This past weekend I shared something unique with our church. My heart has been captured by the possibility of former members returning. As we prepare for this opportunity my mind is drawn to the parable of the prodigal son and what we can learn about welcoming people back into our fellowship. Here are 5 takeaways from Luke 15:11-32.
1. Recognize Their Right to Leave
It’s clear that the father wanted the prodigal son to stay in His house. He could love, protect and teach his son there. Yet, when the son decided to leave the father honored his request. As hard as it may be, we must honor the choices of others. We may not always understand and that’s okay. One of the hardest lessons I learned as a pastor is that people do not belong to us. They belong to God. He is the ultimate shepherd and from time to time He moves His sheep to different pastures.
2. Hope for Their Return
While the son was away the father hoped that he would one day come back. The text even implies that the father went out daily to see if the son was coming back. When people leave our church it can be hard. We love them. We do life with them. In some cases they are a part of the reason the church felt like home. While we give others the freedom to go where they feel led, it’s okay for us to hope and pray that they would one day return.
3. Celebrate When They Come Back
The first thing the father did once his son returned was embrace him! He celebrated him and threw him a party! He did not bombard him with questions about where he had been or what he had done. He simply celebrated that he was home. This is a strategy that can serve us well. As God sends our friends and family back into the fold we must celebrate their return. In time our questions might be answered and in the process of healing confessions could be made. But that process will be led by the Holy Spirit.
4. Make It Safe for Them to Heal
The prodigal son’s season away had given him perspective. He had discovered that his motives for leaving were misguided. A crucial step in his return was to reconcile through confession. The father heard him and loved him through it. Sometimes God sends people on journeys that even they do not understand. This means that some people leave a church because of conflict. Some leave because of disagreement with the direction of the church. Some leave because of unmet needs or unclear direction. But some leave because God called them away for a season. We won’t always know why people left because sometimes they don’t know why they left and that’s okay. It’s our job to create a safe space for people to share as little or as much as the Holy Spirit leads them to share.
5. Keep Proper Perspective
Not everyone celebrated when the prodigal son returned. The elder son resented the celebration and saw it as a slight towards him. Thankfully, the father pointedly addressed the issue by assuring the elder son of his place in the family while giving perspective to the importance of the prodigal son’s return. Lost in this narrative is the possible hurt the elder son felt as he watched his younger brother leave. We often focus on how the prodigal son left the father but he left the brother too. It can be hard watching people we love leave even when they have good reason but we must keep things in proper perspective. When we create a culture that welcomes people back we stand as the hands and feet of Christ.
I don’t claim to know what tomorrow holds but I do know that restoration should be in the DNA of every church. It’s who Christ is so it should be who we are.