Shepherding and the Missio Dei

Tony Sorci

Shepherds, for quite some time, have been viewed as those whose gifts contribute solely to those within the church. Shepherds are seen as pastors, small group leaders, and counselors. The kind of nurturing folks that will get deep in the weeds with you and patiently point you to Jesus…just as long as you’re a church attender.

While it's true that a shepherd’s impulse is to nurture and protect those who are a part of a faith community (while constantly nudging the disconnected believer into community as well), their sole focus and attention cannot be limited to the protection and spiritual maturity of God's flock alone.

Shepherding & Sentness Taking our cue from Jesus, the Chief Shepherd (the one whom is expressing himself in the life of the church through the dispersed APEST ministries), the shepherding gift, when expressed, should echo the ultimate shepherd. And while we know that the image of Jesus as a shepherd points to the covenantal care and protection for those who are uniquely his, it’s good to be reminded that we were once orphans of this world before Jesus, the shepherd, brought us into his fold.

We see this clearly in Luke 15 where Jesus likened himself to the irresponsible shepherd who did the reckless and crazy thing of leaving 99 safe and sound sheep in the middle of an open field to go after the one lost and good-as-dead. In Jesus, we find that shepherding intersects with those lost sheep outside the flock.

Another place we see shepherding tied to the mission of God is in John 21, a classic interaction between Jesus and Peter about shepherding. What’s unique about this scene is that it’s the first recorded conversation between these two since Peter’s denial of Jesus and his subsequent death and resurrection. In an insanely gracious way Jesus receives Peter in his failure and then presses an emotional Peter about his love and commitment to himself by asking him point blank, “Do you love me?” Peter emphatically answers “yes” each time. In light of Peter’s declaration of love for Jesus, he then restores (in a sense) a broken Peter to his part in Jesus’ mission by telling him three different ways to care for his sheep, by tending to them and feeding them.

I’m sure this brief interaction has been used many of times at various pastor’s conferences throughout the years to encourage pastors to love Jesus and to tend to Jesus’ sheep in their own congregations. However, what often gets overlooked is that Jesus, here, is referring to a future people who have yet to confess him as Lord.

The sheep Jesus refers to in John 21 are the myriad of people who would soon be sheep as the gospel begins to spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Jesus is talking about people who are not yet sheep and thus connects shepherding to the mission of God.

Another constantly overlooked truth in this discussion has to do with the nature of shepherding. Peter, taking his cue from the actual shepherds, knew that shepherding meant leading sheep safely to a place where they can safely 1) feed themselves and 2) naturally reproduce.

While some of you might be reading this thinking “duh”, the fact is that most think being a shepherd type excludes them entirely from using their gifts among those outside the faith. We hear all the time “I’m a shepherd so I just focus on seeing these believers in my life grow up in Christ” while ignoring those outside the faith.

Jesus used only one word to describe the journey and process of walking with people as they come to faith in Jesus and then grow in their faith in Jesus. Matthew 28 has one indicative verb, the word “disciple”. As you go about your days where you live work and play, disciple all types and kinds of people, in all types and kinds of places until the end of this age. 

Lessons from Leading a Local Church In the first year of Communitas, a church I formed and help lead, we did some teaching and equipping on APEST from Ephesians 4 with our original seven families and then used some tools to help everyone discover how God uniquely wired them for the mission. Even though we all formed this new community with a deep love for the lost in our region and a desire to make discipleship the main task and priority of our community, I was surprised by how many were shown to have the primary wiring of shepherding. I expected more to be evangelists. Because, you know, evangelists are the only ones who deal with the gospel to unbelievers (sarcasm).

While I struggled with this at first, I discovered that my discouragement was rooted in a reductionistic view of a shepherd (evangelist too, but that’s another blog post). I was encouraged to discover that, biblically, a shepherd’s sphere of discipleship relationships doesn’t have to exclusively be those who are already “in Christ”. Being a shepherd, as noted above, has everything to do with going after lost sheep as well as knowing, leading, feeding, and protecting those who are already “in”.

I was especially encouraged when I considered the gifts and temperament of shepherds in light of the challenges we face as missionaries in the states. Could it be that the slow patience of these nurturers is exactly what’s needed as we carry good news to the skeptical and cynical types that tend to be avoiding church services and faith all together? 

There’s definitely a patience needed for the mission in our day and shepherds are perfectly gifted to disciple people to and in Jesus. Something we’re always reminding people of in network training is that discipleship in our day takes relational capital and relational capital takes time. Time that shepherds love to patiently give away.

If you’re a shepherd and for the longest time have neglected the myriad of lost sheep around you without a shepherd, we want to invite you to look to Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, who loved a world filled with lost sheep. He didn’t come to nurture a select few who were already in. Like Peter, he’s calling you out to shepherd those who belong to Him…even the ones who don’t know it yet.