By David Roadcup, Jim Estep, and Gary Johnson
Chasing strays. It’s not the title of a new movie or video game. Chasing strays is a task that belongs to elders.
For centuries, people have been straying from the local church. This is not a new phenomenon. While on death row, the apostle Paul was deserted by Christians (2 Timothy 4:9-16). Some elders in the church at Ephesus “distort[ed] the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). For a variety of reasons, the church has experienced an age-old revolving door of members—people come, and people go. The question is, do we chase strays? We should. After all, this is one of the responsibilities of elders as we shepherd the flock.
Church attendance has been declining for decades; COVID-19 simply exacerbated this phenomenon. At the height of the pandemic last summer, “one in three practicing Christians stopped attending church,” according to the Barna Group. In the third quarter of 2020, churches experienced only a 36 percent average in-person return rate after America reopened following the national lockdown, the UnStuck Group reported. Like it or not, many seats remain empty on Sunday morning, and rather than stew about it, we should do something about it. Now is the time to chase strays.
As elders, we not only need to shepherd the flock, we also need to lead by example (1 Corinthians 11:1). It is essential we instill in other believers—staff, key leaders, etc.—the high value of chasing strays . . . of authentically caring for people who have walked away from the local church. The three guiding principles for doing so are as simple as ABC.
How we think determines how we act and live. Case in point, when Paul admonished the Philippians for thinking more of themselves than others. Paul said they should “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8). Before we chase strays, we must have a Christlike attitude that others matter to us.
In Luke 15, Jesus told three parables about something lost and then found: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. To Jesus, lost items mattered greatly. After all, he declared this as his most important mission, “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
When the sheep wandered away from the flock, Jesus told how the shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep and went after the stray (Luke 15:3-7). Similarly, elders—as shepherds of the local church—must work at pastoral care. This is not optional. Paul used a Greek imperative to command the Ephesian elders to “be shepherds of the church of God” (Acts 20:28). That same command is given to elders today.
We should have been shepherding the flock and chasing strays when necessary long before the arrival of COVID-19. Yet, some elders give little or no attention to this. Maybe we have no margin of time for shepherding; after all, we are busy overseeing the church budget and reviewing bids for new HVAC units.
Elders perhaps find it easier to run the church while drowning in the day-to-day because chasing strays is more difficult. Or maybe we avoid chasing strays because it hurts that people have left us, and we find it easier to just let them go as they please. No matter our excuse, as shepherds, we need to “leave the ninety-nine” and go after them. After all, this is the heart of Jesus.
There is real risk of going to one extreme or the other with people who stray from the church. We might do nothing at all about people who have left the church, or we might focus all of our efforts on people who have left. Both extremes are hurtful to the body, and so we must strike a healthy balance.
When we have a “Little Bo-Peep” mentality, people will feel the sting of neglect. The nursery rhyme states that Bo-Peep’s response to the sheep that strayed was to “leave them alone, and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.” If we adopt the extreme of not chasing strays and assume they will return to the local church of their own accord, people will have cause to criticize the elders for not caring about them. There are many instances in the Old Testament when “shepherds of Israel” were criticized by God for not caring the for lost sheep (Ezekiel 34:7-10, et al.). As elders in the New Testament era, we must chase strays as one of our primary responsibilities. It is easy to forget about strays until we become one of them.
At the other extreme, if we live-eat-breathe chasing strays to the detriment of serving those still in the church and those who are coming to faith, our neglect will be keenly felt by others. It is vitally important to have a healthy focus on those who are yet to become a part of the local church.
Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Church, shared that his church continues to pursue one-on-one evangelism. During COVID-19, Saddleback’s church members “have led over 16,000 people to Christ. We’re in revival. We’re averaging about 80 people a day coming to Christ—80 people a day,” Warren told Baptist News Global in December. We cannot be so driven to chase strays that we completely neglect others. Strike a healthy balance.
Chasing strays requires contact. We cannot adequately shepherd people without having personal and intentional contact with them. Shepherds move among the sheep rather than remaining aloof from them. In this era of unprecedented social distancing and digital church, there are ways to leverage contact with those folks who have left. Begin conversations with people via email, text, or phone calls. Establish a place to meet for a meal or coffee. Jesus often engaged in table fellowship during his ministry, and it remains an ideal setting for us as we endeavor to care for others.
Ask why someone left the church. It’s a necessary question to ask strays, similar to what might be discussed during an exit interview at work. People don’t choose to leave simply because of the mask debate or political disunity. People are hurting in extraordinary ways. Emotional health and mental health are at low ebbs. Possible causes might include job losses, financial insecurity, addictions, separation, or divorce. Engage people in conversation and offer Jesus-like compassion. We must show these folks that we care, and if they choose not to return, we should bless them and pray for them as they seek a new church home. Wish them well.
We’ve endured COVID-19 for more than a year, but loneliness is a pandemic on its own. Lockdowns and social distancing have caused many people to retreat into isolation, which is taking a heavy toll on many. As shepherds, the issue is not attendance but engagement. Jesus calls us into relationship with him and with one another. God is in relationship (i.e., the Trinity), and we were made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27); thus, we were made for relationship. There are more than 50 “one another” commands in the New Testament. It is not good for us to be alone (Genesis 2:18); instead, we should be in relationship with one another, especially with strays.
A WORD OF CAUTION
You take a risk if you try to corral a stray dog or cat. A stray animal can take on a feral nature and not want to be bothered. If you reach out to a stray dog or cat, you risk being bitten or scratched. Similarly, when chasing church strays, we may risk being wounded by people, particularly if they have been wounded or are wandering away from the faith. In such instances, remember that Paul said our struggle is not with people, but with “the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). Forgive as the Lord has forgiven us.
Love never fails. Chase strays.
David Roadcup, Jim Estep, and Gary Johnson serve with e2: effective elders, a ministry founded in 2008 in response to the increasing need for equipping elders for leadership in the local congregation. These three men take turns writing the e2: effective elders column.