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.