The word ‘pastor’ comes from the word ‘shepherd’. Someone is considered a good ‘pastor’ if they are skilled and compassionate in dealing with the issues facing Christian believers. That is, the job of the pastor is primarily to care for Christians.
However, as I read Luke 15:3-7, I see a very different understanding of the good shepherd/pastor. The shepherd/pastor leaves the 99 in the field, and goes out to find the lost sheep—the sinner who needs to repent. That is, the pastor leaves the believers to look after themselves in order to seek the lost. In Matthew 9:36-38, Jesus looks out on the crowds and sees them as sheep without a shepherd, and so commissions his disciples to go out and preach the gospel to the lost sheep. It seems as if the good pastor is actually primarily an evangelist.
Whatever the needs of a believer in church might be, and however seriously they may feel them, those needs pale into insignificance when compared to the predicament of their seemingly well-adjusted neighbour who is heading towards an eternity in hell. That perspective is vital.
Recently I have been re-reading The Reformed Pastor (1656) by Puritan minister Richard Baxter. In that book, he argues for a “personal catechizing and instructing of every one in your parishes or congregations that will submit thereto”. His own practice was to send out his assistant a week ahead to tell each family when he was coming. Baxter then spent all day on Mondays and Tuesdays in up to 16 one-hour meetings with the families of the parish. In that way, he sought to meet with all 800 families of the parish each year. Significantly, this is not just the families in church on a Sunday, but the families of the whole town.
For Baxter, the way to bring true reformation to England was to convert England. He exhorted his readers, writing “We must labour, in a special manner, for the conversion of the unconverted [as] ... the first and great thing we must drive at ...”. And so each reformed pastor has the obligation to “call after the impenitent and ply this great work of converting souls, whatever else you leave undone”. A true pastor leaves the 99 to seek the one (or, perhaps we should say in our context, leaves the one to seek the 99).
For Baxter, pastoral discipline is viewed largely in terms of its evangelistic usefulness. What most of those who ought to be disciplined really need is to be truly converted and transformed by the gospel. In his description of a typical pastoral meeting, Baxter emphasized the importance of inquiring into whether or not the family is converted: he asked them, “Can you truly say that your past sin grieves you and that you feel lost? Have you truly turned from sin? Can you say that your main desire is to serve God?” His constant refrain was that the priority of all ministers ought to be the evangelization of those in the parish—especially nominal Christians.
Interestingly, many of the modern adaptations of Baxter's method focus on it as a means to effective pastoral care to those in church, but neglect his overt evangelistic emphasis. Baxter was clear that the task of being a shepherd (pastor) did not just involve caring for the sheep in the pen, but also seeking the lost sheep.
The truly reformed pastor is first and foremost an evangelist. This would seem in keeping with Jesus' own ministry—the shepherd who left the flock to seek and save the lost.