When entering the ministry back in 1983, I had Dad’s wise counsel to help my beginnings. His counsel ran the path of short and pithy statements, one of which was “a home visiting pastor makes a churchgoing people.”
This came to mind when I was writing yesterday about our graveyard in Rosedale and mentioned visiting our church patriarch, Sam Westra. Taking Dad’s advice, I made it a habit to visit the flock there in rural Wisconsin, and those visits were indispensable to my care for their souls.
Back then pastoral visits were still possible in a way they aren’t as much now. Rosedale was a farm community, so if I stopped in to see the couple, the man of the house was often in the barn or milk parlor and could come in. In town, a disproportionate number of my flock were elderly, so it was easy to catch both the husband and wife at home. Sometimes a farm couple would invite us over for dinner (lunch) and Mary Lee and I would make the visit together.
It’s still possible to make pastoral calls at homes and workplaces. Or, sometimes, the best way to get to know souls personally is to do lunch together or go out for coffee.
The thing is, there is no substitute for the personal pastoral care that pastoral visits make possible. Like shepherds and dairy farmers, the pastor of a flock can’t care for sheep he doesn’t know one by one.
Farmers and shepherds know their sheep one by one—even factory farmers.
Bob den Dulk was a patron of everything reformed whose business was large dairy farms. A Californian, he added a new farm in northern Indiana, and while building it, he invited me up for a visit. Some of you have travelled I-65 between Chicago and Indianapolis and have stopped at Fair Oaks Farm for cheese, a meal, or the tour.
To my regret, I never made it up to Fair Oaks while Bob was still alive, but years later I was driving my mother down for a visit and we stopped for the tour of this “factory farm.” If you’re ever able, stop and take the whole family. It’s fascinating, especially by comparison with the normal family farm that milks cows. Fair Oaks has gotten some bad press, but what Mud and I saw that day was impressive.
Let’s only mention how Bob and his workers set up their pastoral care. Fair Oaks’s cows are milked three times a day, 365 days a year. (Most dairy farms only milk twice a day, but three times provides twenty percent more milk.)
Milking is done on turntables that hold seventy cows. The cows line up and enter each stanchion as another cow leaves. It only takes one revolution of the turntable for cows to be milked and each cow’s udder is washed by a worker before the milker is attached.
Last time I checked, Fair Oaks milked thirty-six thousand cows, so it would be natural to assume Bob and his workers knew nothing about their individual cows. Wrong.
Each cow has a number and every time she enters the stanchion her transponder transmits all her information to the computer, including how many steps she has taken. Having served among dairy farmers, I was impressed at this individual knowledge and care.
For a short time, I lived on a goat farm and helped milk fifty dairy goats a day by hand. It was the same there as at Fair Oaks: every goat was known individually. It was the same up in Wisconsin visiting milking parlors. Every dairy farmer knew each of their cows individually. I’ve read a lot of books on sheep farming and it’s the same: every shepherd knows each of his sheep. By name.
Jesus described His care for His sheep this way:
I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me. (John 10:14)
Every good shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him. The pastor is simply a goatherd, a dairyman, a shepherd. If he’s any good, just like them, he knows his sheep and his sheep know him.
It’s notable how opposed to “factory farms” people are today. On what basis?
Well, of course they depend on that word “factory” to communicate lack of individual attention and care for the animals.
Why then no similar movement to diss and rid ourselves of factory churches?
Lately, I’ve taken to describing an Evangelical as someone who thinks he doesn’t need a pastor. Check it out for yourself. Do you think your wife and children need to be known and cared for individually by your pastor and his wife? Do you think you need to be known and admonished and exhorted by your pastor? Even by your elders?
No, today we believe churches with pastors who know their sheep and care for them individually, as Jesus did, are violating our constitutional right to privacy. Over the course of the past half-century, the church has asked her shepherds to scratch her ears by abandoning pastoral care.
It’s most obvious in worship during the sermon. No one ever takes sermons personally because the pastor doesn’t know us, we don’t know him, and he’d never think of coming off his stage and applying what he just said in the pulpit there to us individually in the doorway of the church as we leave.
In fact, our pastors don’t even greet us one by one as we leave worship, and this is as true of small churches as of factory (mega) churches. Pastoral care is not determined by church size. People choose churches today by whether the pastors and elders seem distant and uninvolved, spiritually. Anonymity is the sweet spot, now.
Maybe we tell ourselves that if our pastor was Jesus, we’d want to know Him and have Him know us, personally. But truthfully, we lie. We know whether we’d want Jesus to know and care for us personally by examining our expectations of the pastors and elders He has delegated His authority to for the care of our souls. If we don’t want them knowing and admonishing us by name, it’s because we don’t want Him to know and admonish us by name.
How can we have a personal relationship with Jesus Whom we have not seen if we have an impersonal relationship with the shepherd He put over us? How can we claim to listen to the personal warnings and rebukes from Jesus Whom we have not seen when we never receive any personal warnings and rebukes from our pastor who preaches the words of Jesus to us each Lord’s Day?
The church today is proud and resistant to authority. This is why we keep our pastors at a distance. All we ask of them is lectures given impersonally, and preferably with some sort of across-the-pond accent. Pastors today know what we don’t want, and so they never preach to us, personally. How can they, given that they don’t know us, our wives, our children, our homes, or the climate of our employees at our businesses?
Let me end with this.
A couple years ago when I was warning against the Presbyterian Church in America’s Revoice movement which promoted the sin of effeminacy, as I listened to the responses of pastors defending Revoice, it was tragic seeing that these pastors had no personal knowledge of the souls of their sheep struggling against their same-sex temptations. They thought their defense of Revoice was compassionate when the one thing certain was that they didn’t know these men and women out wandering along the cliff, peering over the side to catch the beautiful view way below them.
No pastor who knows, loves, and cares for even one sheep struggling with the temptation to commit sodomy would ever defend Revoice. Effeminacy is the gateway to sodomy and both destroy the souls of our sheep. If we know and love our sheep, we will die fighting Revoice’s wolves seeking to devour our tender lambs, ewes, and rams whom we love and know, intimately.
The same is true of all other temptations faced by our sheep. We are shepherds, and thus we are to know which temptations are enticing to which of our sheep, and we will give up our lives to protect them from that specific temptation. The Good Shepherd has entrusted to us those He has purchased with His Own blood and we will be judged on our faithfulness to that work, sheep by sheep.
If you are not in a church where the pastor knows and loves you and your loved ones, leave. Every sheep of the Good Shepherd needs the pastoral care of another good shepherd he can see and touch and sing with and listen and submit to. For the salvation of his soul.