Most sheep don’t just up and decide to leave the fold. They sort of nibble their way lost. One clump of grass to the next leads them so far away, they can’t even remember what it was even like being home.
There may be a handful of people who leave the church in one big moment, but even in those situations it’s more than likely there’s been a series of little problems that were topped off with one final issue. For the most part, people slowly disengage.
What are the signs that “sheep” may be nibbling their way lost? There are varied. Outward ones are the most obvious. Sporadic church attendance. Less giving. Less enthusiasm. Stepping down from ministry roles. There’s always ebb and flow in people’s time commitments based on stages of life. But when a major shift begins to happen, visit about it. Talk with them.
Since the sheep nibble their way lost, it takes a while for the shepherd (pastor or small group leader) to realize it. It slowly dawns on them, “I haven’t seen them in a while.” At that moment, you move into action. You make a call. You visit. You send a note.
I think there may be a confidence issue with some ministry leaders – including me – when it comes to responding to someone who has nibbled their way lost. What if something happened? What if they have been around but I have missed them? What if they are going to another church? But don’t let it deter you. Go after them with the same passion Jesus went after the one. Call. Stay connected. Be loving, and badger if you need to.
Take your responsibility seriously. Don’t let a believer slip through the cracks. This doesn’t have to rest solely on one pastor as the church grows. Anyone in the church needs to be connected to more than one person to stay involved for the long haul. At least 6-7 meaningful relationships need to be formed with others to remain connected. The people connected to a lost sheep need to go after them. They need to jump in, check on them. Lost sheep are one of the reasons small groups are so important – we need several people to look after them. It’s also why numbers, when you are talking about people, are important. We need to be counting to see who is missing. When we determine they are gone, we need to take action.
Ministry leaders often say, “as long as they are going somewhere.” I also know that most seasoned leaders wouldn’t spend too much time on “inactive church members.” I know of people who have pulled away from our church and haven’t found another church in which to participate. They are just no longer connected. They’re lost.
What methods can we use to go find them? What is too much? What is too little? How would they want us to respond?