Pastors, People Leaving Church and the Ninety-Nine Sheep

One of my pastoral rules I have come up with is: I do not chase people. If people leave the church, I let them leave.

Now, I will contact them 98% of the time to find out where they are and what’s up since very few will go out of their way to tell me. Many people stop going to church and then say “And not one person contacted me.” Let me just say that this is typically a giant, huge lie.

Let me then also say that in about 2% of cases it’s true. The primary reason no one contacted you is because no one wants to take the chance that contacting you might lead you to come back.

There is often a sigh of relief at the leaving of some people by all the Body of Christ.

This is an unfortunate truth, but a truth nonetheless. Some people just want to cause problems. One of the curiosities of human nature is that when we don’t get what we think we deserve from people, we always assume it was the fault of other people. Sometimes you sleep in the bed ya make folks.

However, I have heard many non-pastors tell me that I am supposed to chase people who leave the church, that I’m supposed to do something to get them to come back. What this involves exactly, I do not know. I have yet to see any of those advice-givers endeavor to show me how to bring anyone back.

However, the advice is given and generally Matthew 18:12 is loosely quoted

“if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?”

The pastor is supposed to run around getting people to come back to his church based on a shepherd rescuing poor sheep from holes. Allow me to make some points.

1) The Good Shepherd being discussed is Jesus, not a pastor. I think this is a huge point. I do have faith in the Holy Spirit and in the Head of the Body of Christ to know how to build His Church.

2) I wonder how many times a shepherd gets the same dumb sheep out of the same dumb hole before he sells that little sheep at market. Immediately after the sheep out of holes passage is Jesus’ one passage on church discipline and how to remove people from church.

3) If Jesus is my example for shepherding, allow me to point out that He was constantly driving people out of religious circles, not running around carrying people back into religious circles. There are wolves about. Not everyone who leaves a church qualifies as a sheep.

4) When it comes to the shepherd/sheep illustrations of the Bible, generally we are dealing with the sheep of the people of Israel. Ezekiel 34 is a prime example. The shepherds of Israel were the prophets and priests–religious leaders. They were to help the people of Israel and this was based on genetics. They were there to protect the race of Jewish people. Determining who God’s sheep are in our day is a tad more complicated.

5) Notice how Jesus identifies who His sheep are: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” The way to identify Jesus’ sheep–the people the pastor is supposed to “shepherd”–is that they are following Christ. In their following they might step into a hole, so then go help them get back on their way. But Church Discipline exists to get bad sheep who really aren’t sheep at all, to quit messing with the flock, or to restore fallen sheep who “fell” into sin. Jesus’ sheep are not nit-picking, fault finders complaining about the church.

6) A person leaving the church because they have a problem with nigh on everything is not what we’re dealing with. If someone in my church stumbles and falls into sin or some other trial, I am all over it to the best of my ability. I do not think someone having a problem and leaving a church is what we’re dealing with here.

7) Understand that pastors know more about most church-leaving situations than you do. They also do not, hopefully, communicate all they know. Trust me when I tell you there is more than meets the eye on most of these situations.

Church attendance is a voluntary activity. I figure if people wanted to come to my church, they would. I don’t want them there because we’ve found a way to play a game with it.

If a person tells me they don’t want to come anymore I will let them not come. I can’t see how I have any power to do otherwise.

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9 thoughts on “Pastors, People Leaving Church and the Ninety-Nine Sheep”

  1. So it’s all about a relationship with Christ and not a membership in a (religious) social club! And it’s not separate churches but “one flock and one shepherd” idea!

  2. But Church Discipline exists to get bad sheep who really aren’t sheep at all, to quit messing with the flock

    I think Church Discipline is also used to address sheep too. It can be a wake up call to a backslider or someone who has fallen in sin (e.g. 1 Cor 5).

  3. I agree completely. As a lay-leader, I have personally observed that:
    a) When people leave mad, it’s usually way past time for them to leave anyway.
    b) After they leave, harmony usually returns.
    c) Sometimes, when they leave and go somewhere, else the Lord uses their new assignment to teach them something about maturity and humility.
    d) Sometimes not.

    As a life-time church attender, I have also observed and experienced that, if you are paying attention, the Lord will tell you when it’s time for YOU to leave. And when He does, you should leave right away. Don’t stick around and make trouble.

  4. I have often wondered why so many miserable people stick with it in an effort to make others miserable. After going through that with enough people I am getting much better at instigating the process so the church can move on. In the end, it’s all very say and I don’t mean to be flippant with this issue to any extent. This world is not my home.

  5. I’m learning that it isn’t necessary to agree to whatever the pastor says. When the layperson grows but still believes thst he/she needs to still agree with the “company line, it is nerve-racking for everyone. True liberty, the freedom to grow, means I don’t have to agree with people’s opinions but in God’s Word.

    Wonderfil liberty!!

  6. Pastors are there to help (Ephesians 4), but they are not there to replace the work of the Spirit nor is their word to replace the Word of God. Every pastor will say or do something that will annoy you. Get over it! That’s what love does and it’s hopefully what the pastor does for the annoyances of the people in the church as well.

  7. I agree it’s not to be taken lightly (even though I am hearing The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” in my head right now).

    But it’s also not the end of the world as we know it. If you think leaving your church, or other people leaving your church, is the worst thing to happen EVER, you are wrong. Get over it and move forward.

    As I said before, I think often people leave because the Lord is trying to move them on for a purpose. Their presence is required elsewhere in the kingdom, probably either for purposes of further ministry and/or discipline. And the reason they sometimes leave under unpleasant circumstances is because most of the time we aren’t very good at listening for His “still small voice.” So He has to use a louder, more insistent voice to get our attention and make things happen. We are, after all, His children…in more ways than one.

    (Most, if not all, of the “you’s” above are rhetorical, btw…in that I don’t mean you, Jeff, specifically.)

  8. I hear ya. Well said. It isn’t the end of the world. I used to think it was. When someone left I used to feel like I blew it, that it meant I was a failure. In some cases, yeah, probably I was. But for the most part it’s just that I’m not the guy for the time. I have come to realize that I’m not a pastor for everyone and I think that is OK. It’s why there is diversity in the Body. What hurts is when it isn’t the end of the world but people go out acting like it is and say very mean things and really make everything worse. That bothers me and always will.

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