When to pursue and when to wait
The heartache of pastoring those who stray
One of the deepest struggles I know as a small-town pastor is when I pour out my life to disciple someone and they wander away. I could tell many stories of guys that I met in the community, listened to, cried with, prayed with, invited into my life, and labored for their souls; however, they continued to struggle with the same sins, stopped coming to church gatherings, and continued to reject wise counsel. They often continue to claim faith in Christ. However, they are drifting further and further away from Christ and his church.
I have felt the full spectrum of emotions in these relationships. I have felt frustration and anger, discouragement and deep sorrow, feelings of rejection and failure. I have felt an unhealthy detachment and a “savior complex.” I'm still learning what it means to respond in healthy ways that reflect the heart of Christ without trying to be more than I am.
Jesus’ twin parables: When God pursues and when he waits
Our church recently finished a series, walking through Jesus’ parables. Parables are often found in clusters in the gospel. But there is a parabolic method Jesus used called “parabolic twinning.” This refers to when Jesus would teach on the same subject, at the same time, but use two or more parables to make similar (yet nuanced) points. In Luke 15, we find one such set of twin parables.
Jesus begins with the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7) and shortly after, tells the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Both parables discuss salvation in the Kingdom of God. Both parables have a wandering individual, a loving God, a return of the wanderer, and a great celebration. However, there is a striking difference. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves the flock to pursue the lost sheep until he finds it. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father waits patiently for the son to return.
Without jumping to unhelpful theological conclusions (such as believing that an individual can “come to their senses” without the intervening work of God), what is clear is a real difference in the experience of people coming to God. Some feel as though they have a season of “searching for God” before salvation. Others feel as though they were “sought out” in the midst of their lostness. In both, God is sovereign and celebratory. He exhibits relentless love and extravagant rejoicing at the salvation of sinners.
Pastoring in the tension of pursuit and patience
Personally, I tend towards the pursuit. If someone wanders, I text them, call them, invite them over, and warn them. Perhaps others struggle more with passivity. However, if you are like me then you struggle more with feeling too responsible for the decisions of others. All pastoral relationships require patience and thoughtfulness. All ministry requires times of waiting and times of pursuing. We all must live in this tension. When are we the shepherd that pursues the lost sheep and when are we the father on the porch, waiting for his lost son?
"All pastoral relationships require patience and thoughtfulness. All ministry requires times of waiting and times of pursuing. We all must live in this tension. When are we the shepherd that pursues the lost sheep and when are we the father on the porch, waiting for his lost son?"
We should default to pursuing those who stray. Why do I say this? Theologically, because we believe that God can change any heart through gospel-centered pursuit. Biblically, because there are clear commands to pursue those who wander (Matt. 18:10-20; Jas. 5:19-20). And practically, because there are more stories of those who were neglected than those who were pursued too much. The truest reflex in our souls to those who wander should be to go after them.
But also, we need to know when to pull back and patiently wait. On one hand, we are not God. We do not have the emotional or temporal capacity to pursue at all times. We trust God to do what only he can. On the other hand, we cannot “force” someone into repentance. Much of the work God does must be in their own heart. Even Paul would “hand over” those who strayed so that they would learn to repent (1 Cor. 5:1-5; 1 Tim. 1:20).
3 ways to know if you should wait instead of pursue
1) You are doing more for them than they are for themselves.
My father oversees a ministry that works with convicts battling alcohol and drug addictions. I had a conversation with him recently about a straying individual in my church. In that conversation, he stated, “It seems to me that you are doing more for him than he is willing to do for himself. That will never work.” In that moment, I realized two things. First, my dad was hitting the nail right on the head. I was laboring more for his soul than he was. Second, I was not giving him the space to motivate himself to make necessary changes. I knew I could talk him into coming to a service. But was this what he needed? Probably not.
2) Your actions are communicating false assurance.
The clearest biblical category on “pulling back” from the pursuit of others is church discipline. This is when someone who claims to be a Christian either 1) no longer believes the gospel or 2) is living in unrepentant sin. In these cases, the local church is called to pull back, no longer associate with such people, and “hand them over to Satan… so that [their] spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). When someone is consistently straying from right doctrine, forsaking the gathering of believers, or living in sin without repentance, you cannot affirm their salvation. If your pursuit is communicating to them more than simply the loving invitation to return to Jesus and his church, then it may be best to step back. They might yet “come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil” (2 Tim. 2:26).
3) Your pursuit is making faithfulness difficult in other areas.
My burden at this point is very real. I often feel that any sacrifice is worth pursuing those who stray. But this is simply wrong. There was a moment when I realized I was using so much emotional energy and time pursuing after some straying individuals that I was losing the ability to invest in those who were hungry for discipleship. I found myself losing sleep and being distracted while with my family. I was acting more in self-sufficient pride than spirit-dependent wisdom. If the pursuit is causing you to lose sight of Christ’s goodness, to fall behind in other areas of ministry, or to strain to find joy and peace, consider stepping back.
Always be ready to receive and celebrate
When Paul readdresses the situation of the straying brother (1 Cor. 5) in his second letter to the Corinthian church, he has different counsel. Apparently, the church had pursued church discipline but they stepped back too far. They were very severe and he was “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7). He begs them to reaffirm their love for him, turn and forgive him, and take him back. There is a danger in pulling back in your pursuit. You might get frustrated with their rebellion and ignore them as a form of punishment. This is not right.
Just like the father that runs to receive his returning son, we should be ready to receive back those who stray and rejoice in that return. Perhaps the intensity of our pursuit may decrease but our love for those who stray must never decrease. In our prayers and continued conversations, our love must be constantly reaffirmed from a true desire to see those individuals repent and return to Christ. The gospel requires nothing less. There is only one savior and we are not him. But we can join in both the eager pursuit and the eager waiting with trust in his sovereign power.