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Totally Rethinking Church, Part 2: Sheep – A Key to Understanding God’s Design for the Church

For many years, I felt like I was not being fed spiritually at church as much as I wanted to be. Many Sundays I felt like I was given skim milk instead of real meat that I could sink my teeth into. The meetings, activities, and teaching responsibilities in the church always kept me busy, but they did not really satisfy my spiritual longings. Little did I realize that I would have to become a farmer to understand God’s answer. Many of the truths in the Bible are given using agricultural terms and illustrations. Although I had grown up in the city, I thought that I understood what God was saying when He used agricultural illustrations in comparing the church to sheep because of what others had said who “knew”. But I found out that I didn’t really understand.

Sheep on pasture

In 2000 God led our family to start a pasture based farm. We knew God had led us into a different farming method, but we didn’t realize how the difference in mentality that a pasture based farm has from a conventional farm mentality would impact our lives in being able to understand God’s design for the church. Agriculture in America has changed significantly from what it was in New Testament times. The change to a mechanical, feedlot mentality has hindered the church from understanding some deeper truths about how people are fed spiritually in the church.

God’s design for the church is a “pasture based” church, as opposed to the “feedlot style” church found in most church building based churches today. The Bible often refers to us as the sheep of God’s pasture (ex. Psalm 23, Psalm 79:13, Psalm 100:3). In John 21:15-17 when Jesus commanded Peter to feed His sheep, the Greek word Jesus used that is translated “feed” means “to pasture, to graze”. Jesus was commanding Peter to pasture the sheep and let them graze. In the Old Testament usually when it refers to pastors or “shepherds” feeding the people, the word for “feed” is “to pasture”. You will shortly see why “pasture feeding” is so important when it comes to spiritual food.

A Conventional Factory Farm or Feedlot

Sheep in a feedlotThe concept of a shepherd feeding the flock by leading them to fresh green pasture is totally different than the way a feedlot owner feeds his livestock. With a conventional factory farm, the buildings and equipment are very important. Large expensive equipment, diesel fuel, and a large amount of time is required to plant and harvest crops for feed. The crops then need to be stored in a silo or storage bin. Later the feed is mixed using various feed ingredients into a balanced ration and fed to the livestock. With the feedlot, the sheep are totally dependent upon the farmer to choose, grind, mix, and balance the feed ration, and give their feed to them. The feed is all stored, dry, maybe even stale feed. The feedlot owner can feed thousands of sheep, but the individual sheep receive little personal attention or care.

Sheep in a feedlotThere is a lot of expense involved with this type of farming. The buildings are expensive and are single use facilities built for one species of livestock that cannot be used for a different type of livestock. This type of farm also requires a sizable investment in equipment: tractors, planters, spray equipment, harvesting equipment, trucks, feed storage and handling equipment, etc. Economy of scale is important. It does not take much more time to feed 1000 head of livestock as it does to feed 100. The young animals are taken away from their mothers at a young age and fed as a group because it is easier for the farmer.

The living environment is not healthy for the livestock. They are crowded together in a confined space and are constantly standing and lying in manure. Routine antibiotics are required to keep up weight gain and prevent disease and death. But despite the antibiotics, the lives of confined animals are relatively short.

A Pasture Based Farm

On a pasture based farm the buildings are not as important and may not be needed. There is little need for expensive equipment. Some pasture based farms do not even have a tractor. The operating costs are much lower. The livestock harvest (eat) the grass and feed themselves. The feed is fresh grass, not dry powdery feed. The environment is much healthier, with plenty of fresh air and exercise. It is more relaxing and less stressful for the animals. The young are usually left with their mothers. The animals often live longer than their confinement counterparts.

In a pasture the sheep eat grass. They harvest the grass themselves without any mechanical harvesting of the feed by the shepherd. The sheep are four legged “combines” that require no fossil fuel to operate. The exhaust from the sheep “combines” does not pollute the environment, but it falls on living plants that need and use the nutrients from the four legged combines’ exhaust to produce more fuel for the four legged combines. It is a complete nutrient recycling program. When the grass is properly grazed with adequate rest periods between the grazings, the grass becomes more nutritious for the sheep with each passing year.

The parasites that kill the sheep have a relatively short life cycle. If the sheep graze continually on the same pasture, after about two weeks the sheep start eating the parasite larva that crawl up the grass stems. If the sheep are kept off of the pasture for 60 to 90 days, most of the parasites in the grass die. The sheep can then be let back into the pasture to graze it again with a significantly reduced chance of getting parasites. The role of a shepherd on a pasture based farm is to guide where the sheep graze.


  1. In order for people to feed on green spiritual pasture they have to read the Bible for themselves.
  2. There needs to be adequate rest periods after feeding on one doctrine or section of Scripture. Prolonged feeding in one area causes Christians to go into spiritual error (get parasites) by putting a focus on one doctrine over others. This has led to a multitude of denominations and church splits, and much apostasy.
  3. When we feed on one doctrine or passage of Scripture, and then go on to something else, and later come back to that same doctrine or passage of Scripture (rotational grazing), we are able to glean even more from that passage (pasture or paddock) of Scripture.
  4. The Bible needs to be read and studied on a repeated basis by the Christian in order for it to become more nutritious for him. Each time he comes back it is fresh pasture again. When a person stays on one doctrine or passage of Scripture, it becomes boring and repetitive.
  5. The people need a shepherd to guide them where to feed.

The Pasture Based Church and the Feedlot Church

The feedlot owner and the pasture based farm illustrate two different leadership styles of pastors and two totally different types of churches. The following comparison of a pasture model church and a feedlot model church is based upon the differences between the two different models of farming. The feedlot model church may be a larger church with a church growth focus. However, even many small churches are small feedlot churches.

Pasture Model Church

  • Facilities are not as important and inexpensive. The church can meet in a home, a barn, a place of business, an office, or the out of doors.
  • Real, fresh, tasty food, much of which the people get themselves.
  • Healthy environment.
  • Parents feed their own children – teach them to keep Christ’s commands. Parents teach their children at home rather than Sunday school.
  • Low church operating costs.
  • More relaxing – “He maketh me lie down in green pastures.” Ps 23:2
  • Seminary training of pastor is not needed or desired.

Confinement or Feedlot Model Church

  • Facilities are expensive and important – Christian education classroom space, gyms, fellowship halls, high utility and maintenance costs, etc.
  • Prepared food. The majority of the spiritual food is received at the church building.
  • Unhealthy environment – the world is brought into the church. There is a very high mortality rate. Many of the young people die spiritually. Only 5% or less of new Christians live – 95+% die spiritually.
  • Children taken from parents and fed in a group – Sunday school and youth groups.
  • High operating costs, consumes a lot of money.
  • Food stuff that puts on “spiritual” weight but not healthy in the long run. Many emotional problems.
  • More stressful – many committees, church activities and programs.
  • Seminary training of pastor is important.

The feedlot pastor feeds the congregation with interesting sermons that he has chosen, mixed, and fed out to them. For many what they receive at church or Bible study is the only spiritual food they receive. The feedlot style pastor has very little personal time with each person. It is not as important to the feed lot pastor to know the state of his flock. His focus is on the number of people and the proper feed (sermons) to get the profit/purpose he wants for himself. The long term condition of the flock is not as important to him because he is getting replacements on a regular basis.

The “pasture based style” pastor shows his people how to read and study the Bible for themselves and find the exciting truths and direction that God has for them personally. His sermons are important, but they are a significantly smaller portion of the people’s total spiritual food. He has a pastor’s heart and personally cares for each person. He is available in sickness and trouble.

Today many pastors are focusing on feeding their sheep (preaching) but are not focusing enough on the spiritual condition of the individual members of the flock. A pastor needs to be like a pasture shepherd who is interested in the long term welfare of his flock. He must not be like a feedlot owner who gets lambs for a short time and then gets rid of them.

A Look at Psalms 23 from the Perspective of a Pasture Based House Church

Psalms 23:1-6 A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

  1. Jesus provides the example to pastors of how to shepherd people spiritually. This Psalm shows a shepherd that is personally involved in the life of all the sheep. This is often not the case with a church-building based pastor.
  2. Green pastures are living food; fresh, not stale or dry.
  3. The house church has to give people time to rest spiritually on Sunday and during the week or it will not be any different in feeding people spiritually than the church building based church.
  4. There needs to be more than just giving people time but also instructing people to meditate and talk about spiritual things. There is something important about us speaking that helps formulate our thinking and helps us to think through a subject.
  5. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures” – Understanding how sheep digest their food is a very important concept for us to understand in understanding how we, as sheep, eat spiritual food. It is totally different than the way we eat physical food. Sheep need to graze, but they also have to rest to get the true value from their food. It is when they rest that they chew their cud.Sheep are ruminants. They have a four stomach system, and they chew their cud. In the top, in the front of the mouth of animals that are ruminants, there are no teeth. There is a hard palate. The bottom teeth tear and grind food against the top palate. Initially the food is only lightly chewed and combined with saliva to form a small ball, or bolus, of food. The sheep swallows the bolus and it enters the rumen, or first stomach.One of the unique characteristics of how sheep, as ruminants, digest their food is that the sheep have to chew their cud. The cud is a ball of partially digested food that is regurgitated into the mouth from the rumen. Unlike the first chewing, which was quick, the cud is chewed very thoroughly and then reswallowed. Cud chewing takes place off and on during the day; all together, it takes about six hours each day.In the rumen, microorganisms work to break down feed through a fermentation process. The rumen of a sheep can hold about 5 to 10 gallons. For each gallon in the rumen there are about 200 trillion bacteria, 4 billion protozoa, and millions of yeast and fungi. The fermentation that occurs in the rumen produces a significant amount of gas, which the animals must pass by belching.From the rumen, the well-fermented feed passes into the second stomach, the reticulum, and then to the third and fourth stomachs. The fourth stomach is sometimes called the true stomach, because it functions in a way that is most similar to that of single-stomached creatures, including humans.The four-stomach system allows the sheep to digest cellulose that we cannot digest.

    In reality the sheep does not get its nutrition from the grass but from meat – the bacteria, protozoa, yeast and fungi! Understanding that sheep really live on meat gives the analogy that God gives of “the meat of the Word” a whole new significance.

    The analogy of us digesting the Word of God, chewing the cud, would be like meditation on Scripture, or thinking about how it applies to our life. This is the key to understanding how to feed people spiritually. People have to meditate on God’s Word (chew their cud), in order to get spiritual nourishment. People must be given time to rest and to meditate on what they have been fed, or it does them little good spiritually. The church has attempted to feed people spiritually with the misconception that we eat spiritual food in the same way we eat physical food. The church building based church tends to keep people busy getting “fed” with many church meetings, committee meetings, youth activities, social events, etc. but it gives them little time to chew their cud.

  6. The importance of restIn the Old Testament, God gave the Children of Israel instructions to have lots of holidays. Lots of days of rest. A total of 79 days off without any work. One day a week (the Sabbath), plus the first day of the month (the new moon), plus two one week feasts, plus several other days. In addition, God gave them every seventh year as a Sabbath year off, and the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee. But they never observed the Sabbath years and the year of Jubilee. They never took all the rest that God gave them and they suffered spiritually for it. The Children of Israel spent 70 years in exile while God gave the land rest for the 490 years that they had not observed the Sabbath year rests. God’s design is for us to enjoy one year of “retirement” every seven years while we can truly enjoy it, not to wait until we are 65 when we may not able to really enjoy it like we would like to.
    • It is interesting the results that farmers are having who practice Sabbath year fallowing of their land. Fallowing is letting the land rest for one year. The next year after fallowing, the land out- produces the land around it that was not followed. The health of the soil increases. There are few thistles for the next six years! I wonder what increase in spiritual understanding that God would give us, and the increase in physical health we would receive if we would practice the Sabbath year rest every seven years? Our bodies need daily rest, weekly rest, and Sabbath year rest. We understand the need for vacations, but we also need spiritual vacations where we have time to meditate and commune with God.
  7. Understanding the need for rest after eating, to meditate (chew the cud), gives greater understanding to the importance of God’s command in the Ten Commandments to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy and not to do any work. We not only need to feed on God’s Word (graze the pasture), we also need to have time to meditate on it to get any spiritual food value from it. In a fast paced society, we often don’t take the time to meditate that we need to for our spiritual health. God’s command was not only to rest on the Sabbath, but to keep the day holy; not doing one’s own pleasure but focusing on spiritual things.
    • Exodus 20:8-11 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
    • Exodus 31:13-17 Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my Sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you. 14 Ye shall keep the Sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. 16 Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign between me and the children of Israel forever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.
    • Exodus 35:2-3 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death. 3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.
    • Deuteronomy 5:12-15 Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee. 13 Six days thou shalt labor, and do all thy work: 14 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. 15 And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.
    • Isaiah 58:13-14 If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honorable; and shalt honor him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: 14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
    • Isaiah 56:2-8 Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that layeth hold on it; that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil. 3 Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying, The LORD hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. 4 For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my Sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; 5 Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off. 6 Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the LORD, to serve him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant; 7 Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people. 8 The Lord GOD which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him.
    • Matthew 11:28-30 Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
    • Mark 6:31 And he said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat.
  8. The home church has the potential to allow people more rest and time to meditate on God’s Word because there are fewer meetings, committees, etc. It is important that the home church give families time to have family devotions together.
  9. Understanding that it is in rest that true spiritual nourishment occurs has a great impact on the structure and activities of the home church.

Sheep would much rather eat green grass than eat hay. Our sheep in the winter will eat any nubbin of green grass that they can find rather than eat hay. We have a hard time keeping them in the fences when they run out of grass. Even though they have hay, they will jump the fence and go looking for green grass. In the same way, Christians will “jump the fence” and leave the church if they run out of pasture. The answer is not to build higher and stronger fences as some groups have done, but to make sure that there is always some pasture available for the sheep to harvest themselves. Contented sheep will stay inside an amazingly poor fence.

God’s Design for the Church

God’s design for the church is that it be based on a pasture based model of a shepherd pastor leading the people to feed themselves on the pasture of God’s Word, rather than the building based feedlot model. God desires a shepherd style pastor who really cares for the needs of the flock and who leads the church from one pasture of the Bible to another; a shepherd pastor who makes sure that the church does not feed on one area too long at a time and go into error. God’s design for the church is that most of the spiritual food come from the people gathering it themselves and meditating on it and that the pastor’s messages be a significantly smaller portion of their total spiritual food.

Don’t get the idea that preaching is unimportant or unnecessary. We find throughout the New Testament that preaching is important. However, in the same way that sheep graze on green pasture, the pastor’s message must be a message he received from the Lord for the church that Sunday. The message should not be warmed over sermons repeating things learned in seminary, books, magazines, sermon outline resources, or other sources. The main message should not be repeats of the same things that have been said over and over in years past. People need a fresh message from the Lord, fresh insights that the Lord has just shown the pastor in the Bible. It is interesting observing a congregation where the pastor is speaking from his intellectual knowledge bank of spiritual understanding and education, rather than sharing fresh insights that the Lord has given to him for the people. The people have difficulty paying attention and staying awake. Their attention drifts. Then when he tells a story he captures their attention for a little before their attention again starts to drift. But then observe when a pastor has a message that God has given for the people. The people are much more alert and interested, even without any stories. The time flies and all too soon the message is over. The people are left yearning for more spiritual food, rather than a sigh of relief that the sermon is over.

God’s design is also that each father teach his own children in the ways of the Lord, not the Sunday school, or youth group. God’s design is that the heart of the father be turned to his children and the hearts of the children to their father. This is the key for lasting revival in the church.

The meeting together of the believers is important for encouragement, sharing, and spiritual unity. But God has also designed us that we need to be given adequate time to meditate on what we have been fed, or it does us little good spiritually. Rest on Sunday is not just about obeying the Ten Commandments, it is necessary for our spiritual nourishment and growth.

This article has not attempted to address every aspect of God’s design for the church in spiritually feeding people. The pasture based model is an important aspect in totally rethinking church and how to implement God’s design for the church. In part three of Totally Rethinking Church – A Refreshing Change of Church Leadership, we will look at God’s design for spiritual leadership in the church.

On to Part Three »

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