Imagine living in first-century Corinth, Smyrna or Ephesus. You and your family are looking for a church and so you arrange for a family meeting. You discuss your options, your preferences, and embark on a two-month tour of local churches. What do you find? There aren’t any “options”!  There is only one local church, under Christ, seeking to eke out an existence in a hostile city. This is in sharp contrast to our culture where language, geographical, historical and theological factors have led to the creation of multiple denominations, associations and styles of churches for Christians to choose from. This diversity of “options” has its strengths and weaknesses, but one of its most glaring weaknesses is the temptation for people to migrate from church to church over the course of their lives. I personally know people who have joined up to six different churches in the same city over a twenty year period. And, they think that is perfectly excusable!

Pastors beware of migrating sheep

The Bible describes Christians as sheep (1 Pet 5:2). Pastors are shepherds who serve under the great shepherd who is Christ (Jn 21:17; 1 Pet 5:4). Shepherds feed their sheep (2 Tim 4:2), water their sheep, and protect their sheep from wolves (Acts 20:29). But seasoned shepherds also need to look within the flock for signs of disease. Common diseases include a critical spirit, lack of submission, pride, lack of love, immorality, or an unwillingness to serve. A good shepherd binds up the wounds of injured sheep but he also knows that some sheep cannot be cured and need to be separated from the flock (1 Cor 5:2). He knows that sheep can pick up diseases from other sheep that are not part of his fold. He watches carefully for wandering sheep that may seek to travel from fold to fold. Separated from their previous flock, often by necessity, wandering sheep frequently carry disease with them.

As pastors we live in an era of unprecedented sheep migration. Christian people frequently travel from fold to fold, from shepherd to shepherd looking for a better meal, more sheep to frolic with, and greener pastures. Sometimes this is warranted if their former pastor has done a very poor job feeding the sheep. Sadly, some pastors seem to think that their task is to entertain the sheep and scratch their itching ears, but they never really feed them a meal (2 Tim 4:3). Their sheep may be happy, but they are malnourished. That is one of a few good reasons for sheep to migrate in search of a more responsible shepherd.

Why sheep wander

More often though, sheep migrate because they do not like the direction their shepherd takes them, they grow tired of his commands to return to the sheepfold at night, they resent his refusal to allow them to play with wolves, they do not want their wounds cleansed or their diseases treated-it just hurts too much! Some even want to act like a shepherd without being a shepherd. Either that, or their taste buds grow weary of being offered solid food, preferring instead flavourful plants that are actually poisonous or without nutrients.

A pastor looking to increase his flock size can make the mistake of accepting migrating sheep into the fold with “no questions asked”. He may even delight in hearing migrating sheep tell stories of the inadequacies of their former shepherd or the frailty of their previous flock. To be sure, pastors should listen, but they also need to protect their existing flock from disease. A good pastor will interview and carefully observe new sheep for signs of infection. He will ask questions and perhaps even seek references from their former shepherd. And, even if migrating sheep resent this line of questioning, it communicates that he is committed to protecting his flock.

“Pastors should beware of wandering sheep who travel from fold to fold.  They usually carry disease with them”

Asking good questions

In our flock, we are frequented by migrating sheep. Some are starving. Some come for good reason. Others bring disease and need to be inspected. Inspections take the form of observation, not rushing the process of serving in ministry (we have a six-month waiting period) and asking good questions. Questions include:

  • Have you ever been disciplined by another church?
  • What was your reason for leaving your previous church (geographical, theological, other)?
  • Do you have any reservations about our leaders, beliefs or values?

Not only do questions like these help protect our flock, but they communicate to new members that we are committed to their well-being. Pastors that accept sheep immediately with no questions asked may appear to be more accepting/loving/kind but fail to demonstrate the protective nature of a true shepherd.  And any shepherd that is not willing to boldly protect his flock from infection is a shepherd not worth following.

Pastors, harm can come from without-from wolves who attack with false doctrine. Harm can also come from within-from sheep that refuse to have their diseases treated. These can weaken a flock to the point that it can no longer reproduce or be led by a loving shepherd.  Pastors, are you committed enough to your flock to protect them from harm?

Related: Church Hopping Vs. Enduring Love