporary. Every local church has its own local issues.

Veterinary Care

Biblically speaking, believers are referred to as “sheep”. It’s not in the world’s insulting way, as referring to people who will follow anyone, for any reason, and never think for themselves; it’s because the Lord realizes that like sheep, we are all weak and vulnerable, hungry and dependent, and even the strongest of us is poorly equipped, without him, to face this wide and dangerous world. It’s an expression of his tenderness to us, not of contempt.

And like a good shepherd, the Lord knows all the particular identities and needs of his sheep. However, in his sovereign wisdom, he has committed their feeding and care into the hands of local believers, with whom he works to share the special challenges, growth experiences and rewards that come with tending to the needs of others. Some of these are helpers and decision-makers, some are teachers and proclaimers, some are providers of mercy and hospitality. All are servants; all have their roles within the local church, and all are necessary.

These Sheep, This Pasture

Who is supposed to know what these sheep need? Who knows which pasture they should be grazing?

Who knows what they have already eaten, how full they are, and what the next stage of their development should be? Who knows what their diet lacks, what particular wounds they are carrying, and what particular wolves lurk in the shadows to claim them?

Who is watching this flock?


Who should be? We know the Good Shepherd takes care of the whole flock. But under him, are there not undershepherds? What, precisely, are their duties? What does it mean for them to “be on guard”? On guard for what? The context says for “savage wolves” and men who “rise up from among your own selves, speaking perverse things”. False teachers, then … both from inside and outside of the flock.

How does one guard against false teachers if no one knows what the “good teaching” is? No wonder, then, that primary among the duties of an undershepherd is the ability to teach. But how shall they make their teaching nutritious to the flock if they don’t know what the flock can eat?

And the flock is not always in a state to eat just anything. Particularly where teachers have been scarce, more advanced truths can be difficult for them to digest. Whether a congregation needs to start with milk or meat is something that I think we have biblical warrant to say we ought to discern.

Keeping Accounts

Here’s my theory: the people to whom the responsibility of feeding the sheep has been committed by the Lord are the teachers, preachers, exhorters and leaders of the local congregation. And preeminently, the stewardship of attending to the feeding of the local assembly falls to the elders. They may not do all the teaching themselves (though all must contribute something to that), but it is the elders who must know what needs to be taught, in what order and priority, so as to cover the whole counsel of God and to address local needs. It is the elders who are to keep an eye on where the sheep are at, what they are likely to need next, and where they are all going in the long run, from a teaching perspective.

I’m not suggesting they need to lock in some kind of program: no, no. I’m not even suggesting they ought to dictate to visiting speakers what they must say on a given Sunday: certainly not. But if asked, they ought to be able to discuss in an insightful way where the local believers are at. They ought to be able to make suggestions, at the very least. They ought to have some idea where the local congregation is in its travelling through all that the scriptures have to offer. And they ought to be alert to when doctrines that were last taught too long ago need to be repeated, so that new believers and new generations do not have holes in their knowledge, and so that precious doctrines are regularly reinforced.

Taking Inventory

So can I make a suggestion? Shouldn’t the elders in each congregation sit down for a bit and take stock of where the local congregation is at doctrinally? Why not inventory the local needs, and reflect on what has been taught recently and what perhaps has been overlooked? Why not consider the particular sheep in the local congregation, and match up some things with what they are actually facing in the real world?

And from the side of the individual believer, why not start thinking about what we do and don’t know? What do we wish we knew that at present we don’t? Where are the holes in our own general knowledge of scripture? What things haven’t been talked about lately? In what areas of life are we struggling to apply our faith? And how good are we personally at understanding and explaining salvation, or eternal security, or Trinitarianism; or just in reasoning through our own faith in a way which satisfies us thoroughly? Having thought that through, why not talk to those in charge of our spiritual feeding, and ask them to help us plug the gaps?

I’m thinking that with the help of the Spirit of God, we ought to be able to come up with some priorities — not a “hard and fast” plan, but a reflective guideline for making sure we who lead are actually responding to what the Lord is doing in the local congregation. That seems to me a very worthwhile exercise.

Or am I unreasonable? Is it inevitable that any attempt to think through these issues is going to result in the stifling of the Spirit?

I don’t think so. But what do you think?

Isn’t anybody supposed to be minding the store?

Photo: Steven Walling


  1. As an itinerant preacher, I found this post particularly appropriate in today's evangelical climate. It is one of my long-term concerns.

  2. Great post. While there are plenty of holes in the whole official church organization team (pastor, ass. pastor, jr. pastor, youth pastor, etc.) method there is something to be said for having a vision (buzz word) for where your local church is going and being intentional about where it ought to be going. No sense leaving our heads buried in the sand...

  3. I think it is clear that the Holy Spirit's capacity is somewhat underestimated by your concerns. Undoubtedly he would find the means and ways necessary to get the correct ideas and actions across to people if he wanted to no matter what the setting is. Secondly, he defers to and relies on us to get the point across and implement when needed. One can also safely assume that he will not be satisfied with what our limited efforts can produce including our continual efforts at improvement in the public and private sphere (by those who are capable and motivated enough to pitch in). Thus, he will defer to us mainly because it is everyone's job regardless of our limitations. He would therefore also not be hindered if one type of effort produces a structured environment for worship for several (important)reasons, e.g., respond to God with beauty and treasure as we can muster to properly honor him as the author of it all and to convey that sense of aw and appreciation to all his believers. He had trouble with the externals of the Sanhedrin because of their internals. I doubt that he has trouble of any kind with an honest effort of wanting to honor him with appropriate attire (no jeans please on Sundays?) and the ceremonial celebration of the mass in a beautiful setting where available or your school gym or your kitchen if only that is available for shelter and fellowship. In the Catholic church it is at the discretion of the priest. We have had mass said in our dining room and kitchen by our priest friends for strengthening of worldly and divine friendships, special needs and to witness to our faith. I would have no problem or second thought doing the same in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican without getting entangled in the types of concerns that are expressed here.