4 Things to Remember When Talking About Your Church
That’s one unfortunate lesson I’ve learned as an under-shepherd. When pastors desire to lead their people to greener pastures, sometimes sheep fight back.
Sheep also wander.
When pastors desire to see their people grow in holiness, sometimes sheep seemingly stray in the opposite direction.
These tendencies discourage, if not hurt, many pastors and are the subject of much conversation. It never fails that when I’m at an event for pastors, during side conversations or breakout sessions, brothers start talking about sheep biting or wandering.
Sometimes, the conversation remains innocent. But many times, it turns into sarcastic grumbling.
These things ought not be so (James 3:1–12).
Scripture lists gossips and slanderers as the types of people whom God has given up to a debased mind (Rom. 1:28–30), those “saying what they should not” (1 Tim. 5:13). All of Christ’s sheep must put off this part of their old nature—especially shepherds, who are in office to be imitated (Heb. 13:7, 1 Pet. 5:3).
But bridling the tongue is hard when sheep discourage you. How can shepherds fight to put off gossip and put on Christ, even when Christ’s sheep make them ask, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?” (Luke 9:41)
1. Remember Who You’re Talking To.
The ability to ask a trustworthy pastor for advice or encouragement during trials of various kinds is a blessing. Wise counselors are gold (Prov. 11:14, 15:22, 20:18, 24:6), especially ones who have walked in your shoes as pastor.
It’s one thing, however, to share your struggles humbly, grieved and in need, and coveting prayer, knowing that no temptation has overtaken your sheep that is not common to you (1 Cor. 10:13). But it’s another thing to grumble as if you didn’t sign up to die for that sheep. If you have a complaint, the One with whom you were created to commune wants you to take it up with him (e.g., Psalm 55).
If you do talk to pastors of other churches about your people, you’re detailing bites and wanderings of those they do not know and may never know. Since these brothers are not God, unless you follow up with them, they will not hear how those same sheep gloriously turned back and began following your voice. They will never know if that church member repented. They’ll only be left with the negative impression you gave of your church.
Talking to pastors this way also models for them how to grumble about their church. They have similar struggles. They also would like to change the church sign out front or repaint the sanctuary. They also have sheep biting them and wandering into sin, and they will be encouraged to gossip about the sheep behind their backs as well. You are, after all, a walking example. So remember who you’re talking to.
2. Remember Who You’re Talking About.
You are talking about a man’s bride. When I start telling my friends how “dumb” the people of my church are acting, I ask myself, “Would I talk about that brother’s wife this way, especially with him in the room?”
Many shudder to think they would speak of their best friend’s wife as “dumb,” “stupid,” or “ignorant.”
The church is the Son of Man’s bride (2 Cor. 11:2). When we gather to gossip about our churches, we are gossiping about a man’s bride—while he’s in the room. Out of respect for him and the dignity of the bride whom he has washed clean (Eph. 5:25–27), we ought not talk the way we do.
This applies whether you’re talking about the sheep in your local church or “the church” in your country or around the world.
3. Remember the End of the Story.
I know you’re discouraged by sheep biting you. I know you are discouraged when your people can’t see the same ends that you see. But remember discouragement is not the end of the story.
Your sheep may turn around. Your sheep may stop biting. If they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, they will. Eventually, your flock—as stubborn as they may be—will follow. It may not be you who they follow, and their following may not look pretty until they’re face-to-face with Jesus. But eventually, you will have cause for great encouragement.
On your deathbed, will you regret the way you spoke about your people? In glory, when you see even the most stubborn sheep worshiping at the throne, will you have any regrets about your words?
4. Remember How the Lord Talks About His People.
We are under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd. We ourselves are sheep in his flock. We bite back against him and wander into sin. How does the Lord regard us? Can you imagine the Chief Shepherd using the same language to describe his sheep?
When we wander, our Shepherd guides us home. When we bite, our Shepherd advocates on our behalf. When we are attacked, the Chief Shepherd defends us. Our Shepherd talks about us as holy. When we’re in sin, he’s willing to tell us hard truths—and remind us of the beautiful truths that haven’t changed with our behavior. When the Lord accuses Israel, “You have played the whore with many lovers” (Jer. 3:1), he still assures them in the same book, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3). Even in moments we abandon the gospel, God calls us foolish for it—and in the same letter reaffirms we are sons and heirs (Gal. 3:1, 4:5–7).
True sheep are always sinner and saint, at war with Satan and at peace with God. Grumbling about a sinner who is seated in the heavenlies with Christ (Eph. 2:6) and will look like Jesus any day now is a tad short-sighted (2 Cor. 3:18).
If you’re going to talk about your sheep, remember to tell the whole story. After all, that’s how the Lord talks about us, and as under-shepherds we should always take after our Chief Shepherd.