Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. – Luke 15:1-7
I want to tell a story about someone – I’ll call her Denise. Denise was a leader in our student ministry. She led Bible studies, went on every mission trip, worked on every service project, and appeared to really love the Lord. But sometime in her Junior year, something slipped. She became confused in her faith and despondent. She stopped coming to church as much as she had, and she dropped out of leadership. She had questions, and doubts. She decided not to go to student camp that year.
Then she just disappeared.
Denise became a lost sheep. The thing is, I don’t know how many people reached out to Denise after she left. I like to think I did, and I know that others did too (they must have). But in a bitter rant on her MySpace a year or two later she leveled her complaint at “church people”. She complained that only two people had ever reached out to her after she quit going to church. In her words, all her friends “ditched her”. She fell into some bad choices and I don’t really know how she’s doing these days.
I’ve seen this pattern repeated, numerous times. I’ve watched it in frustration and powerlessness.
The Luke passage above points to some answers, though. These are pointed directly at me as much as at any of you.
Move quickly. I believe that most lost sheep want to be found when they first become lost. Don’t worry about your dignity and forgo any nonsense about “giving them space”. They want to be found. But only for awhile. There are numerous lost sheep I know that I didn’t act quickly on who, frankly, don’t want to have anything to do with church or with me anymore. And they were once my brothers and sisters and some like sons and daughters. I’ve failed them
Never, ever, ever assume that it’s OK, because your numbers are still good. This is a heartless response to the death of faith. Jesus speaks as though it’s natural for us to leave the ninety-nine for the one.
Excuse my french, but please, screw church growth strategies that teach that it’s more important to bring in new bodies than it is to keep the ones you’ve got. Jesus didn’t teach that, and the Biblical model is to both feed and nourish your own sheep AND add to them daily.
Add to the joy of heaven. The heavenly hosts rejoice over a lost sheep restored. Launch a rescue mission, if you can. Invite someone who has dropped off the face of the earth out to dinner, or over to watch movies. Let them know you care and you miss them, and that you love them even if they never come back to church. You might win them back.
Screw church growth strategies that teach that it’s more important to bring in new bodies than it is to keep the ones you’ve got. Oh, wait, I think I already said that. 🙂
If you’ve been in church anytime at all, you know someone. Reach out to them today. I’ll do the same.
And pray for my friend Denise today.