Shepherding the Church: Effective Spiritual Leadership in a Changing Culture


Times are changing. The Truth never will. It's tough to be a pastor today. Christians who stand up for what God has said are disregarded and labeled right-wing extremists. Political correctness and tolerance of anything but godly character is the norm. So how do ministers lead God's people in this pagan culture? How do they shepherd the flock as the lights fade dimmer and the nights grow colder?

This book is not about programs. It not about developing the best techniques for ...

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Shepherding the Church: Effective Spiritual Leadership in a Changing Culture

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Times are changing. The Truth never will. It's tough to be a pastor today. Christians who stand up for what God has said are disregarded and labeled right-wing extremists. Political correctness and tolerance of anything but godly character is the norm. So how do ministers lead God's people in this pagan culture? How do they shepherd the flock as the lights fade dimmer and the nights grow colder?

This book is not about programs. It not about developing the best techniques for numerical growth. Rather it is a discussion of the heart of the matter--the heart of the shepherd. In Shepherding the Church, Dr. Stowell takes a look at what it takes to be a truly effective leader from the inside out. He encourages today's leaders to focus on their own character, spiritual growth, and spiritual gifts. Examine some heart issues like: how do I prove to my congregation that I'm trustworthy? How do I lead by loving? How do I overcome insecurities? How can I transform lives with my preaching? How do I lead my flock by the way I live my life? How do I persevere?

Even in these tough times, effective leadership is possible. Learn from Dr. Stowell as he encourages today's leaders to keep their eyes on the non-negotiables of Christian ministry.

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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher

Joe Stowell's analysis of leadership is profoundly biblical and practical and thus properly radical.  A splendid book; a must read.
-R. Kent Hughes, College Church, Wheaton, Illinois

Joe Stowell is a man with a "kingdom heart" that transcends smaller issues and goes out to all the body of Christ.  His care and concern for pastors is clearly reflected in this book.
-Jim Cymbala, The Brooklyn Tabernacle, Brooklyn, New York

Joe Stowell's advice to pastors is, like himself, firm, faithful, forceful, and fun.  It will do a lot of good!
-Stuart Briscoe, Elmbrook Church, Waukesha, Wisconsin

A powerfully argued and seminal book dealing with the most important question facing the church today.  I would feel more encouraged if every pastor and lay leader were compelled to read it and absorb its message.
-Howard C. Hendricks, Center for Christian Leadership, Dallas Theological Seminary

It has been my observation that congregations change when their leaders change.  At last there is a book that expresses many things I have felt about spiritual leadership.  I highly recommend it.
-John Maxwell, INJOY, Inc., San Diego, California

In a day when church-growth gurus are telling us to "market the church" by finding out the "wants" of a lost society and developing programs to meet those wants, Joe Stowell brings us back to the biblical pattern of "churching the market" to meet the "needs" of those around us.
-O.S. Hawkins, First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas

In his inimitable proclamation-in-print style, Joe Stowell writes as a friend to all pastors. . . about God's calling to preach the Word and to demonstrate its power in our lives.  A significant work!
-Samuel Ling, Chinese Christian Union Church, Chicago, Illinois

Joe Stowell shares his mind, but also his heart; his commitment, but also his experience. Invaluable help for the person who seeks to be a faithful shepherd of the flock of Jesus Christ.
-Maxie Dunnam, President, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky

Provides a beautiful balance between theological/biblical integrity and practical church-growth methodology.  Joe Stowell has done the church in this generation a great service and provides a significant challenge for the future.
-Jack Graham, Prestonwood Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas

With the contemporary marginalization of Christianity in our modern society, we are in desperate need for a definitive word from God to the church and its shepherds.  Joe Stowell has provided us with such a word.  You will discover the timeless truths of what the church is, what it is to look like, and how it is to function.
-Tony Evans, Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, Dallas, Texas

Without throwing stones, Joe Stowell analyzes problems insightfully, applies the Scriptures accurately, and encourages God's servants compassionately.  Reading this book reminded me of our old Youth for Christ slogan "Geared to the times, but anchored to the Rock."
-Warren W. Wiersbe, Author and Conference Speaker, Lincoln, Nebraska

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802478214
  • Publisher: Moody Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/28/1997
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 857,830
  • Product dimensions: 6.01 (w) x 9.01 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

JOSEPH M. STOWELL currently serves as the president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a graduate of Cedarville University and Dallas Theological Seminary and was honored with a doctor of divinity degree from The Master's College in 1987. From 1987 to 2005, Joe served as the president of Chicago's Moody Bible Institute, joining the staff of the suburban Chicago Harvest Bible Chapel in 2005. An internationally recognized conference speaker, Joe has written numerous books including the award winning The Trouble with Jesus, Strength for the Journey, and The Weight of Your Words. Joe and his wife, Martie, are the parents of three adult children and have ten grandchildren. They currently live in Ada, Michigan.
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Read an Excerpt

Shepherding the Church

Effective Spiritual Leadership in a Changing Culture

By Joseph M. Stowell

Moody Press

Copyright © 1997 Joseph M. Stowell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8024-7821-4



Triumph in a Tough Environment

In the mid-seventeenth century, the rule of Oliver Cromwell in Great Britain began with the execution of Charles I and continued with a campaign to divest England of any vestige of the monarchy. Targeted in the aftermath of the Cromwellian civil war were the Anglicans, who were tied closely to the king, who served as head of the church. Cromwell emptied the monasteries, removed baptismal fonts from the churches, defamed the clergy, and did everything in his power to disengage their place and influence in the culture. If you were an Anglican pastor, those were tough times to be in the religion business.

In the face of such times, some were yet undaunted. An inspiring but little-known inscription hidden away in Harold Church, Staunton, England, reads like this: "In the year of 1653, when all things sacred were throughout the nation destroyed or profaned, this church was built to the glory of god by sir Robert Shirley, whose singular praise it was to have done the best things in the worst times."

I recently spent four days outside of Minsk, Belarus, where I met with 260 godly shepherds of what we used to know as the Soviet Union. I felt unworthy to stand in their midst. For seventy years the church in the Soviet republics did the work of Christ fearlessly under great oppression. Pastors who would not cooperate with the KGB were often imprisoned or forced to live in a peasant status far from the honor that was due their calling. And yet in these, the toughest of times, they endured and remained faithful until the light broke through and their ministries began to flourish as statues of Lenin, Stalin, and Marx were dismantled throughout the land.

I thought of the inscription on a stone marker behind the bust of Marx directly across the street from the Bolshoi Theater just a few blocks from Red Square in Moscow. They are the words of Lenin concerning Marx: "His words will last forever, because his words are true." The men who sat before me in Minsk with legacy-laden faces had never believed that. They never conceded to the prevailing attitudes of their day nor folded under the pressure of their pagan society. They knew they served One whose Word, indeed, will last forever, because it is true. And they served with dignity. These were men who did the best things in the worst times.

As we met outside of Minsk, where the temperature rarely rose above fifteen degrees in the warmest part of the day, we gathered in an auditorium where there was no heat and stayed in hotel rooms where there was no hot water. Most of these pastors crowded into small rooms at night where three of them shared an accommodation. We gathered for lunch in a crowded dining room where we ate meals that were subsistence level at best. We taught in multiple sweaters and coats. Yet, none of this seemed to phase these heroes. They sat, listened, and wrote intently hour after hour as we lectured on matters pertaining to the ministry, theology, apologetics, and the Word of God. It was clear to me that long ago they had made up their minds that life for them would not be a matter of comfort and convenience, but rather one of commitment to a calling that would in the long run render them pleasing to God and keep the gospel flame burning during the worst of times.

Not unlike the Cromwell era when Anglicans were disenfranchised, and not unlike our colleagues who battled through seventy years of oppression in the USSR, we in the United States are now in the process of being underclassed and forced into a subculture that faces the challenge of affirming truth in an intensely nontruth environment. Our calling is increasingly defamed, Christianity has ceased to be fashionable, and we are often the object of ridicule. We now must proclaim that there are absolutes in a world where relativism rules. It is our task to call people to something beyond themselves in a day when self-fulfillment has been elevated as the ultimate god. We must be willing to stand unintimidated for biblical correctness when it crosses swords with political correctness. In a culture where tolerance is the ultimate value, we are called to clearly and compassionately proclaim righteousness in a way that delineates between right and wrong and communicates by its very articulation an intolerance of that which is evil.


In the last four decades there has been a shift in our culture in its assumptions regarding God. The rise of relativism as a fundamental societal creed has eliminated the God of Scripture—the God of the universe—from any consideration in or over the affairs of society. A culture that wants to do what it wants to do must somehow dethrone a God who rightfully calls men to live under His authority—a God who holds us accountable for embracing what is right and eschewing what is wrong.

Relativism provides the philosophical excuse for life on our own terms. And so, in forty short years, the God whose laws had provided societal stability has become an outcast. Now, if there is to be a god at all, he will be created by us after our own imagination or after Eastern, New Age formations. But he will not be the God who is truly there, whose wisdom and ways are right and who not only holds man accountable but ultimately reigns over the affairs of men.

Like Rip Van Winkle, believers have in large measure slept through these last four decades, and as the alarm clocks ring to usher in the twenty-first century, we wake to a world dramatically different, where God has been relegated to the private compartments of a few lives and the churches they attend.

This macromove of society makes our task as spiritual leaders far more complicated.

For reasons best known to God, I have been given the advantage of being a third-generation minister. My grandfather, a 1913 graduate of the Moody Bible Institute, ministered well into the 1970s, first as an evangelist, then as a pastor (in fact, as a pastor in one church for thirty years). My father, who just celebrated his sixtieth year of ministry, has labored faithfully through several strategic pastorates, a stint of denominational leadership, and now, at eighty-three, continues to keep a busy schedule of both preaching and serving on the boards of a major mission agency and a Bible college and seminary. Growing up in that context gives one a sixth sense about ministry. It also gives one a long-view perspective of ministry spanning decades of commitment to the cause of Christ. I have read with interest my grandfather's papers, class notes from Moody, and sermon notes. And I recall a hundred dozen productive memories of my dad's dedication to the Lord's work. Although I am incurably optimistic, I have to admit that trying to tackle spiritual leadership in this season of world history means overcoming challenges and difficulties neither my grandfather nor my father were called to face.

As we seek to effectively manage ministry in this new era, we must understand the nature of the change and the elements of our task that are in flux. When it comes to ministry, ignorance about the context in which we minister is not bliss. There are at least twelve ways in which the landscape of ministry has changed. These changes force the issue of getting serious about how we must configure our ministry to be effective and usable in God's hand.

The Parson's Prestige

A brief look at American history reminds us that in the early days of our country, it was the local minister who held the highest level of prestige. He not only pastored the church, but also served as teacher of the school, and as such was looked upon as the prime authority in the community. Ministers no longer hold that status. The secularization of our culture has devalued the position of spiritual leadership to that of a civil servant for marriages and funerals, to be little more than the local holy man who deals in nonessentials and irrelevancies. Just watch the surveys of the most prestigious positions in America, and you'll note that clergy never even make the list. Add to this the growing cynicism toward our kind as the result of various self-inflicted wounds of public failure and you begin to see why we are so marginalized in our influence.

Not only is our status diminished on the outside, but those within may not be as impressed as they once were.

The Parishioner's Perspective

If a shepherd-feeder in our day went to the mirror and said, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the greatest of them all?" and our people were standing on the other side of the mirror, they'd probably answer, "Swindoll!" But it hasn't always been this way. There was a time when our people would have responded, "You, O blessed pastor," primarily because they never heard anyone else. If they wanted to hear one of the superstars they had to take a chunk of time, drive a long way to a conference, experience his stellar gifts, and bring home their written notes.

Technology has changed everything. The best preachers today are piped into our homes and our cars, and even our heads via Walkmans as we jog. Most of us preach our hearts out, hoping to be affirmed by our flocks as superior shepherd-feeders, only to walk through the foyer and hear our flock talking about the terrific series that Stanley is doing on the radio this week. Now that's discouraging! However, if we are committed to the feeding of the saints regardless of who the feeder is, we will be able to celebrate their spiritual growth, even though it may not be occurring directly and immediately through us.

Of course, pleasing church people today is more difficult in more ways than just preaching.

The Great Divide

When my grandparents passed the torch to my parents, and when my parents passed the torch to me, there were some differences in the generations, but nothing major. We sang the same hymns, worshiped in the same forms, lived in similar societal settings, and basically affirmed the same perspectives regarding lifestyle and mind-set. Yet today, as I pass the torch to my children, I am very much aware (sometimes painfully so) of the phenomenal difference between my generation and theirs. The gap, or should we say the gulf, is measured in musical styles and preferences; perceptions of truth; perspectives on material goods, purity, and commitment; and a host of other issues. This makes "doing church" in our day a far more difficult task.

Take, for instance, the phenomenal upheaval in ministering to people through music. The continuum is broad, ranging from people who are comfortable worshiping through the forms of traditional church music to others who do not identify with that form but are instead tuned to contemporary styles of worship—idioms resembling the music that they have been brought up with and have learned to relate to. If you're a pastor I don't have to convince you that there is a struggle going on.

Churches are full of older folks, middle folks, boomers, busters, and teenagers. Teenagers and young adults who have grown up in a fractured, video-oriented society where there is little tolerance for cognitive contemplation. A world where deep-seated needs for experience, involvement, and sound bytes drive their existence and expectations.

And then there are the older folks who just want it the way it's always been.

What's in It for Me?

Part of this generational transition is reflected in the shift from an industrialized society, where the work ethic was in place, to a service-oriented society, where consumerism and specialization are valued.

While I was pastoring in Detroit, the specific needs of the growing singles population in our church led most of us to conclude that we needed to hire a singles pastor. As we processed the vision, we ran into some resistance from the long-timers, or, as we affectionately called them, "the lifers," in our congregation. Their question was insightful and difficult to field. According to them, in the late thirties and forties the church was running fifteen hundred persons in Sunday school and yet the church had only two pastors. "Why," they asked, "do we need so many pastors today?"

The reality of it was that the church was planted in a time when the work ethic was valued in America. In fact, it was planted in the heart of Detroit, where immigrants from the old country had come to work in the automobile factories with a sense of the importance of work and contribution. When they went to the factory, they planned to participate and give of themselves as much as they could. When they came to church, they came the same way—walking in with that "what-can-I-do-to-help" attitude.

As you're aware, all of that has changed. We now live in a consumer-oriented society where we no longer ask "What can I do to help?" but "What will this job (or this church) do for me?" People come to our churches asking "Do I like this pastor? Do I like this choir? Do I like this youth program? Do I like these people?" And asking most of all, "Will this church meet my needs?" It rarely crosses anyone's mind to wonder whether or not he or she can contribute something or be used to meet the needs of the kingdom in the context of the local church.

Not only are we a consumer-oriented society, but we're a service-oriented society that provides specialists who serve every part and parcel of our lives. This has given rise to an expectation that employers and organizations like government and the church should be specialists in meeting individual needs. Add to this the fragmentation of our societal structures, with the resultant deep and crying needs in so many segments, and you have people looking to the church to help meet their specific personal needs in specific ways. There are more singles in our churches than in previous times. More divorcés and divorcées. More single parents. More who have been abused. More alcoholics. More who are addicted to drugs and pornography and have a host of other disorders. Since we claim that Christ is sufficient to meet us where we are and bring us consolation, healing, and growth, you can't fault people for expecting and hoping to find that at church. But most of us as spiritual leaders find ourselves unable to meet such a variety of specified challenges.

Thankfully, there are a host of helpful books, videotapes, and audiotapes that can help us bring healing to a myriad of needs. Yet the pressure on shepherds to be effective in these areas does bring additional stress, particularly in smaller churches that minister in proximity to megachurches that offer high-profile programs to meet specific needs and drain sheep from the smaller fold by the allure of tailor-made offerings for healing and help.

Not only are we caught in the web of consumerism and the high expectations of specialization, but this new generation is becoming increasingly illiterate.


Our culture as a whole is becoming illiterate in terms of its skills of analysis, reason, logic, and other basic cognitive capacities, and the church often reflects the same propensity. According to studies, biblical literacy is at an all-time low in evangelical churches. This dumbing-down of the church makes it difficult for a shepherd to lead his congregation in a thoughtful analysis of truth and its integration into life. The congregation may lack skills for analysis and integration and in actuality know little about Scripture. George Barna says that the job of the pastor

is made even more difficult by the biblical illiteracy of the flock. It seems that no amount of Bible-based preaching, scriptural teaching, or small group meetings moves the congregation to a higher plane of Bible knowledge.

For most of the people sitting in the church on a given morning, the pastor knows that his Scripture readings and references will be the only ones to which they will be exposed during the week. Only four out of every ten adults will read any portion of the Bible outside the church during the week.

Those people who do read will commit about one hour to Bible reading during the week. Those people will actually spend more time showering, commuting to and from work, watching television, reading the newspaper, eating meals, or talking on the telephone. Obviously, the Bible is not a high priority in the lives of most people.

And what kind of base of knowledge can the minister realistically hope to build upon through his teaching efforts? Lay members are abysmally ignorant of the basics of the Bible. Most cannot name half of the Ten Commandments. Most people do not know that it was Jesus Christ who preached the Sermon on the Mount. Asked about the book of Thomas, nearly half of all adults will be unaware that such a book is not in the Bible.

The names of the gospels—the first four books in the New Testament—are not known to most people. In fact, probably the most quoted verse is, "God helps those who help themselves." Unfortunately, though people think that verse is in the Bible, Ben Franklin wrote that line two hundred years ago.


Excerpted from Shepherding the Church by Joseph M. Stowell. Copyright © 1997 Joseph M. Stowell. Excerpted by permission of Moody Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


PART 1: PERSPECTIVE - Perplexities, Priorities, and Platforms

1. The Best Things in the Worst Times

2. The Best Things: Defining the Task

3. Who, Me? Adequacy and Success

4. Platforming: Effective Leaders Start Here

5. A Career in Modeling: Turning the Fishbowl to Christ's Advantage

PART 2: PERSONHOOD - Character Still Counts

6. Leading from Living

7. Leading Through Loving

8. A Sense of Solidness

9. The Preeminence of Purity

PART 3: PROCLAMATION - Transformational Preaching

10. Preaching for a Change

11. Preaching with Precision and Clarity

PART 4: PROFICIENCY - Finishing Well

12. Maximizing Ministry

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