As the author of Hebrews draws his letter to a close, he charges his readers to obey and submit to their leaders, and the reason for his instruction is clear: “they keep watch over your souls” (Heb 13:17). But then, the author explains the manner in which pastors are to care for the flock of God: “as those who will give an account.”
Though nestled in the explanation underlying his instruction to believers, that little phrase—a mere three words in the original Greek—should remind every pastor and every preacher that they are entrusted with the precious care of eternal souls. Such a weighty responsibility—such an eternally-significant stewardship—should affect the manner in which we approach the pastoral and preaching tasks.
We will give an account before God for those entrusted to our care.
And because of that responsibility, knowing the state of our flock is not an option. Many of those under our charge are struggling with deep pains and real struggles that go unseen if we allow them to. Each Sunday morning, we stand before those who may feel insignificant and forgotten by God. They may have fallen into the belief that their lives are too menial and ordinary to have any real meaning.
Yet, far too often, we are so busy with the organizational needs of the church that we fail to recognize the personal needs within the church. We know which Sunday School classes need substitutes and which air conditioning units need replacing. But can it really be said that we know the state of those under our care?
Knowing the individual needs of those in our church enables us to sense their more profound, theological needs. When preaching on texts that relate to the sovereignty of God in the midst of suffering, I often tell the congregation that my desire is to impress this truth upon their hearts in the present. I want to press home the reality of the goodness of God in the midst of their hurts and their difficulties when things are going well. Because the hospital room isn’t the place to introduce them to the idea of the hidden hand of God…It’s the time to remind them of it.
And so, when assessing theological needs in the church, I have found it to be most helpful to ask two questions:
How does a proper understanding of God speak to this circumstance?
It has been my experience that we all tend to err in one of two directions when it comes to our understanding of God. For many who were reared in a church context, God’s nearness is easy to grasp. But they’re no longer staggered by the holiness of God. When the nets were so full of fish that the nets began to tear and the boats began to take on water, Luke’s Gospel says that Peter fell at Jesus’s knees. But he didn’t cry “Hallelujah,” he urged Jesus to “Get away, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). There’s a recognition of our sin in the presence of God’s majesty. Some in our churches need a fresh vision of the greatness of God.
For others, it is easy to recognize the otherness of God; the majesty and grandeur of the Creator is evident in every sunrise. But for them, God can easily become an all-powerful, yet all-too-distant deity. And as such, they mistakenly believe that he has little regard for their personal struggles. Or worse still, how can he have any concern for them at all? Many of our church members look like the disciples in Mark 4:38. The boat is taking on water and they’re in a state of panic, crying out to Jesus: “Don’t you care that we’re going to die?!” And more than they need Jesus to calm the storms, they need the assurance of Jesus’s concern for them.
How does a proper understanding of the gospel speak to this circumstance?
In many of our churches, there are those in the pews who have heard the Good News of Jesus Christ hundreds of times, but still rest their hopes on their accomplishments for salvation. They’ve heard the free offer of salvation, but still strive after their own righteousness. They view the Christian life as a list of requirements and miss the reconciliation with God that is theirs in Christ Jesus if they will but receive it in faith. Others may find no great difficulty in believing in faith, but wrestle with the motivation to live in light of the gift of salvation.
Each pastor must know the state of each member of his flock as much as he is able in order to bring the gospel to bear upon his or her life.
How do we assess theological needs in the church?
In order to best discern the needs of our church members and in order to bring the soothing balm of God’s Word to bear upon their lives, we must spend time with our respective flocks. We must be familiar with their hurts and their struggles. And we must spend time in the presence of God in prayer and in our study of Scripture. If we persist in doing such, we will not be ashamed when we stand before the Chief Shepherd and give our account.
David Norman is Adjunct Professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He is also a contributor to Caffeinated Theology.