Arrogant Shepherds

This article is the second in our Discipleship/Mentorship Series. In this series, we aim to explore various paradigms we use for discipleship/mentorship, discuss how the gospel informs how we relate to it, and share some of the experiences that have grown and shaped how we understand it. The first article can be found here.

You’ve seen the strut.  Confident, charismatic, armed with an array of ways in which their ministry happens to be “exploding,” and ready to give you advice about how to grow your own ministry in their image.  You’ve likely seen their student disciples strutting behind them in lockstep. It seems flattering, but also downright creepy.  You’ve strutted as well.  After a one-on-one you can feel your soul strutting, confident that you absolutely nailed it. If that kid wasn’t sanctified by your presence, they clearly missed the theological delight you just served them.  

You would think disciple making would produce abiding humility.  You’ve interacted with the filthiest and most destructive aspects in the life of a student.  You’ve heard their pain, prayed for their perseverance, and watched them grow at varied paces.  Yet for many, the temptation of discipleship is not to speak as an ambassador of Christ, but to assume the kingly role.  This is the heart of arrogance, and the heart of our struggle in disciple making.  If a small town mayor interrupts a presidential address, it seems not only out of order, but ridiculous.  If a discipler assumes the function of the King of glory, it compromises our role and the beauty of the gospel. 

One of the hazards of discipling students is the common and subtle snare of arrogance. This arrogance tends to manifest itself in three ways: 

1.  Arrogance Regarding the Text.   

One temptation of discipleship is the freedom we have to study a text in depth, beholding its intricacies, and then presenting only our conclusions. The text now appears easy to interpret and to comprehend.  We then present it to our students as a cold read, giving them 30 seconds to interpret what took us hours, weeks, or a lifetime.  This demonstrates two things. First, that the Bible is practically impossible to interpret on a surface level.  Second, since we already have the golden interpretation, our disciple’s thoughts on the issue are basically meaningless.  Why not talk about our own difficulties in interpretation, or our process of coming to these conclusions?  Why not bring them alongside us during the interpretive process?  Because to do so doesn’t give us the satisfaction of appearing right, brilliant, or holy.  

It is an arrogant thing to throw scripture at a student and demand that they understand instantaneously what has taken us years to fully comprehend.  It positions us as brilliant lecturer rather than patient listener.  Moreover, it tends to produce disciples who love explaining to their friends why they’re always right, and why their friends are unenlightened fools.  If your disciples strut, they learned how.

2.  Arrogance Regarding Our Own Sanctification 

Discipleship is a process of moving a student from point A to point B.  Arrogant shepherds assume that point A is their experience, and point B is ours.  Rather than shepherding a student from, say, stress to restfulness, we want to move them from stress to the way we would handle stress.   This is a subtle but very real form of arrogance.  We can forget to attach the “as I imitate Christ” to the “imitate me.”  It matters less if they look like Christ, and more if they act like us.  So we ask them to be vulnerable while we appear impenetrable.  The arrogance inherent in failing to discuss our own struggles with sin while demanding a student’s vulnerability is inconsistent, egotistical, and cruel.  But we love it because it enthrones us in the process.  The difference between viewing your student as a co-pilgrim and viewing them from atop a pedestal is the difference between creating a disciple and a minion.

3.  Arrogance Regarding Our Role 

You asked all the right questions.  Scripture flowed from your mouth like honey, and you walked away from the process with a soulful strut.  You cross their path a week later, asking how life has been since you last spoke, and they sit silently with mouth agape.   The uncomfortable truth dawns; they’ve either misunderstood or completely forgotten everything you told them.  You gave them the choicest filet mignon that you had to offer, and all they remember was the placemat.  You emptied yourself, and received nothing in return.  Yes, we struggle with arrogance in that we want to be filled by their response.  In reality, our arrogance began as soon as we walked into the room expecting to enlighten them with our presence.

This can be a difficult reality for any discipler.  We enlighten, convict, and save no one.  We aren’t the filet, or the fire on which it sizzles; we’re the plate.  We are the vessel on which it rests.  We know full well that it would probably taste just as good off of another plate, the table, or the floor.  If you aren’t willing to serve in this capacity as a disciple maker, then you aren’t ready to make disciples.  

Does this mean that we abandon our task, hoping that they start following the commands of scripture “organically?”  No, we set out to serve the goodness of the gospel and to put ourselves beneath it.  At our very best, we present it with beauty, with vulnerability, and with abiding love for our students at whatever pace they grow in grace and truth.  At our worst, we demonstrate to them that the best thing on the table is the plate.  

In ministry, arrogance sets in when we forget that as shepherds of students, we’re also sheep.  There are times in ministry where God gives us the grace and strength to act as faithful sheepdogs or under-shepherds, and we ought to cherish those opportunities when they come.  At other times, God can remind us through the disciple making process that we are about as effective as a stupid sheep, laying on its back, four legs in the air, asking others to join us in our imitation of the savior.  

Join us for Rooted 2015, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore how the good news of God coming to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ offers student ministers and teenagers, hope, healing and connectedness.  

Also to learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check more articles from Rooted’s youth ministry blog. 


John Gardner is the Associate Pastor of Student Ministry at Grace Evangelical Free Church in Longmont, Colorado. John graduated with a Masters of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2009 and a Doctor of Ministry in Expository Preaching from SBTS in 2019. He spends most of his spare time with his wife Jackie reading, writing, playing intense board games and explaining the actual meanings of song lyrics to youth group students.

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