First a question: What is the difference between the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost son?
While you think about that, let me tell you about a recent conversation I had with a former Bible college classmate on Twitter. (Yes, I know.) We were talking about an issue boiling hot in culture right now (the issue was gender identity, but that’s not necessarily the issue I want to address here) and we were clearly on two different sides of this issue. Our conversation was pointed but never hostile, but like a lot of Twitter conversations I’m not sure how much was actually accomplished. We eventually reached a point where in frustration he said (I paraphrase), “Your strategy is one of the reasons why people like me have become a done.” What he meant was that he is among that growing group of people who once were followers of Christ and participants in the Church, but have now grown disillusioned with the Church and have left. Many (but not all) have also stopped following Christ in any meaningful way. Whether or not this last point is the case with my classmate is unclear. Christianity Today devoted an article to the “Dones.” I don’t agree with their overall characterization of this group (they tend to see them as older and among those who were highly participatory in the ministry of the church while I tend to see them as younger and more marginal in their participation), but the one thing that all dones have in common is disillusionment and general burn out with the institution of the Church.
Back to my conversation. My curiosity was piqued. I asked him what strategy could have been employed in order to keep him and those like him in the Church. His answer was slow in coming and vague when it finally did. Eventually he said that the Church had forgotten how to love. I had a lot of questions about this which unfortunately he wasn’t really excited to answer.
My first question was “which church?” If his local church body had somehow forgotten how to love, he might be justified in leaving and finding a church that manifests the love of Christ more faithfully. (Then again, he might be called to work for the reform of that church from within.) I know many people who have been abused and neglected by Christian communities and Christian individuals. I know many people who have walked away from God because of these negative experiences. This is always tragic. What needs to be said to these people is “your church is not every church” or “your church is not the Church.” Jesus is still Lord and the Church is still his holy, but flawed bride and the behavior of a local community of believers shouldn’t change those facts. If you are in a toxic church environment, it may be time to move on to another community. There may be other cases where it is appropriate to patiently bear with the ugliness of one another in the graciousness common to our faith But since my classmate had dropped out of Church altogether, I must conclude that he had judged the Church universal to have stopped loving.
That would be big, if true. I was left with a second question: What is love? Unfortunately, my classmate wouldn’t clarify want he meant by this claim. Churches are not above “forgetting how to love.” In Ephesus, the church had forgotten how to love and they were chastised for it in Revelation 2. The Church in every age and in every culture must struggle with the implications and applications of the command to double-love, first for God and then for others. I presume that my classmate’s complaint against the Church wasn’t that it had forgotten how to love God. Instead, based on the broader context of our conversation, he was talking about the Church forgetting how to love others.
And I agree with him. The Church must do a better job of loving each other and loving the world. There is no doubt about this – in every time and in every place – we should and can do better. I believe he is also right in observing (again, I assume based on our conversation) that the Church has not been particularly loving to those who struggle with gender identity or sexual orientation. But it is not Christian love if it requires that I say “yes” to God’s “no” or “no” to God’s “yes.” Love for God precedes love for others. To reverse the order is toxic.
That finally leads me to my last question about “strategy.” Do we need to adjust our strategy as a church in order to reach out to the dones and lead them back to the Church or perhaps keep them from leaving in the first place? In the latest Every Thought Captive Podcast, we talked about this issue briefly. You can listen here.
I struggle with this question. I’m tempted to just quote 1 Timothy 1:18-20 and move along. But I don’t think that’s particularly helpful. I don’t believe you can practice a biblical faith outside of the Church, but I’m also not sure that I would characterize (in every case) the dones as having committed “blasphemy.” The reasons why people leave the Church are individual and often complex.
Paul’s whose own strategy was to “become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). This implies that we should be willing to be flexible in order to bring down barriers to faith. We should listen to the dones. We may find some of their complaints and concerns legitimate and even prophetic at times. Are they walking away because we have become too calloused, too quick to judge while being slow to forgive, too nationalistic or partisan, too individualistic without legitimate community, or too willfully blind to the ways that the world is changing? We may need to repent and change course. We may need to adopt an uncomfortable posture in order to save some. But in the very next verse (9:23) Paul says, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” Clearly, there were some things – namely the gospel – that Paul was unwilling to accommodate or change in order to reach some. Any approach to reaching the dones – or any group – must be firmly established in the gospel. We take our cues from the timeless truth of the gospel and not from the fleeting truths of culture.
I also wonder if a “strategy” to reach the dones would ultimately prove counter-productive. If a business like Walmart lost costumers, they would likely have meetings and adopt strategies to get those customers back. But it might be good for us to consider the ways that the Church is to be different from Walmart. Disciples are not “customers” and the Gospel is not a “product” to be bought and sold. If we were to give the dones everything that they thought they wanted, would that actually create disciples or just encourage more consumerism within the Church? And I’m not even convinced that giving them what they want would get them back into the pews anyway (as if that’s our only goal). For instance, my classmate implied that one of the big issues for him leaving the Church was how it deals with SOGI. But the reality is that there are plenty of denominations that are accommodating to culture on these issues, and the one thing that each of these denominations has in common is their utter lack of growth.
This brings me back to the two parables. I guess by now you know how they are different. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves his entire flock of sheep in search of the one lost sheep. There is no risk that the shepherd isn’t willing to take. There is no cost that the shepherd isn’t willing to pay in order to retrieve this one lost and vulnerable sheep. In the parable of the lost son, however, there is something that keeps the father at home. He doesn’t leave the older son at home and in charge while he goes and retrieves his youngest from the distant country. The father seems to know that where his son is, he cannot be reached. The son hasn’t wandered. The son has rebelled. The son will never be restored to him until his rebellion is cured first. And so he waits in the hope that someday his son will come to his senses and come back home, and when he does, he is welcomed with open arms and a heart full of forgiveness. Maybe there’s a lesson in here about reaching the dones. When a brother or a sister leaves the Church, our first gospel instinct should be to do whatever it takes to bring them back – to go to them, to offer them forgiveness or even ask for forgiveness if necessary, to plead with them not to sell their salvation for a bowl of soup (Heb. 12:16). But there may also be those occasions when in rebellion he has made his home in the distant country. To go in search for him would be wrong-headed and unwise. Where he has gone, we simply cannot go. No amount of strategy or technique will convince him to come back home. The fact is he’s gone looking for something that he doesn’t believe he can find at home, and it may not be until he realizes the emptiness of that search that he comes to his senses. So we wait in patient hope and prayerful expectation that the one who is done will someday find his way home.