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Who Sets the Menu?

By the Rev. Zachary Bartels

There is a relentlessly cheesy network of vaguely Christian, positive hits-type radio stations in Michigan. When it comes to Christian bubblegum pop, I’ve always agreed with Steve Taylor, who said (via the Newsboys), “I’ve heard that positive pop you dig; I’d rather be buried in wet concrete.”

Still, I’m sure that these affiliates do provide Christian music to a whole bunch of people who otherwise would be listening to the light rock station. Besides, a couple of my good friends were instrumental in starting this network, so I’m not going to knock the stations per se. But the deejays...oh, the deejays are hard to take.

Now, I get to have an opinion here because I worked for a Christian radio station (WTRK the Rock, Bay City/Saginaw) for several years, climbing the ladder from late evening news to drive-time disc jockey to co-host of the Top 20 show to host of my own modern rock phenomenon! Anyway, the deejays on “grin FM” (not its real name) are so bubbly and cavity-inducing that I can’t even deal with it. When I do occasionally catch a “positive hit” that I like, I’m very careful to switch the channel before the talking begins.

But a few weeks ago, I was too slow. And I heard an announcer say this:

As you may know, I’ve been studying for the ministry over the past couple years. And I’ve got to be honest—I’ve been pretty disappointed in what I’ve been learning about today’s church. I just don’t think we’re meeting people’s needs. I don’t think we’re providing the kinds of programs and services that will energize people and get them involved. I don’t think we’re preaching the kind of message that gives them what they’re looking for. What do you think? I want to hear from you. Give us a call at...
Now, I have a hard-and-fast no-dialing-the-phone-whilst-driving rule, but I almost broke it. Because, in a super-swirly of irony, that whispery deejay had identified exactly what is wrong with the church today: the fact that we try to model the church after what the world wants it to look like.

My job title at Judson Baptist Church is “pastor,” which has become the standard title for someone who oversees a church, preaches, teaches, performs weddings, etc. The word “overseer” is used more frequently in the New Testament to describe this office (1 Tim 3, Titus 1), but “pastor” is legit.

Here are the boring—but relevant—facts: The Greek word for pastor is ποιμην and it is best translated “shepherd.” The word is used 17 times in the New Testament. Of those, four are references to literal shepherds (all four in Luke’s nativity account), ten are figurative references to Jesus as the Great Shepherd of the Sheep, and only one (Ephesians 4:11) is a reference to the office of pastor/overseer/bishop. The verb form, meaning “to tend sheep” is similarly distributed, with a mixture of literal references to the work of shepherds, figurative descriptions of Christ’s work, and a description of the work of church overseers (e.g. Acts 20:28).

So a pastor is a shepherd. I like the term “under-shepherd” that you sometimes hear applied to fallible humans doing their best to fill a Christ-like office in a Christ-like way. And what do shepherds do? They protect their sheep; they guide their sheep; and, most importantly, they feed their sheep. Therefore, a shepherd’s (pastor’s) primary role is to FEED Christ’s sheep (John 21:17), along with guiding them in the faith and protecting them from heresies.

Who, then, sets the menu? Is it the sheep? Does a good shepherd give his sheep a survey and then feed them what they want? Of course not! The shepherd himself sets the menu! He knows what the sheep need, he brings them to green pastures, and he *ahem* determines how long they should remain there to eat. The pastor/shepherd doesn’t lord his authority over the people or try to make every decision within the church (not a good pastor, anyway); that’s not his place. But the feeding of sheep is his area, so he does make those decisions. When the sheep usurp that role and determine their own spiritual diet, that’s called the Great Apostasy (2 Timothy 4:3). If the church didn’t need shepherds, then Jesus wouldn’t have set it up that way.

Let me illustrate. A couple Christmases ago, my son Calvin was about seven months old—still mostly on formula. Yet, one day when I didn’t think my wife was watching, I rubbed my finger on a candy cane and put it in his mouth. He got really happy and started beeping like R2D2. It was hilarious until ten minutes later when I tried to feed him. He wanted nothing to do with infant formula (who can blame him? The stuff smells like old cream of mushroom soup); he wanted more peppermint. I could see it in his eyes. He only had like three teeth at the time, but I’m pretty sure that he would have gladly shifted over to an all-candy cane diet. He didn’t know what he needed—it didn’t occur to him that formula has vitamins, minerals, nutrients, proteins, etc. He just knew what tasted best at the moment.

Am I comparing the people in the pews to babies? Well, first of all, isn’t that less offensive than Jesus comparing them to sheep? And, secondly, Paul also talks about speaking to some believers “as unto babes in Christ.” There’s nothing elitist about this. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, which means that I’m a sheep too, even while I’m an under-shepherd. And if left to my own itching ears and sweet tooth, I’d rather have an all-Cadbury-egg diet than something substantive that will give me health and strength.

As sheep, we’re comfortable with surface-level teaching that doesn’t convict us or challenge us spiritually or intellectually. But we need to be challenged to grow and mature. We crave law-lite, “God’s little instruction book on...” you name it: finances, parenting, sex, etc. But we need to hear the Gospel. We crave Hallmark services that celebrate mothers, veterans, and America. But we need to be fed from God’s Word in order to build His Kingdom. We need to hear the words that give life, not just the words that entertain; we need more than candy cane preaching. I’ve heard that positive pop you dig; I’d rather be buried in wet concrete.

To try a livestock-free simile, a pastor is very much like a dietitian. Yes, dietitians promote presenting food in a way that is pleasing to the eye (color, texture, etc.) and the taste buds, but their primary goal is to promote a healthy diet, one that results in longevity, vigor, and energy. If some pastors were dietitians, they’d be fired in a heartbeat.

  • “What do you want for dinner?”
  • “Ice cream!”
  • “Okay, I’ll make it as pretty and delicious as possible.”

Spiritual junk food is leaving us with churches full of brittle-boned, sluggish, spiritually unhealthy Christians. And what do we think is the solution? More surveys asking, “What do you want to eat? What do your itching ears want to hear?” More life advice, less Gospel, and the ridiculous notion that Christ’s sheep need to become “self-feeders.”

What the Church needs is under-shepherds who care enough about their sheep to give them what they need. To hear the occasional complaint (“too brainy,” “too long,” “not enough application”) and lovingly answer, “You need this more than you know.”

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