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I’ve always shepherded local church in transition. That’s what God has me doing in this season of my life and ministry. One thing I’ve learned very clearly is not to date deserters. That is, don’t succumb to the temptation of every local church that has ever lost a few members, and every pastor to a new parish to go chasing after those former members who have left the church.

It’s tempting. It seems like an easy mission field. “Hey,” the conversion goes when you first start unpacking books in your new study, “Here is a list of people who have left the church in the last few years. We (the ethereal 'we') would like you to call on them to see if you can win a few of them back."

This doesn’t work. Here’s why:

1. Stray dogs bite. Enough said. If they left in anger the new guy showing up to “invite them into a new season of growth and vitality” just might bring out the fangs. Send a nice letter inviting them to give the church another try. It’s much better for you that they bite that instead of your hand.

2. Stray dogs are feral. They are no longer a part of the church culture they left behind and usually don’t really care that there is a new pastor in town. They didn’t leave you. If they had you might be able to get somewhere. They left the church you represent and they are no longer concerned with it.

3. Stray dogs don’t make good pets. Let’s say you manage to persuade them to give the church another try. Even if they were the recipient of conflict and not the instigator in the situation that led to their departure, do you really think they won’t be a part of conflict again? Pray for them that they find the place where God wants them to worship in this season of their life.

4. Stray dogs seldom take kindly to strangers. You’re the new guy. They don’t know you and you don’t know them. Personally, I have seen very few former members return to the local church in a healthy way and almost never because of something I did to persuade them.

If they do return for the new preacher’s delivery style, because he has such a lovely wife, because he is missions-minded or something else which isn’t like the last guy, they seldom make productive members. We need to reach and pray for everybody in our communities to come to and know Christ, but we don’t need to think that the mission field is so small that our list of former members is a good place to focus very much attention. 

Speak kindly of the people who were once and are not now a part of the life of the church. But don’t make the mistake of investing a significant amount of time spent on much better things trying to round up deserters. They left the pack for a reason, and it is very rare for them to come back and thrive as a part of the church they left. It happens. But those situations are in God’s hands.

Get busy leading the church into a new season. Don’t chase stray dogs.

In addition to shepherding the flock as Pastor of Liberty Spring Christian Church in Suffolk, Virginia. Chris Surber is also Founder and Director of Supply and Multiply in Montrouis, Haiti. 

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Jason Smith

commented on Jan 17, 2014

I agree that it can be very tempting to spend a good bit of time chasing after those who may not be interested, but this does not mean that these people have strayed away from the church, and even possibly the Lord, should not be sought after at all. Bringing back the erring is an important duty of those who calls themselves shepherds. Many times, these people leave and are never followed up with (if they are even missed at all). The church which doesn't seek the straying is not being a faithful church in my opinion. Our mission field needs (even must) include these people, although it should not _only_ be these people we reach out to.

Ricky Dean Mauldin

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Excellent advice. While it's hard watching people leave, it seems that most have left before they've left -

Richard Scotland

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Are these people not the lost sheep that have wandered off? Heaven rejoices when the one is brought back whilst the 99 remain safe in the pen.

Dan Morand

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Agree. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. The church has failed in the hospitality / welcoming department. It is also not just the pastor's job to collect the stray, it is another ministry within the church.

Fred Jacoby

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Is this a wandering off from the faith or the church? If from the faith, then I would wholeheartedly agree. If from the church, however, well, it certainly takes some discernment...

Lafern Cobb

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Guess no one has ever heard of the Humane Society or Animal Aid. These organizations cater only to the "stray animals." Those who have been abused, mistreated, left by the side of the road and those who have run away from home! We own a rescue dog who was abused and you are right they do bite! I have been bitten many times and expect to get bitten again, but I love our rescue dog more than the pain of a little blood. It's not nice to compare human beings to dogs, but we all have feelings and thank God for those who "rescue" the strays of life! We drove hours through a blizzard to adopt our dog who couldn't find a home. If he were to run away I would run right after him. But....and now I will agree with the points made. People aren't as nice as dogs, so adopting them back won't be easy. And they can find their way home just fine on their own. But certainly a letter of introduction, and at least watching for a chance to build a bridge doesn't hurt. It's God's Church not ours and thank God for those who will come and rescue me when I tend to stray.....people just don't fit nicely into 4 well thought out points.

Chris Surber

commented on Jan 17, 2014

No, they are not. Assuming they were believers when they left the church - which in many cases may be a stretch - they were not. Jesus is plainly referring to the unbelieving world. He was speaking in a Jewish context, saying, "God is going after those who have no revelation of Him." There is a huge difference between evangelism and playing "catch and release" from the same little pond; catching and then chasing fish who leave the church over disgruntlement. I'm addressing a broken church culture here, not evangelism.

John Sears

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Chris, thanks. I agree with your article. I have experienced every single point you made. For those arguing the lost sheep angle, I don't get that Chris is saying that lost sheep can't come back, but we should be wary of the "wolves" who come back pretending to be sheep. I especially like the point that the evangelism field is not just those who have left, but is those who are lost.

John Sears

commented on Jan 17, 2014

This is sincere. I just read it and it could be read with sarcasm. Chris, your point was very well taken.

Chris Surber

commented on Jan 17, 2014

That's exactly what I'm saying. Blessings!

Hersh Johnson Iii

commented on Jan 17, 2014

I enjoyed the article greatly. My take is pray for them "IF" led by the Spirit and let God chase them. He is much better at it then we are... If I was asked to chase after them then I would ask if they had. More often than not people want others to do the dirty/difficult work.

Richard Behrens

commented on Jan 17, 2014

I agree wholeheartedly with Chris! I came to our church through a ministry that works with hurting churches get them into the healing process help find a new pastor etc. I have been at this church now over ten years! They decided to keep me! I never told them in the beginning WHAT they had to do but rather asked is it Biblical... I learned quickly about strays. I've also learned the distinction between chasing and God's PRUNING. It's amazing the new growth that comes! Thanks Chris well written...

Tom Matic

commented on Jan 17, 2014

This practical advice but what's the Scriptural basis for it? It may be OK from the point of view of time management but is that what "pastoring" is mainly about - to be practical? What about Jesus who went to the "other side" (of the Sea of Galilee) just to reach, minister to, and rescue the man possessed by a legion of demons. Isn't Christianity a matter of getting out of our comfort zones, going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, and other inconvenient and impractical attitudes and actions - all for the sake of the Kingdom? A "pastor" who is afraid of "his hand getting bitten" should probably reconsider his "calling". Perhaps, a better advice should be - given a "stray dog" situation - to pray and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance and direction - and not always to take the easy and practical path.

Dilki De Costa

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Thank you. Jesus leave the 99 to go after the 1 lost sheep. Sheep not stray dogs! It really doesn't cost anything to try. The sheep may not come back but there's nothing lost in genuinely trying.

Pastor Jeff Hughes

commented on Jan 17, 2014

I do agree with some points from a human point of view, but not from a Jesus point of view. One disappointing thing in this article is that scripture is not used once in the points made; also (and this is touched on in other parts of this thread) is that I'd have a hard time calling anyone that claims Christ a dog because of the negative connotation in God's Word as we as Christians are called 'sheep' . Sometimes we give up too easily on folks that have left the flock, are we not supposed to be peacemakers? I know that there is risk indeed, but should we not be risk takers when a person's eternal reward--or destiny--is at stake. (John 10; Luke 15).

Dilki De Costa

commented on Jan 17, 2014

I agree with you Pastor Jeff.

Anonymous

commented on Jan 18, 2014

I quite agree with you. Matt 18:12 also strengthens this. God is in support of reconciliation. It only works when we do it God's way and if we allow the holy spirit. Unforgiveness and offence hinders reconciliation and that is why every party must examine himself.

W. Michael Roberts

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Chris you really are right. In my 40 years of ministry, I spent a lot of time trying to convince a person that they didn't need to leave or they needed to come back because it will be different. A few cases it worked but very few. Most of the time it bit the church and me. It wasn't long before they became disgruntled again but this time they tried to divide the church and confuse the ministry. There is a verse that says that after you try and try in a community wipe the dust off your feet and move on. Sometimes it applies to individuals. If these folks are followers of Christ they will simply find another place to worship that fits them better or until they decide to leave there. There is usually a pattern. God Bless and know that there are a lot of people who will find your church and ministry fulfilling but if you spend to much time on those who really don't want to be around you then you will loose the others for possibly eternity.

Darrell Nimmo

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Excellent article Chris. What some forget, people tend to leave for a number of reasons, not just one. And, it may of had nothing to do with the pastor, but with other church members or the vision of the church. The list could go on and on. If you are successful in persuading them to return, they will bring their reasons for leaving with them. Just because you may have persuaded them to try again is no guarantee of tenure. Most likely, there is a good chance of them leaving again because their reasons for leaving in the first place have not be resolved to their satisfaction. We can over-spiritualize anything. But I do not see Jesus spending a lot of time chasing after the rich young ruler or those who turn away in Scripture. Should we forget about them, no. Should we pray for them, yes. Should we reach out in love and reconciliation, as opportunity permits. But it should not be a priority in our evangelistic efforts. Our priority should be focused on reaching those who don't know Him.

Gary Gustman

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Should not those who left the flock be dealt with as scripture prescribes? Should not they be approached by one person, and then by two, and if they don't respond should they not be dis-fellowshipped? The mistake that is often made is making a hired preacher the "pastor" of the flock rather than elders from within the flock.

Gary Gustman

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Should not those who left the flock be dealt with as scripture prescribes? Should not they be approached by one person, and then by two, and if they don't respond should they not be dis-fellowshipped? The mistake that is often made is making a hired preacher the "pastor" of the flock rather than elders from within the flock.

Gary Gustman

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Should not those who left the flock be dealt with as scripture prescribes? Should not they be approached by one person, and then by two, and if they don't respond should they not be dis-fellowshipped? The mistake that is often made is making a hired preacher the "pastor" of the flock rather than elders from within the flock.

Hugo Fries

commented on Jan 17, 2014

It seems that first paragraph has a few awkward sentences that don't read smoothly at all. And sure it hurts when people leave the church you are pastoring, but the stray dogs metaphor is unkind.

Chris Surber

commented on Jan 17, 2014

As a dog owner and lover, I'm appalled at your insinuation that it is insulting to people to be so kind so as to compare them to dogs. I've found that the loyalty in most dogs is far superior to that of people. ;)

James Crall

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Well Put. You dead on accurate Chris...God bless you

Larry Stines

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Make an effort? Yes. Spend a lot of time? No! There are many, many reasons that people leave but most often it is because they were unwilling to work through a problem. Those who leave have a responsibility to be led by the spirit and to try and resolve a problem spiritually too! You set a church up for problems if you try to "pet" people into staying or coming back. 1 John 2:19-20 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. 20 But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.

Gabriel S. Onukak

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.Philipians3:2. Not all stray dogs we need to chase. Some stray dogs will never return because they're dogs, they aren't belong to the sheepfold. They came to bite, since they cannot the spirit of the Lord lead them astray.

Jonathan Campbell

commented on Jan 17, 2014

Great article Chris - thanks

Ian Nicholas

commented on Jan 18, 2014

Well said Chris. In our case, those who have left were involved in a campaign to destabilise the church when the congregation dwindled and we sought to expand it with a new service to appeal to younger people. They even stated quite clearly on many occasions they would rather see the church close than to change any aspect of the one service a week - and they opposed any youth or children's involvement. They clearly had their own agenda and were not interested in spreading God's word.

Kennedy Odhiambo Otuoma

commented on Jan 18, 2014

I am amazed because the message and also every comment appears very correct.

Nelson Wert

commented on Jan 18, 2014

As one who has personally seen how a caring pastor can reach out and help bring a "stray dog" back into a right relationship with both God and his church, I would remind us all that our Savior was willing to walk to the Cross and die for those "stray dogs." As Christ's representatives, should we not be willing to at least make an effort to reach them. Your effort may well bring that one soul back to share an eternity with Christ. I pray that in discussing the challenges pastors face that we do so without the need to describe our fellow humans in a manner many would perceive as derogatory. Although Paul referred to some people as "dogs", to my knowledge Christ never used the term to describe any of His children whether saved or lost. He today has not written them off but still seeks them, offering His love and forgiveness. Should not we? I thank God for a pastor who chased a stay dog.

Joe Mckeever

commented on Jan 18, 2014

I read this a few days ago and was troubled at the characterization of these drop-outs as "stray dogs." -- Also, I'm recalling that in my earliest pastorates (small churches, to be sure), visiting in the homes of inactive church members provided the quickest results for attendance of anything I did. (I suspect you are not referring to these inactives as "stray dogs," but once again, I find myself offended by characterizing anyone but the worst trouble-makers in this way.) I imagine if you were to know the whole story, a pastor would find there are a hundred different reasons some no longer go to his church, and some are valid. (Don't intend to be contrary here, or to stir up anything. Just wanted to register a slight protest. :-) )

Ronald Johnson

commented on Jan 18, 2014

Perhaps the "stray dogs" description is not the best way to refer to them. In my experience at the three parishes I have served, going after lapsed members is about the most frustrating exercise in the world. They left because they did not like something about the church. It is rarely about the pastor. If it is, they will usually return as soon as the members tell them there is a new pastor they might like better. Usually they left because there was something in the culture of the church that they did not like, and unless that has changed, even when they do come back for a few weeks or months, they leave again. I think it is much better for the existing membership to reach out to them and to say, we have something new at the church, come and give it a try again. I've seen much more success with that that with the new pastor going out to talk to them. If the members of the church are unwilling to reach out to them then that tells you something either about their character or the character of the church. If it's the former, then it would not be healthy to have them in the church again. If it is the latter, that must be addressed before you do any outreach.

Elizabeth Ellenberg

commented on Jan 23, 2014

I need to be just a bit contrary to your contrary-ness. :-) I found myself wishing I had read this 6 years ago before beginning my first pastorate in a small church. This is EXACTLY what happened to me! I literally "got that list." Almost every one of those people did return to the church. Long story, but 6 years later, they have ALL left again for the same reasons and causing trouble as they left and taking some new people with them. I don't mean to be harsh but the stray dog description fits the situation perfectly. I am now 6 years in to the church starting all over again. I am chasing little newborn puppies this time!

Ronald Johnson

commented on Jan 18, 2014

I think one distinction that absolutely must be made is the difference between those who have left the Church, and those who have left a congregation. There is no point in chasing after anyone who has left a congregation for another congregation where they might serve better, or worship better. Just be happy that they have found a church where they can continue in the Kingdom. Those who have left the Church are of particular concern because there is a deeper spiritual issue. Having said that, it is usually a fruitless exercise to chase after them. Usually it is much better to have members of the church try to reach out to them. It might be an even better strategy for the Kingdom to have a person (lay or pastor) from another church reach out to them. There is another pastor with whom I used to exchange names of those who have left saying, "Perhaps they will be happy in your church." We both agreed that we would not try to steal active members, and that we would rather have a person involved in some church than in no church. It actually worked for several people.

Daniel Waite

commented on Jan 18, 2014

Back in 1980's the studies said that only 15 of those who leave a church return to THAT church. However, 80 will return to SOME church. This article subtly highlights two problems. First is the "we" of the congregation that is telling the pastor what to do. I'm willing to take a suggestion but certain behavior patterns are a "red flag" to ministry in general. As Wood's observed in "Leading Turnaround Churches" it is NEVER the person who leave that is the problem. I would suggest that health is more a priority than recovering "strays." The second problem is the fact that the Pastor is going to learn some very negative, possibly disturbing things, about the people in the congregation. (Personal experience) These negative things will effect how the Pastor will treat/view the congregation in the future. These kinds of attacks may not be useful, kind, or productive. So what is the best use of energy and time? Maybe the better way to state this is not "stray dog" but "stray cat." Dog's at least need a pack to run in...

Daniel Waite

commented on Jan 18, 2014

*15 percent*

Daniel Waite

commented on Jan 18, 2014

*80 percent*

Nom De Plume

commented on Jan 18, 2014

Beyond the unfortunate analogy of comparing an individual made in the image of God and who may also be adopted as sons by the Most High to dogs, it would seem needful to use instruction from the New Testament. Furthermore, it would also seem that the best way and the biblical way of increasing church membership along with the hope of regaining those who have left, would be sound, clear, thorough expository preaching. One great preacher once said that his job was to concentrate on the depth of his ministry and let God decide the breadth.

Brian Hale

commented on Jan 20, 2014

Great article Chris. The problem with to many ministers is that we are so numbers driven that we are not making disciples anymore. I practice the maxim "If a snake wiggles out the front door on his own, you don't invite him back in". I know some will be upset that I have compared a church member to a snake but such people are living in a fantasy land.

Chris Surber

commented on Jan 29, 2014

Blessings Brian. Of course, Fantasy Land is well populated ;)

Tim Thompson

commented on Jan 23, 2014

Luke 15 Don't chase them down but keep praying for them to want to come back and run to love them when they do!

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