Within these words it is easy to feel the passion our Lord felt for backslidden Israel. Truly all heaven rejoices when even one sinner comes to repentance (Matt. 17:7). But the Bible also clearly states that the good shepherd rejoiced when he recovered the lost sheep (Matt. 18:13), and the woman rejoiced with her neighbors that she had found the lost coin (Matt. 15:9).
By Tim Massengale
She lived just four blocks from the church. When we knocked she came to the door with white flour on her hands. She apologized and explained she was making bread, something you rarely see people doing in this microwave age.
We told her we were from a neighborhood church and were out inviting folks to a block party that would be held in the church parking lot in two weeks. She took the flyer and smiled lightly when she read the church name.
“Oh, I used to attend there about seven years ago,” she said. She asked how the pastor was doing and inquired about several other families as well. It was obvious that she had been more than just a casual attendee. We talked for several more minutes until the obvious question came up – why did she stop coming?”
“Well, my son became sick with leukemia. He was eight at the time. It turned bad really quick. While he was in chemo he was sick all the time so I wasn’t able to come much. He eventually had a bone marrow transplant but that failed to take and he passed away that same year. I was pretty bitter at God and stopped attending church. But that’s all behind me now.”
She glanced at the flyer again. “I just might come. I would love to see everyone again…” Her voice trailed off. She smiled and asked us to forgive her, but she had to get her bread in the oven, so we had a quick word of prayer and told her we looked forward to seeing her at the block party.
Reaching Out to Backsliders
The above story illustrates the need to stay in touch with backsliders. What if we had never knocked on her door? What about the dozens – even hundreds – of other backsliders that, with just a simple invitation, would be open and receptive to attending church once again?
Churches grow three ways: births, transfers-in, and converts. Churches lose members three ways as well: deaths, transfers-out, and backsliding. We often have little control over births, deaths, and transfers. But we can influence converts and retention. It is critical that we address both sides of this equation. If we can increase converts and decrease backsliding, the church will grow at an accelerated rate.
The parable of the lost sheep specifically addresses backsliders (Matt. 18:11-14). The sheep were in the sheep fold. They knew the shepherd’s voice. They had been born (again) into the family. But now one had wandered away and needed to be brought back into the protection of the fold.
Too often churches treat backsliders like Mother Goose’s ‘Little Bo-Peep:’ “Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find them. But leave them alone and they’ll come home, waggin’ their tails behind them.” Rather than acting like the Good Shepherd and proactively reaching out to bring the backslider home, they take a ‘leave them alone’ approach and hope they eventually will wander back. Obviously, this is not the biblical model that we should follow.