Ron and Sue Carlson are pastoral heroes to Sharon and me. Several years ago we learned that a dear friend had moved to their area.
As a young, discouraged widow, our friend had left the church and we were eager for her to experience a renewed and supportive contact. Hoping that she might respond to a friendly visit, we prayed that Ron's busy pastoral schedule might include a contact with our friend.
Sure enough, soon after receiving our message, Ron and Sue stopped by our friend's home to introduce themselves as Jim and Sharon's friends. Without exerting pressure, they extended a gracious invitation to attend services. That brief visit prompted our friend to consider her own desire for fellowship, and she began to attend.
Soon our friend sent us a letter describing her appreciation for "her pastoral family" and the kindness of the congregation. As her renewed relationship with Christ grew, she formally reestablished membership and rejoiced in the acceptance and nurture she was experiencing. Later we learned that she had met a man, also a member, and that they had married.
You can imagine why we think such pastoral care is heroic! We have learned some important insights from this redemptive process:
Never give up. You may not know how the Holy Spirit works to woo a loved one back. Distance from the church is never distance from Cod's love.
Value one soul. Remember the worth that Jesus places on the individual. It is one thing to reflect that "God so loved the world." It is another to proclaim that God still loves the world and wants the very best for each person He died to save. The gospel emphasizes the significance of one individual. Consider Jesus' parable of the importance of one lost sheep out of a hundred total. Preach the present reality of God's grace and help people realize that they can return to faithfulness. Emphasize the potential that Heaven sees in every soul. God sees my sinfulness, but He promises that I can return just as I am.
Prioritize personal contact. Ron and Sue introduced themselves as "our friends." The apparent agenda of their visit was motivated by mutual friendship, and, thus, they found ready acceptance. Seek to learn as much as possible about those you hope to win. Remember, every person is someone's loved one. Others are praying for the success of your endeavor.
Seek opportune moments. Pray that God will move in advance of your visit. By praying and planning specific times to make evangelistic contacts and invitations, you enable the Holy Spirit to prepare hearts and minds for your visit.
Make short visits. A first contact need not be everlasting in order to have eternal results. A friendly introduction, a gracious invitation, and informative details of location, time, and program features are sufficient. Offer your availability for when they need a pastor.
Await results patiently. God's timing is not our timing. The seed you plant today may bear fruit on a schedule different from what you envision.
Preach grace-based, hope-filled messages. When our friend began to attend church services again, she told us of her appreciation for the powerful messages and the emphasis on Jesus' love, power, and righteousness.
Extend gospel invitations. Our friend was so impressed that Pastor Ron opened the doors of his church, thus encouraging people to act on what they had heard from God's Word and to make spiritual decisions in response.
Meet returnees halfway. Don't create difficulties for those desiring to return. The prodigal's father ran out to meet his son and accompanied him home rejoicing. If people start toward home, make it easy for them to return and smooth the path for troubled souls. Protect them from those who would impose private opinions or scold them for what they may lack or may have done while they were gone.
Restore the past. Treat those who come to church as children of the King, which Christ's forgiveness and acceptance assures them they are. You cannot actually restore the lost years, but you can make their forgiveness real, build their faith, help them discover their spiritual gifts, and utilize their deepening love by deploying them to reach others.
Involve gracious members. Fellowship was an important factor in our friend's newfound relationship with her church family. She felt that others accepted her and their interaction encouraged her desire to grow spiritually. Ultimately, Jesus even led her to a life-partner right there in the church family.
Rejoice. Jesus says one returning sinner causes all heaven to rejoice. When backsliders return, the least the church can do is host a potluck lunch!
Commit now. Intentionally design time in your schedule for making visits. They are so powerful, they can affect eternity!
James A. Cress