What Do You Say to the People Who’ve Left?

Scripture  |  Matthew 18:10-14 (CEB)

This passage of scripture captures two of the most beloved images of Jesus. The image of Jesus the good shepherd is so comforting. So is the picture of Jesus welcoming children and our heavenly Father protecting the “little ones.” Together, they give us a sense that Jesus holds and protects the most vulnerable. We know Jesus values those whom others see as ‘not really counting,’ the ones who are almost invisible. In the kingdom of heaven, everyone counts. Jesus isn’t doing a cost-benefit analysis of whether leaving the 99 is worth it to go get the one who strayed away. Every single one is precious in his sight. 

If we wander away, Jesus will come to find us. He will make sure we’re safe. He just wants us back. 

It’s a beautiful image of Christ. Really it is. But how does that translate to our world? What does that actually look like? How does Jesus seek out the lost?

It’s a question close to every minister’s heart; a question every church has to wrestle with. What do you do when members of the flock have wandered off? It happens with great frequency. You notice that people who were once very active are coming to church less and less often…  Folks who joined the church with great enthusiasm simply stop coming…  Someone drops out of choir or goes off session and you hardly ever see them anymore. 

How much do you pursue them? When do you reach out? What are you supposed to say? And how much time should you spend trying to track them down when there are 99 more people who need your time and energy? 

I have to say, one of the hardest things for a pastor to do is pursue someone who has wandered away. It’s hard not to feel like you’re a spurned girlfriend wondering why your guy has dropped you. Honestly, it feels less like going after lost sheep and more like this: 

You can see why this isn’t our favorite part of the job… 

But one of the things I’ve learned over time is that it shouldn’t be the pastor’s job. In fact it works best when it isn’t. The truth is, having a fellow church-member talk to a friend is 100 times more effective than a pastor – or anyone who works for the church. As humbling as it is to say, the reality is that your saying something has a lot more impact than if I do.  After all, I’m paid to do this, right? You’re a friend who cares. 

I know, I know, we’re supposed to be the shepherds, right? After all, the word “pastor” comes from the Latin word for shepherd. The story doesn’t say the 99 sheep should go on a hunt for the 1. You guys should be off the hook. 

But in this story, Jesus is talking to the disciples, not ordained clergy. There weren’t any “pastors” in Jesus’ day. There were just disciples. And every disciple was a shepherd. It’s the disciples’ job to leave the 99 and go after the 1… So if you’re a disciple of Jesus Christ, guess what? 

Get your shepherd’s crook out. You’ve got work to do. We’ll be part of it, too, of course. But like I said, honestly, you can do this a lot more effectively than we can. 

But how are you supposed to go after the wandering sheep? What do you do? What are you supposed to say to a friend who’s wandered off? 

  • You don’t want to come off as judgmental: “Where have you been?”
  • You don’t want to seem nosy: “Are you OK?!”
  • You don’t want to come off as needy: “Come back, we don’t have enough tenors! Come back, there’s no one to help with coffee hour!” I mean, that’s so appealing…
  • You don’t want to provoke guilt: “I’ve missed you so much! It’s not the same without you! How could you leave me?” 

Sometimes it’s easier just to pretend nothing’s changed. You just say ‘hi’ and let it go.

But you know what? That hurts, too. People slip away, nobody says anything, and they’re left to wonder whether anybody really cared. It hurts. 

When we were talking about this Sunday’s service, Trip pointed me to a hashtag that was trending on twitter last week – people are posting in #emptythepews about why they’re leaving their churches. One man wrote this, “I prayed for three weeks straight for someone to notice I wasn’t at church anymore. No one reached out, ever.”

That hurts. It hurts a lot. 

People leave for a whole host of reasons, and it’s hard to know what to say. So I’ve asked a couple of people to help us get a handle on this. Brad Hyslop is the chair of Membership Ministries and Doris Porter is our staff member for Congregational Life. Both of them were game to do some role-playing to help us out. Mind you, these are not their words, so don’t blame them if you think this is lame!

I’m going to introduce a few scenarios about why people might wander off, and what a friend might say… It’s not one-size fits all, of course. Every person’s situation is different. But there are different sorts of reasons that frequently come up. 

Say you run into someone at the IGA and you haven’t seen them at church lately. Where do you start? 

Brad: “Hey, Doris, great to see you! Haven’t seen you for awhile – how’s it going?”

Doris: “Great, great – just really busy. You know how it is…”

Brad: “Oh, yeah, I get it. Jenny and I were just talking about how fast the summer flew by. I can’t believe the girls are back in school already.”

Doris: “I know – we’ve been traveling a lot to see the grandkids. The time just flies. We just can’t up there often enough to see them.”

Brad: “I’m really glad you have the flexibility to see them. I miss seeing you, though – when I didn’t see you at church I was worried maybe something was wrong. I thought about giving you a call to check in, but I didn’t want to pry…”

Doris: “No, no, we’re fine. I know we should get back to church when we’re here, but it seems like Sundays are our only day to stay home. And besides, I feel like I don’t know anybody any more now that our kids aren’t here.”

Brad: “Well, you know us! The girls would love to have you sit with us.   They’re going to be in Carol’s choir this year & we’re super-excited about that. It makes for a pretty long Sunday but it’s worth it. You should come when they sing next. Tell you what, I’ll let you know when that is, and you can join us!”
  • No guilt, just warmth
  • Talking about his own enthusiasm for something in the church
  • Inviting to something very specific, and following up on it. 

Some situations are harder. Say there’s someone who always used to sit near you in worship, and you haven’t seen them for a few weeks. You check in with mutual friends or one of us to see if they’re ok, or if they’re just traveling. No one seems to know. So you get up your courage and call:

Brad: “Hi Doris, it’s Brad Hyslop. How are you doing?”

Doris: “Fine…what’s up?”

Brad: “Well, nothing really. I was just thinking about you and thought I’d give you a call. I hadn’t seen you at church for a few weeks and I was starting to get a little worried about you and wanted to make sure you were OK.”

Doris: “Oh, I’m fine.” 

Brad: “Well, that’s good. I just wasn’t sure whether something happened; we like you guys and miss seeing you there.”

Doris: “I like you and your family, too, Brad. I just felt like I wasn’t getting much out of it anymore. Like we were just going through the motions, and why bother? I’m still spiritual, but I’ve kind of given up on church feeding me.”

Brad: “I hear you… and no judgment here. You do what you have to do. It’s funny, though; the opposite has happened for me. I’ve just found that the more involved I’ve gotten, the more it means to me. It’s like the more I give the more I get.” 

Doris: “Well, I wish I felt that way…”

Brad: “Tell you what; no pressure here, but would you think about coming to a program with us sometime? There’s a potluck coming up at the end of the month where we’re going to hear more about mission. I think it’s right up your alley – more about living the faith than hearing about it. Why don’t you think about it, and I’ll get back to you when it gets closer. I just think you have so much to contribute to the church family to make us more faithful.”
  • No guilt, but a little challenge
  • Appealing to the place where their faith is strongest 
  • Inviting, not chasing

Sometimes people leave because they feel like they’ve been neglected. Maybe they went through a rough patch in their lives and no one came, or called, or seemed to care. Your call may be the first time someone reached out. 

Brad: “Hi, Doris, it’s Brad – I was just thinking about you and wondered how you were doing.”

Doris: [long pause] “Actually, not so well. I suppose you heard that I was diagnosed with cancer. I surgery a few weeks ago.” 

Brad: “No! I didn’t know! I am so sorry to hear that. How are you doing?”

Doris: “I’m ok [sigh]. This has just been so hard. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so scared and alone.”

Brad: “I am so sorry… What can I do to help? Does the church know? Can I put it on the prayer chain? I’m sure people would want to help.”

Doris: “Well nobody has helped so far, so I don’t know why they’d start now. Honestly, it makes me feel kind of bitter. After all the time and effort I’ve given the church. No one has called, not even the pastors.”

Brad: “Wow, I wonder if they know about this! Is it OK if I call them?”

Doris: “I guess, though I don’t know what good it would do.”

Brad: “Well let me talk with Janice and Karen and Trip. In the meantime, I’d love to stop by to see you. Can I bring anything? Do you need a meal?”
  • No excuses
  • Lots of concern
  • An offer to help bring the love of God to them

Maybe the hardest is when something has happened to make someone angry. I’ve said something from the pulpit that hit a nerve, or something felt too political. These are the things that can make someone feel like they’re not welcome, and even more, like the church has failed to be what they believe the church should be. 

Doris: “You know, I just can’t stand how political the church has become. I come here to get away from all that. It’s gotten to the point where I’d just rather stay home.”

Brad: “I hear you – the climate right now is so toxic; it seems like every news cycle gets everybody even more ramped up. I think we all need a breather. But you know what I love about our church? It’s one of the few places I go where I’m outside my bubble. I know I’m sitting next to people who see things differently than I do. We don’t all agree and we don’t all vote the same way. But we care about each other. And I think that’s something we need even more of.”
  • no excuses, no defensiveness
  • a different frame of reference, of seeing things
  • appealing to what they bring

However you open the conversation with the person who left, the conversation you have depends on what’s been so hurtful.  I go back to #emptythepews, where people shared their reasons for leaving. Some had to do with how judgmental they felt their church was, whether about gays or other religions.  Some people left to protest the overt bigotry and intolerance and sexism in their churches. Given the timing – right after Charlottesville - many of the posts were in response to the silence of their churches about racism. 

You know as well as I do that some terrible things have been done in the name of God. The white supremacists were carrying quotations from scripture. 

Doris: “I don’t know about you, but I just don’t want to be associated with that anymore. If that’s Christianity, count me out.”

Brad: “But see, it’s not really Christian, and you and I both know that. It’s horrible, what’s been done in the name of Jesus. But that’s just it: I want to make sure there’s a different voice. I want to make sure there’s a different voice representing the faith. I want people to hear about the God I know and love, who knows and loves everyone. That’s why I haven’t given up. And I think our church needs your voice, too.” 

Do you see the common thread in all these scenarios? When we talk with people who’ve left there’s an attitude we bring, a way of being that makes a difference. 

  • It’s not defensive, but confident
  • It’s not judging, but caring
  • It’s not apologetic, but is concerned 
  • It’s not accusatory, but invitational
  • It’s not lecturing, it’s listening
  • Most of all, it’s loving. You come to them with love. 

This is the really important part: of course you want them to come back, but there are no expectations that they will. It’s not a ‘win’ if they come back; they are free agents. It’s a ‘win’ that you’ve had the courage to have the conversation. No expectations, but love.

See, most of us have been those lost sheep at one time or another. We’ve gotten busy, or hurt, or burned out on church. We’ve needed someone to come find us. And thank God they have. Thank God for the ones who have had the courage to reach out to us. 

Here’s what I hope. That in the end, the conversation isn’t about us feeling rejected. Because it isn’t about us. It’s about that friend, and what they need. And maybe, just maybe, it will look like this:

Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
Granville, Ohio