Pursue Wandering Sheep
Christians sometimes fall into temptation and wander from their commitment to Christ. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve probably witnessed this sad reality. Maybe you’ve seen a brother become romantically attached to an unbeliever at his workplace. Rather than answer difficult questions from his Christian friends, he stops gathering with the church altogether. Or maybe you have seen an introverted Christian sister endure trials at home. Instead of seeking out the help she needs from her church out of a desire to follow Christ, she seeks the comfort of isolation. Perhaps you’ve seen greed and ambition gradually consume a Christian until his love for Christ is marginalized out of existence.
Whether you’ve seen Christians wander or have wandered yourself, Jesus has some very important words for you to consider in Matthew 18:10–20. In this passage, Jesus teaches us about God’s disposition toward wandering Christians and how every Christian, not just the pastors, should pursue wandering sheep and call them to repentance.
As we seek to unpack Matthew 18:10–20, it is helpful for us to see what’s going on in the whole chapter. Matthew 18 contains some of the most well-loved teachings of Jesus: his teaching on becoming like a child (Matthew 18:1–4) and the parable of the lost sheep (18:10–14). Interestingly, these beloved teachings are right next to one of the most challenging and controversial teachings of Jesus—his instructions on church discipline (Matt. 18:15–20).
But the parables aren’t randomly organized, as if Jesus just stuck some warm, devotional teachings next to unrelated technical instruction on the fundamentals of church polity. Instead, Matthew 18 presents Jesus teaching us two things: God’s disposition toward wandering Christians and the actions Christians should take toward one another.
In Matthew’s telling of the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus emphasizes the disposition of the shepherd toward the wandering sheep. We learn that it is not God’s will for any of his sheep to wander off and die. (“So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish,” Matthew 18:14.) He desires that they turn from their wandering and be rescued from danger, welcomed back into the fold with open arms.
How is this love of God for his wandering sheep expressed in real life? Through the church (18:15–20). And it starts with ordinary church members like you and me (18:15).
So, how do we know when another fellow church member is wandering? How do we pursue them?
First, to know if another church member is wandering, we must know them. If you don’t feel like you know members of your church well enough to know if they’re wandering, then consider these practical ideas.
- Be present when your church gathers on Sunday mornings, and when it gathers at other times (e.g. adult Sunday school, Sunday evening prayer, Wednesday evening Bible study). Come early and linger afterwards. Be intentional about getting to know those who happen to sit around you. Inquire about what first brought them to the church. Ask them about how the sermon impacted them and how they plan to respond. See if they have any prayer requests.
- Pray for members by using your church’s membership directory. Perhaps email or call those you are praying for some time during the week to ask them if they have any special prayer requests or needs.
- Serve in the children’s ministry. Take interest in the lives of other children’s ministry workers and in the lives of the children’s parents.
- Join a small group if your church has them. Commit to going regularly and befriending those in the group.
- Familiarize yourself with the other members of your church by working through your church’s membership directory and systematically inviting people over for dinner or out for coffee. When you’re with them, learn their testimonies and find out how they’re presently challenged to grow in Christ.
- Take special initiative in seeking out new members as they join your church, welcoming them into the church family. Take them out for lunch, if you are able, or invite them to your small group or to attend the Bible study or prayer meeting with you.
The more you know people in your church, the more likely it is that you will know if and when they begin to wander. But that’s not all! The more you know people in your church, the more likely it is that your question or invitation or e-mail will provoke a conversation that will keep them from wandering in the first place.
RESPONDING TO THE WANDERER
How can you help someone follow Christ when they are wandering into sin?
First and foremost, minister the gospel of grace to them. Remind them of God’s love for wandering sheep and offer to support them in their repentance. “I would like to help you with this. How can I best serve you in pursuing Christ right now?” Pray for them and follow up with them. Take them with you to small group or invite them over for dinner, perhaps even encouraging them to share their struggle with others so they can broaden their support in the church. Offer to read a book with them that addresses the issue they are struggling with. Many times, wandering Christians respond very well to this kind of love and support. In such cases, you have gained your brother (18:15) and you should joyfully (18:13) comfort and welcome him with open arms.
But if it becomes clear that a fellow church member is wandering into sin and your individual pursuit of him doesn’t work, don’t give up. We shouldn’t say, “Well, I tried to talk to him and he just won’t listen. I wish he would turn from his sin, but it’s not up to me, it’s between him and God. I need to let it go.” No, the Father’s heart for his wandering sheep is persistent, his love unfailing. If our attempt to win a wandering Christian fails, we should get more Christians involved (18:16).
At this point, we must be careful to guard against gossip. We shouldn’t involve others unless we’re certain that the beloved sheep is wandering and has already refused our pursuit. It’s important to only share your concern with those who already have a relationship with the church member under consideration. In fact, it’s often best to let the wandering Christian know that you’re going to share your concern with others.
In most cases, this second step should include an elder. Because if our individual and small group efforts to go after a wandering sheep fail, the elders should lead the church in further pursuit of the wanderer. We should keep going after the wandering sheep until the whole church is involved in the effort (18:17a, “tell it to the church”). This is the persevering love of God for his wandering sheep on display.
If the wanderer continues to head into danger (18:17 “if he refuses to listen even to the church”), then the church should lovingly warn him by putting him out of the church (18:17b). Even then, we should still pursue him as we pursue our unbelieving neighbors, family members, and co–workers (i.e., “gentiles and tax collectors”).
Dear Christian, in Matthew 18:10–20 Jesus isn’t merely calling pastors or church leaders to corral wandering sheep. He’s calling every church member. In other words, he’s calling you.
There are many reasons why Christians sometimes fail to pursue wandering sheep. Perhaps you’re not in a position to pursue lost sheep because you’re wandering yourself. Perhaps you don’t have other Christians going after you because you never committed yourself to a church. Perhaps no one knows you’re wandering because you never let anyone know you.
Is it possible that you’re reading this article right now because God desires that you wander no longer? Brother, sister, know what it’s like to be a known sheep. Commit yourself to a Christian church that will commit themselves to you. Devote yourself to knowing other church members—and being known by church members—so that you may display God’s love together by pursuing wandering sheep.