Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love Me?”
Three times he followed up with, “Feed My sheep,” or, “Take care of My sheep.”
There has been a great deal made over the subtlety of the underlying Greek word for love: agape or phileo. I don’t think Jesus’ point had to do with the difference between these two words. As writers and communicators sometimes we just want to use different words for variety, not for the subtle differences between them. I think the point was the repetition for emphasis. It was a way for Jesus to say to Peter: “Don’t miss this.”
I think Jesus was, in a way, talking to us. He was emphasizing the point so that you and I wouldn’t miss it.
The passage says as much in verse 17 where it says that Peter was hurt because Jesus had asked the question three times, “Do you love Me.” The point of the story has to do with the repetition.
And the repetition has to do with emphasizing this point: it is really important to Jesus that leaders take care of followers. We are to lead them. We are to feed them. We are to take care of them. We are to look after them. We are to keep up with them. We are to love them. We are to treat them like our own children.
Ezekiel rebuked the leaders in his day with this scathing rebuke. Read it slowly. Read it twice.
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.—Ezekiel 34:1-6 (NIV)
What about the people in your church who are scattered—is anyone searching for them? An Effective Bible Teacher is very different from a school teacher in this regard. An Effective Bible Teacher is a shepherd to God’s people, not merely a dispenser of information.
Here are some specific activities that Effective Bible Teachers routinely practice:
- Develop a system for contacting absentees. I recommend you talk about this in class. Be honest about the fact that it is possible for any of us to slip into inactivity. Ask: how do you want to be treated when you are absent? We have a lady in our Tuesday night group who dropped out of church for a time because she was absent for a few weeks, no one contacted her, it hurt her feelings, and she dropped out. The system might be something along these lines. First week of absence do nothing. Two weeks in a row absent, message on Facebook, “Missed you last couple of weeks.” After three or four weeks of being absent, call. Software can really help with this. The research indicates that if you do not contact people within the first six weeks of their becoming inactive you will likely never get them back. Time is of the essence. Develop a system and keep with it.
- Have a party once a month. Invite every member and every prospect. This will ensure that absentees get contacted once a month. It is sometimes difficult to do this without nagging, or coming across like a policeman or school principal. A friendly phone call once a month to say, “Hey, a bunch of us are going to go to a movie this Friday night. We’d love to see you!” Again, make it sure something you genuinely enjoy doing. Andy Stanley has a phrase I just love: “We would do this anyway.” He is speaking of attending small groups when he says this. His point is that he would attend a small group even if he were not the pastor. He basically likes small groups. He would do it anyway. You need to feel the same way about your fellowships. Find some things you love doing, and invite every member to keep up with them, and every prospect to include them.
- Get in the habit of checking people’s Facebook profiles regularly. Keep up with what is going on in their lives.
- Some teachers enjoy talking on the phone. If this is you, call your group members from time to time just to chat. You might ask them about prayer requests. You might pray with them over the phone.
- If you teach kids, attend their events. If you watch them play basketball on Friday night there is a good chance they will be in Bible study on Sunday.
- Do something personal and individual with everyone in your group at least once a year. Have them in your home or take them out to eat.
- Send a group text to the entire group from time to time. One way to do this is to send a text (or email) as you are studying. Hopefully, from time to time you will get really fired up about the lesson. This is a great time to fire off an email or text and say, “I am really fired up about this week’s lesson.” Because this goes to everyone, it is not nagging absentees for not attending. It is just another way to make them feel included in the group.
- Visit members in the hospital.
- A proven and sustainable way to build fellowship in a larger class is what is sometimes called dinner six. The idea is to group six people (three couples) for one month. Sometime during this month the couples are to go out to dinner together or spend an evening in one of their homes. These smaller fellowship groups are really effective in strengthening bonds of relationship.
- Share the love. You don’t have to do all of this yourself. Develop a team who will help you care for the people in your group.