I consider myself a connoisseur of urgent care facilities. With three little boys who cannot seem to coordinate their sicknesses to coincide with regular business hours, I end up sitting in the uncomfortable chairs of urgent care centers far more often than I would like.
On the rare occasion that the germ fairy visits during regular business hours, I find myself in a conundrum: urgent care or primary care? On the one hand, urgent care promises anonymity and flexible hours. No friendly small talk, no probing questions.
Grab your prescription, pay the exorbitant co-pay, and you’re on your way. On the other hand, the primary care physician knows you and your history, which can be both good and bad. It can be good because he or she knows the correct questions to ask and takes time with you. It can be bad because you have to wait the whole three hours for the office to open; also, honest engagement and conversation are expected in this scenario.
With accessible, anonymous care available, it’s easy to ignore primary care physicians altogether. If it weren’t for the outlandish copayments, I’d be tempted to do so myself.
Urgent Care in the Church
A few weeks of sickness and too many hours in urgent care facilities of late have focused my mind on a similar conundrum facing the church in America today. Are urgent care resources making it too easy to circumvent the primary pastoral care of the local church? If so, is there a way to promote the primary pastoral care meant to happen within the local church while still enjoying the secondary, supplemental benefits of urgent soul care?
With blogs, podcasts, and similar theological helps ubiquitous across the web, theological training is more accessible today than in any previous era. These and other forms of urgent care are as close as the click of a mouse; they can be accessed without ever having to get out of your pajamas and engage other humans.
While accessible and helpful, however, these media are largely impersonal and anonymous; at best, they give the feeling of relational connection without the needed yet hard-to-quantify benefits of face-to-face interaction.
While such resources are truly a gift, they can also make it all too easy for Christians to remain in comfortable anonymity, detached from meaningful connection to a local church. Urgent care facilities and 24-hour pharmacies are meant to supplement the ongoing care of a primary physician who personally knows their clients’ health histories, tendencies, and nuances.
There is something beautiful and right (and deeply biblical) about a primary care physician who has walked with clients through seasons of sickness and health. While there will always be occasional demands for instant soul triage, this should be the exception, not the rule.
Blogs and sermon podcasts and articles are necessary helps, but must remain in their proper place—as secondary, not primary, pastoral care providers. For primary pastoral care to remain alive and well, two equally challenging roles must be met. Shepherds must position themselves to care for their flocks, and sheep must position themselves to be led. The local body of Christ is God’s primary place of soul care.
Shepherds Must Shepherd the Sheep
In a church culture that looks increasingly like pop culture, there’s a great temptation for shepherds to focus on counting sheep rather than feeding them. The apostle Peter’s words to the leaders of the ancient church apply with striking clarity to aspiring shepherds today:
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve. (1 Pet. 5:1–3)
Shepherding is a high calling with a high cost, but it also comes with a high reward: “And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Pet. 5:4).
Sheep Must Submit to the Shepherds
The posture of a church’s sheep is critical to primary pastoral care being a feasible reality. There’s a vast difference between a headstrong, stiff-necked sheep who must be goaded to move an inch and a sheep who willingly allows himself or herself to be guided and corrected according to Scripture.
The author of Hebrews issues a charge that continues to confront modern-day sheep: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Heb. 13:17).
Beautiful, Messy Experience
Do you have a place of primary pastoral care, a place where you are known and seen regularly? Are there spiritual leaders who have your records and file history, who know your soul allergies and the places in your soul that need special attention?
Despite the inconvenience and hard work required, there are incredible long-term soul benefits to primary pastoral care. To know and be known by a local family of believers is a beautifully messy way to regularly experience the Lord.