Outreach happens most simply through families when a husband and wife have children and bring them to church. I’ll be clear that families do not exist for the sake of outreach, as if families are only good because they’re useful. Rather families are a great good in and of themselves, and God has honored them highly by making them a great blessing to his Church.
We now move out another ring, from the congregation, from the families of the congregation, to the straying members of the congregation. These are people who in their confirmation vows, when they were asked, “Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?” said, “I do, by the grace of God.” And when they were asked, “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” said, “I do, by the grace of God.”
These are people who have confessed the same faith that you do—and expressed their intention to remain steadfast in that confession—and yet have fallen away. Before we talk about bringing new people into the congregation, we must do everything in our power to reach out to those who already claim to belong to us. Now we can face this sobering fact up front: many of those who have absented themselves from our assemblies will not return. They have become “apostate,” a Greek word that means “standing apart,” and has come to signify in the Church those who have rejected the faith. Nevertheless, we go after these people as if they were our own blood—because they are, or at least were.
There was a preacher who lived in the fourth century named John Chrysostom, who once preached a sermon called “To Those Who Had Not Attended the Assembly.” He began the sermon by noting that many of those who belonged to the congregation were not present. “Again our church is desolate of her children,” as he put it (To Those Who Had Not Attended the Assembly, §1). And in the rest of the sermon he noted the poor excuses people give for skipping church, how some people only come for special festival days, and what those who are present can do for their wandering brethren.
This is the summary of his recommendations: first, you have a duty toward those who are not here, and second, be persistent. Applying it to our context, first, we should not relegate the care of delinquent members to the pastor and elders. Calling back the erring is the responsibility of all Christians. And second, those who claim to be Christians have no right getting offended by those who try to bring them back. We need not fear the reaction of the straying. They’re the ones who said they intended to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully. If they feel put off by the Church, that’s their problem; we certainly shouldn’t feel like we’re intruding or doing something wrong by trying to bring them back and aid them in keeping their own vows.
A word that Chrysostom likes in his sermon is “impudence,” which means persistence to the point of being annoying. You can think of the parable of the friend at midnight in Luke 11, when the man goes to his neighbor in the middle of the night and keeps knocking on his door asking for something to serve his guest who has unexpectedly come to him. Jesus says, “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs” (Lk. 11:8). So also, Christians, by their impudence, can bring back the straying.
Here’s what Chrysostom preaches: “For ‘a continual dripping of water,’ it says, ‘bores into a rock.’ And yet what is softer than water? And what is harder than rock? But nevertheless, the persistency overcame its nature. And if persistency overcomes nature, how much more will it be able to prevail over the will” (Ibid., §1). And again, “‘What, then, if they do not want it?’ someone says. Make them want it by your continual besieging. For if they see us pressing upon them they will assuredly want it” (Ibid., §3).
And he doesn’t think it’s going too far to recommend even this: “Each one of you: meet at the houses of your neighbors, wait for those who come out, seize them, and lead them back to your common mother. And imitate those who are mad for the theater, who with all zeal make arrangements with one another, and in this way wait at dawn for that lawless spectacle” (Ibid., §4). Just as the pagan world strives to bring along its own to its sinful gatherings, so also Christians strive to bring along their own to the congregation, the Church, their common mother.
So, don’t be bashful in pursuing the straying. Don’t even hesitate to quote their own vows to them if they get indignant or try to put you off: “You’re the one who said that you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully. You’re the one who said that you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.” Pester them until they blush and return, or until they curse Christ and you.
Don’t fear that you’re pushing people away by your efforts. If one of the straying becomes one of the damned, it won’t be because you pursued him. It will be because he hardened his heart against the Word of Christ. You’re motivated by love for your brethren, such that even impudence isn’t going too far. If people refuse your love, then you are being conformed to the image of Christ, who has been impudent with us, and thereby saved us. Sharing in the unjust scorn that Christ bore is no cause of shame but a cause of rejoicing. Therefore, by pursuing the straying we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
Steadfast Lutherans will soon be publishing a book titled “Be at Leisure: A Lutheran Approach to Outreach.” The book will be available as a free PDF and in print for the cost of printing at Lulu.com. This post is chapter 7 of the book: Straying.