The parable of the Lost Sheep is a wonderful exposition of the Gospel. It points us to the God who passionately pursues the lost. It challenges the legalistic pride and insularity of the Pharisees and it convicts our hearts -do we have that same concern for those who are lost and wandering. It’s not a detailed instruction on how to pastor a church. Pastors/elders have responsibility for all of the flock placed in their care. Yes, going out and looking for the one is important but the 99 matter too.
In yesterday’s post I wrote about the need for careful, loving pastoral contact with church members who have not yet returned to in person worship. There is a real risk that like lost sheep they could end up scattered and isolated from the flock. I believe there is a Gospel imperative to go after them. However, we still have a responsibility for those who have visibly stuck with the church, who were at every zoom meeting and who were among the first to come back when church buildings reopened.
There are a few of dangers to be aware of. First there is the danger that some of us might end up with “older brother syndrome.” Remember that at the end of the three stories about lost things, we have the gracious father going out to find his older son who is refusing to come in to the party and welcome back the prodigal. In many respects it seems that he is as lost as his wandering brother. He stays home but has the heart of a hired servant. He becomes a legalist. There is always a danger for those who have been the most committed and the longest present that they will slip into this heart attitude.
Secondly, there is the danger that they might feel a pressure to get things back to normal for wrong reasons. We can be putting our trust in external things, in the constant familiarity of an active church. Our hope can become focused on an end to the pandemic. Our fear can be that without the church functioning in a normal way that we will lose comfort, security and identity.
Thirdly, there is the danger that whilst they are returning, we may miss that it isn’t in the same way. There are many people who have said that they simply cannot go back to life as it was. They were exhausted. Church leaders might wrongly assume that because someone is back that they will return to attending at the same level of regularity both on Sundays and for midweek ministries and that they will slot back into previous serving roles. Now, there are some very good reasons why people shouldn’t just slot back and so the most immediate danger here is that we miss that and try to get all of our old ministries rolling again when we can’t. The result will be legalistic pressure on people to serve and more exhaustion. At the same time, there is a danger that some of us might go from an unhealthy, burdensome form of service to not serving at all and that we end up on the fringes, present but not truly engaged.
Fourthly, we may assume that people are doing okay. I think this has always been a danger I church life. We worry about those who aren’t there and we assume that those who are present are fine relationally emotionally and spiritually. We may miss where people are hurting, grieving, anxious, depressed, angry. The pandemic has brought significant trauma. Furthermore, just as the pandemic has perhaps acted as a prompt for some people to move on from your church for other longer/deeper reasons, it might be the case that some people have felt compelled to stay for a time and so the pandemic is masking deeper/longer issues.
For those reasons, I would encourage you to take time to visit those who have returned as well as those who haven’t. I would recommend that in conversation you talk through those things mentioned above. A conversation therefore might include the following.
- How are they doing spiritually/emotionally/physically/relationally?
- How do they feel the church has coped with the pandemic?
- What is their view of where the church is right now?
- What do they think is the vision and mission of the church going forward?
- How do they see themselves being involved in the church right now? Are they able to fully use their gifts?
- Are there particular things they are struggling with?
- How do they feel towards those who have left/haven’t come back?
As with the conversations with those who have not yet returned, keep bringing the conversation back to the Gospel. What does it mean to be known, forgiven and loved by God in this present context? How do they show that they are known, forgiven and loved by God in their relationship with the rest of the church?