By David Roadcup
It was probably one of the most impactful moments of Peter’s life. John 21 tells the story. After Jesus’ resurrection, while the disciples are fishing from a boat, Jesus appears on the beach, starts a fire, and fixes breakfast for them. After another fish-producing miracle, Jesus calls the disciples in for breakfast. After they eat, Jesus engages Peter in a powerful discussion.
Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times, Peter emphatically states that he does. Three times, Jesus exhorts Peter to fulfill a specific task.
Jesus concludes round one of this exchange by telling Peter literally, “Be grazing my lambs” (Greek text). In the second exchange, Jesus says, “Be shepherding my sheep.” In round three, Jesus tells Peter, “Be grazing my sheep.” As my colleague Gary Johnson says, “In the New Testament, if it’s repeated, it’s important!” Jesus requests the same thing of Peter three times.
In A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Phillip Keller says a good shepherd was responsible not only for finding good pasture but also for working hard to create good pasture by tilling and planting. He would plant good grasses, “special grains and legumes.” Shepherds were responsible for ensuring their sheep were well-fed.
Jesus was calling Peter, as a shepherd of the church, to focus on making sure the “flock” was both well-shepherded and well-fed. We can’t miss this main point Jesus was making. In today’s church, a primary responsibility of an effective elder and church staff team is to be sure there are quality teachers and adequate opportunities for believers to be taught and trained.
The Need for Nourishment
Are the believers in our churches being well-fed? Our sheep need nourishment through effective, frequent, and quality exposure to the Word of God. The Holy Spirit, working through the Scriptures, brings personal, spiritual transformation (Romans 12:1, 2). As Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (New American Standard Bible, author’s emphasis).
Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson conducted extensive research on the spiritual development of the people of Willow Creek Church, South Barrington, Illinois. (The original report was published as a survey, Reveal, and subsequently as a book, Move, which every elder should read.) The research revealed exposure to the Word of God at Willow Creek was a main element in changing the lives of their people. Hawkins and Parkinson wrote,
Here’s one simple yet profound fix that came from this survey. We learned that the most effective strategy for moving people forward in their journey of faith is biblical engagement. Not just getting people into the Bible when they’re in church—which we do quite well—but helping them engage the Bible on their own outside of church.
The Word of God is a key to spiritual nurture and health.
Food and Drink
Believers are fed spiritually through effective exposure to Scripture. It is our food and drink. The writer of Hebrews uses the words milk (5:12, 13) and solid food (5:12) to describe the Word. Jesus, the Word, calls himself “the bread of life” (John 6:35). David the psalmist calls the Word of God “sweeter than honey” (Psalm 119:103). Hebrews 6:5 talks about tasting the Word of God.
All of these food images are making this point: When believers are taught the Word of God and learn to read it for themselves, Scripture does for their spiritual lives what eating a good meal does for their physical bodies. It is the same principle. Scripture provides the spiritual nutrition needed for health and strength. It is the grand banquet table for us to enjoy!
A focal issue we face today as leaders in the church is this: In many churches, people are starving spiritually due to the lack of effective, quality Bible teaching. George Barna, who has researched biblical illiteracy in America, says today’s typical Christ follower has dramatically less understanding and knowledge of Scripture than Christians of previous decades. Students, no matter their age, often do not recognize the names (or associated stories) of Abraham, Moses, Noah, Jonah, Joseph, and others. This may be partly due to eliminating delivery systems such as VBS and Bible school from our churches, but not replacing them with anything.
Two Key Questions
Elders and staff should discuss two key questions together:
1. Do our people have enough regular and frequent access to well-prepared and effectively delivered spiritual meals that will provide the nourishment they need to live fruitful and successful Christian lives? A church’s leadership team should closely examine the number of opportunities offered in a normal seven-day period for church members to attend and be fed. Many churches do a good job at offering multiple opportunities each week. In other cases, very few teaching opportunities are offered . . . . just the sermon in the Sunday morning worship service. Please understand, offering only one “meal” per week will not produce personal spiritual transformation, no matter how good the sermon. There must be additional opportunities through small groups, men’s and women’s studies, seminars, retreats, Bible-centered youth programs, and church camping ministries.
2. Do our people know how to feed themselves spiritually? It’s crucial to teach our people how to read, study, memorize, meditate upon, and apply the Word for themselves. I find that most Christians are open to learning, and are very grateful when taught, the basic principles of reading, studying, and internalizing Scripture.
Convincing people to participate in Bible studies can be the bigger issue, and might even require careful strategic planning. People are extremely busy! The leadership team should ask the Lord to create a hunger and thirst for the things of God in the lives of their people.
Fellow elders and staff, let us focus on the compelling request of Jesus in John 21 and feed our sheep. Lead well!
David Roadcup is cofounder and outreach director for E2: Effective Elders. He also serves as professor of discipleship and global outreach representative with TCM International Institute. He is also on the board of directors of Christian Arabic Services.