Back when people used to live long, it was customary for an old man facing death to gather his children and give them final instructions, especially to distribute his property among them. This was a very important moment and everyone hung on his last words. The sadness of death was softened by the joy of sharing in his inheritance.
Sadly today, our culture has lost this. My homeland, Uganda, is one of the youngest nations on earth, with an average age of 15. At least 80% of every congregation is made up of young people who, although passionate and hungry for God, lack guidance from fathers and experienced old Christians. Cults and spiritual predators are well aware of this, and they take advantage of the undiscerning zeal of the young. What steps can the church in Africa take to safeguard its youth from exploitation and disillusionment?
Paul’s solemn exhortation to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:17–35 has never been more important. Having ministered in Ephesus for about three years, Paul had to depart for Jerusalem, never to return. Like a venerable African clan leader, he gathers the elders to impart his final instructions, as a kind of legacy.
What steps can the church in Africa take to safeguard its youth from exploitation and disillusionment?
Paul carefully reminds the elders of his sacrificial example in ministry (Acts 20:18–21), and of the corresponding role God has given them in overseeing the saints under their care. In this way he highlights the need for the pastor to be not just situationally aware, but self-aware. This might seem unimportant until we understand that the safety of the church begins with the well-being of the pastor. A person can only give what he has, and a church can only go as far as its pastor can go. If a pastor is spiritually confused or misled, chances are high that his congregation will be too. Today the pastor or “man of God” often takes centre stage in the life of the church, even supplanting Jesus. Congregations hang on his every word. What then happens if such pastor is wrong?
Pastoral ministry is more than routine preaching. It involves discipling members who can make a defence for their hope (1 Peter 3:15). Pastor, your congregation needs the centrality of Scripture to grow in your own life. Entertainment, good counseling, storytelling, or positive words rarely grow anybody. Only the God-breathed Word accomplishes this.
The safety of the church begins with the well-being of the pastor. A person can only give what he has, and a church can only go as far as its pastor can go. If a pastor is spiritually confused or misled, chances are high that his congregation will be too
This wasn’t the only time Paul emphasized a shepherd’s self-awareness. He instructed Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching…for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). Paul calls on Timothy to be a model in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity (1 Timothy 4:8, 12). For a church to grow into godliness, it all begins with the pastor’s teaching and example.
Too often today, pastors see the church as an opportunity to gain riches, popularity and power. Congregants are now his means to realise his own dreams—in short, the sheep feed the shepherd, rather than the reverse! Such men were active in Paul’s time, so he reminds the elders of the nature of their calling and the value of the churches in their care (Acts 20:28), exhorting them to do the right things as they remember their accountability to God.
Protect the flock
Paul calls the Ephesian elders to both feed the flock and to guard it. He reminds them of his uncompromising message, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and he predicts two threats that lie just ahead. The first comes from “fierce wolves [who] will come in among you, not sparing the flock”, and the second arises from “men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:28–30). How do such things operate in our context today?
Missionary cults openly seek to convert unsuspecting believers, and we can often easily identify them. But the current rise of false prophets and apostles in our own midst should also arouse our concern and provoke us to action. These subtle deceivers recruit followers from the traditional churches through their weekday “fellowship gatherings”, indoctrinate them, and send them back to their churches on Sunday—where most of their victims are actively involved in the ministries of the church. In this way the church is corrupted from within by people who claim membership but propagate the theology of the false prophets and apostles whom they follow during the week. Teaching things that outwardly seem Christian, they mislead the unsuspecting—undermining their loyalty to God and diverting them from the fundamentals of their faith to man-made philosophies (Colossians 2:8).
Paul’s warning in Acts closely resembles Peter’s: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1–3). Jude also warns believers that “certain people have crept in unnoticed…ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” In response he calls us to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3–4).
Pastor, you must disciple your flock for discernment—and create a safe environment where your sheep can grow in grace and be grounded in the Scriptures. You are to expose the error in their midst as well as exposit God’s Word to show the truth
Shepherds guided by God’s Word
Pastor, you must disciple your flock for discernment—and create a safe environment where your sheep can grow in grace and be grounded in the Scriptures. You are to expose the error in their midst as well as exposit God’s Word to show the truth. You are to gently correct those in error while rebuking those who remain stubborn (2 Timothy 2:24–26). You must intentionally preach to build up your members without forgetting to point out the errors within their context so that they will be on guard and not easily taken captive. A watchful pastor ought to be aware of his congregation’s wrestling with false radio preachers, their Muslim neighbors, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the village. He ought to understand the context in which he labours, the spiritual forces at work (both within and out), and—in dependence on God’s grace and Word—equip his flock to stand strong in Christ.
Finally, having warned the elders, Paul seals his legacy with a blessing: “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). May we heed his words today!