Don’t Reduce Your Sheep to Their Usefulness

Don’t Reduce Your Sheep to Their Usefulness

A conversation with church planters John Onwuchekwa, Joe Rigney, and Kempton Turner


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Joe Rigney: All right. So I’m here with my brothers Johno and Kempton and we’re all church planters. So we planted Cities Church about four or five years ago here in Twin Cities. You planted City of Joy in St. Louis, Illinois.

Kempton Turner: City of Joy in East St. Louis, Illinois.

Rigney: How long ago?

Turner: Two years ago.

Rigney: Two years ago? And Cornerstone…?

John Onwuchekwa: Yes. About three and a half years ago.

Rigney: Three and a half years ago?

Okay. So here’s the question, for church planters, that’s kind of the, you know, lots of guys are getting into church planting. But when you get in there one of the things you run into is lots of people are coming and you’ve got lots of needs. So how do you avoid viewing the people that are coming into your door… you got limited time. How do you avoid the temptation to view them according to their usefulness? Like you start cataloging like this person will plug in here really well and if a person doesn’t plug in, how do you avoid that temptation?

Onwuchekwa: Well, I think I mean part of, with that I think the biggest temptation is to think of them only in terms of their usefulness, right? Because we do, like, there are needs, we are a family and so people have to fill their role. But one of the ways that we’ve tried to do that from the start is just trying to make sure that we are viewing ourselves as pastors, shepherds, those that care for the flock.

So just from early on we just had a consistent practice of praying through all of the names that are on our list and if we have or if we don’t have a specific way to pray for them and all we have are generic things to pray for, then we reach out and that’s our sign to say, “Hey we really got to find out what goes on in their lives.”

And then once you start to see how textured and layered folks’ lives are, it sets itself up as kind of a roadblock to guard against us just seeing them as cogs in a wheel, yeah.

Turner: Right. That’s good. That’s good. I would say, I mean, first, acknowledging that I’m weak and that that is a temptation.

And I think, man, the Lord has helped us to cultivate, like John was saying, like a servant’s mentality even as leaders and pastors just praying for the heart of Jesus who showed up. And like in Mark 10:45, “He came to serve and not to be served.” And so just praying Lord give us that mentality that when we step into the community wherever it might be or one on one that we would come saying, like, “How can I serve this person?”

And the Lord just giving us a bent to ask the hard questions, to care for them, and to help protect us from trying to use them.

Rigney: Yeah. It seems like one of the things to… that word usefulness, like people’s usefulness. At one level you just got to broaden that out because this is what Paul does and in 1 Corinthians 12 is to say you know there’s so many different parts of the body and the parts that you think are unnecessary or less honorable are actually the ones that God gives more honor to.

And so there’s ways in which you know when we have a, you know this is going to be relevant for you especially you live this daily, but we have disabled members of our church. And so you don’t view them in terms of their utility or their usefulness you know like kind of an Americanized way, but they’re bringing something else just by being there, that communicates.

And so that broadens that view of usefulness beyond just what can you do for us, you know, in a kind of a pragmatic way to how can you show us more of Jesus by reminding us of he came for the weak. And you may be weak and we need you here to remind us that he came for weak people like you and like me.

Turner: That’s right. I think that’s good, man. Just by being there, you ask the Lord, “Lord give me eyes to see people like You do,” affirming that much further… You know, it’s not dependent on what you can do for us but who you are in Christ to us. And your presence alone is significant and I want to interact with you not based on what you can give the church, but based on what God has given you, His son.

And so you’re made in the image of God, your blood bought you my brother my sister, I want to develop a friendship with you and fellowship as a family member. Let’s get to know each other and then, yes, we can begin to talk about how we can shepherd you into areas of the church to use your gifts.

Onwuchekwa: One of the things that I do think lends itself to just kind of the unhealthy temptation to look at folks just in terms of what they can do is to start a church and to lead in ambitiously with, “This is what we’re going to do as a church, this is what we’re going to be as a church,” and then try to take the church that you have and force them into something that they’re not.

I think a better way is for us to care for our flock and then based on what we have say, “Oh, this is what we’re going to do based on what we have and not the other way around.”

Rigney: Though it’s the old phrase, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had,” or you planned to have when you were in seminary and writing all those proposals about your church plans.

It seems sometimes to me like there’s a tension between, even using the word shepherd, and kind of the pastor as a shepherd versus kind of a pastor as the catalyzer for ministry or something like that where pastors feel like the main thing I need to do is, you know, to use biblical language. Equip the saints for the work of ministry. So my main job is to kind of catalyze people into stuff.

And yet there’s this other dimension of just, “They’re just sheep and they need care.” So how do you guys… Any thoughts on like that tension between pastor as shepherd and then pastor as like activator for a fruitful ministry?

Turner: Yeah. I mean I just think, like my brother said, praying for the flock, interacting with them, becoming friends, like, what’s first to me is, “Man, how’s man, how is your soul? How’s your family? How you paying your bills?”

The kind of things that communicate love and care and then, you know, as you build that friendship and as you get to know this person based on not a gifts inventory but based on having them at your table, based on playing ball together, based on hitting a block together.

Then you begin to see based on this developed relationship, I see how God has gifted this brother or sister to greet, to lead, taking on evangelism team or whatever. So I think just relationship.

Rigney: So that it sounds like you view it people first….

Turner: People, yeah.

Rigney: That’s what you’re saying like, “Who are the people that are here first?” And then let’s talk about the slots, the ministries, because we’re going to do it with these people not, “I’ve got all these slots that I need filling and now I’m working through my list trying to find people to plug in the machine.”

Turner: Yeah. People over projects, that’s what we say a lot.

Onwuchekwa: Yeah. And so my, like that’s easy for me to say because my disposition is aimed towards caring for the flock, like, I don’t have a bunch of new innovative ideas, right. That’s just me.

But I would say to the guy who is particularly gifted to lead and to start and [inaudible], I think that the main thing is by virtue of being a pastor whatever that is, it has to be tempered by the flock, right? The flock becomes priority, yeah.

Regardless of what you are, you are a pastor/shepherd first and that needs to set the parameters both the floor and the ceiling for the things that you lead them to or spark or catalyze.

Turner:  And that’s the beautiful thing about diversity and that leadership team. You got brothers that just want to care.

[crosstalk] You got other brothers that’s like, “Let’s get somewhere, we got some gaps to fill so that we can equip the people,” and so that diversity on leadership is beautiful.

Rigney: Excellent, that’s excellent. Thanks, brothers. –

Turner:  Yeah.

Onwuchekwa: Yeah, for sure.

Church plants have needs. Lots of needs. It’s tempting, then, for planters to size up those who come through the door for their potential to meet those needs.

Families are meant to meet each others needs, and service in the body of Christ brings blessings. But pastors need to guard against the temptation to evaluate their members according to worldly standards of usefulness. People can sense when they are being valued more for their gifts than their souls.

Church planters John Onwuchekwa, Joe Rigney, and Kempton Turner sat down to talk about how they fight against the temptation to see people according to their usefulness. Onwuchekwa constantly reminds himself that he is a shepherd first, and seeks to communicate that to his church members by doing things like asking them how he can pray for them. Rigney points out that we need to take 1 Corinthians 12 to heart, recognizing that we should not privilege some parts of the body that seem more essential to us. And Turner recommends building a relationship before asking someone to serve.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast or watch a video.