The book of James closes with a most interesting assertion: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
The ministry of “bringing back” seems to be a lost art today.
Rather, we have an abundance of those who engage in excluding, berating, judging, critiquing, demonizing and all sorts of Pharisaical specialties.
Many churches are dead or dying because they have forgotten that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news to this world filled with wanderers.
In its place, they have substituted a dark, heavy, negative message of condemnation and exclusivity that offends and dishonors the One whose life we claim to emulate. We can do better than this.
This text and others like it invite us to drop smug attitudes of superiority and become engaged with those around us who have wandered.
Congregations that fail to read this text and hear in it a command to care deeply for those who have wandered have missed something essential to their reason for being.
Rather than spending time judging others so that we feel better about ourselves, we are called to go out and find those who have wandered from God’s dream for their lives and bring them back to the lives he intended for them. Every church that is a church is a rescue mission.
By the way, wanderers are not just young people sowing their wild oats. Men and women of all ages and at all stages of career and family life wander. Some do so openly; others in secret.
Actually, we all wander. It is part of our human condition and something that thwarts our best efforts to imitate Christ.
I recently read a powerful book that asked a question of clergy: “Who ‘leads you back’ when you wander?” For too many clergy, there is no one.
We have walled ourselves off from those who can speak the truth to us about our wanderings. We have deluded ourselves into believing that we are above wandering. Perhaps we have gotten so helplessly lost in our wanderings that we no longer know which direction is home.
The same question must be asked of us all: “Who cares enough about you to lead you back when you wander from the truth?”
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It is a courageous family member or friend who stays with us during our wanderings. Most leave us to reap the bitter harvest of the seed we have sown. Many get fed up with our pride, our narcissism, our resistance to help and the truth.
We often end up a lonely prodigal in some far country estranged from those who can help us. We need a congregation to care enough to notice us and offer to lead us back. Your community is someone’s far country. Noticing the wanderers around us is at the heart of our mission as God’s people.
It takes a healthy congregation to acknowledge that wandering is something we all engage in, and that one of the best parts of being in a faith community is the collective accountability we have to one another.
The humility and wisdom of being vulnerable to insight and open to the loving care and intervention of our brothers and sisters is far too rare. Giving that humble care without assuming the role of Pharisee is an act of great spiritual maturity.
Too often congregations are places where no one is humble enough to admit they have wandered from the design of God for their lives and the life of their congregation.
Rather, blaming and name-calling have taken center stage. Jesus and James remind us that in some way we are all prodigal sons and daughters who desperately need a loving faith community that will lead us back to the truth.
No congregation will ever get healthier until its members take seriously and acknowledge their own wandering, and the ministry of bringing others back to the lives God intends for them.
I hope you will allow others to bring you back. I hope you care enough to want to bring others back. I hope your church knows this is one of its primary callings.
Joining Jesus in bringing back those who wander is one of the primary things a healthy church does. Bring them back, for God’s sake, for your sake and for theirs.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.