Church Prodigals

One of the greatest challenges of any local church is determining when to let people go who continue to be a source of contention and division. In other words, does the time come to give up on people? How do we deal with people who refuse to acknowledge wrongs done, and who refuse to repent? These are, of course, hard questions, but necessary to ask if we are going to build healthy churches.  Local churches often emphasize numbers and continue to pour into unfaithful individuals who “put no skin into the game.” They are consumers and takers. They wish to serve God on their terms only. This is every pastor’s dilemma. 

Again, when do we let people go? When do we move from helping to enabling people? When do we take our hands off? I’ve presented a lot of questions that beg a righteous response.

I’m drawn today to the story of the Prodigal son, found in Luke 15. The father had amply provided for the son — meeting his needs, and providing him with not only life’s necessities but a nice inheritance. The son, however, became discontented, often finding fault with his father and refusing to accept the responsibilities that come with being part of a family. 

He became self-focused. He became a victim, for reasons we surely cannot understand. He began to make demands on his father’s estate. This spoiled brat demanded his share without assuming family responsibilities. He was a consumer! He left home and went into a “far country.” He broke ties with his source of joy, identity, and provision.  

I have pastored six churches over the past five decades. And one common factor holds true in each. People leave, and 99 percent of them leave without talking to me, or giving me the courtesy of a sit-down conversation. They simply leave. They fall off the map. Usually, rumors circulate as to their reasons. Much of the time I received the blame. They left, leaving everyone to wonder and to feel unsettled. 

Recently, I watched a “Lassie” rerun. Do you remember the infamous, well-trained collie of the 1960’s?  In this episode, Timmy became upset with his parents, and rather than discussing the issue, he took Lassie and left home. He felt sorry for himself. He pouted. He assumed the wrong and embraced partial truth. He was unwilling to accept parental correction. They were wrong and he was right. He left his zone of protection. In today’s church, people do what Timmy did. They allow circumstances, decisions, family issues and whatever to push them out. In short, they rebel and “leave home.” 

It becomes particularly hard to accept when often the people who leave are the ones we helped the most. Prayers, tears, laughter, kindness, paid bills, and other benevolent helps; hours of counseling, and trips to the emergency room, were made available with unconditional love. Then, out of the blue, they leave – many times bashing and saying unkind things. They bite the hand that feeds them. What is a pastor to do during these times?

As hard as it may sound, let them go! The prodigal’s father had no choice but to let him go. Made up minds – victims – only learn to mature when the pain of leaving is greater than confronting the misunderstandings of the present. The prodigal exchanged wonderful meals served at his father’s dinner table for corn husks! The one main difference between the prodigal and most who leave local churches today is the fact that he at least went to his father before leaving. While his attitude was wrong and hurtful, at least the father had some type of communication. 

Most today leave local churches, apart from common courtesy. Some send cowardly written letters – often harsh and hurtful – refusing to discuss their real issues. Everyone knows the real problems, except the pastor. This is cruel, unreasonable, and cowardly.

They pout. They often gossip and pass along partial truths – even lies – or manufactured reasons. They refuse to repent.

So, where does this leave pastors during these frustrating times? Alone, wondering and confused. Often, those who depart try to get others into their corner and further hurt the local church by sewing discord and pulling others out. Many forget that such doings are on God’s “hate list” in Proverbs 6:16-19. Again, what are pastors to do?

Let them go and refuse to use them in future sermon illustrations! I’ve done this, without calling names, and further hurt the local church by bringing confusion. In my experience, prodigals seldom return. Pride does not allow them to admit wrongs done. Some harden their hearts and continue to rehearse their pain for years to come. Luke 15 has often been used to suggest that pastors must always go after prodigals. However, a closer look at this parable suggests something different. Only when wandering, lost sheep come to repentance can they be restored. Those who leave and refuse to acknowledge their miscalculations, mistakes and sins are unable to return. In other words, only those who repent and are willing to seek restitution can be allowed to return. I love that the Scripture says regarding the prodigal: “He came to himself.” In other words, he repented. 

When those in our church family refuse to accept personal responsibility for their actions, we must let them go and trust them to God’s unfailing love and grace. 

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