The book of James closes with this 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 passage in James, and others like it in Scripture, are an invitation to us to drop the smug attitudes of superiority and become engaged with those around us who have wandered. Congregations that fail to hear in James 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 life and bring them back to the life God 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.)
“Who cares enough about you to lead you back when you wander from the truth?”
In truth, 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? It may be a courageous family member or friend who stays with us during our wanderings. Most, however, choose to leave us to reap the bitter harvest of the seeds we have sown. Many get fed up with our pride, our narcissism and our resistance to accepting help and hearing 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, to listen deeply to us, to hold us accountable, to love us and 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.
“I hope your church embraces the ministry of ‘bringing back’ as one of its primary callings.”
It takes a healthy congregation to acknowledge that wandering is something we all engage in, and that mutual and collective accountability is one of the best things about being in a community of faith. On the “receiving” side, 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. On the “giving” side, extending 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 that they have wandered from the design of God for their life and the life of their congregation. Instead, blaming and name-calling take 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 acknowledge and take seriously their own wandering and the ministry of bringing others back to the life 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 embraces the ministry of “bringing back” as one of its primary callings. Joining Jesus in bringing back those who wander is one of the things a healthy church does. Bring them back – for their sake, for your sake and for God’s sake.