A couple of weeks ago, I had two conversations.
The first was with my best friend from college, Steve. Steve is my best friend; we have the same sense of humor, the same likes, the same personality (we even look a good bit alike!) and we deeply care about each other in a profound way. We met in college ministry at church, studied the Bible together, led worship together, fought sin together, I officiated at his wedding, and our bond is still deep even though we haven’t lived in the same city now for over a decade.
I knew that Steve had been wandering away from involvement in church for the last several years but I hoped it was due to laxity and not any change in belief. We had conversations about it over the years when I was in town where he affirmed his belief but gave reasons why he wasn’t involved in a church. But his words that afternoon shattered all of that. The gig was up. He told me how he did not any longer consider himself a Christian or have any sliver of belief in what could be called the Christian God.
I could hardly sleep that night. I buried my head in my pillow, praying with all my heart that God would undo in Steve’s heart what I had heard him say with his mouth.
The second conversation I had later that week was with Joan, a woman who is a member of our church but has not been attending recently. The elders of our church have a shepherding plan where we contact each of our members, whether by phone or face to face, every couple of months. When I called, I honestly didn’t expect her to pick up the phone, as she had dodged my call for a while. To my surprise, the ringing stopped and Joan’s voice was suddenly in my ear.
Joan told me that she knew that God had led me to call her that night. She had been struggling in her faith. She had become tied up in a toxic relationship with a man and her actions over the last several months had caused her to doubt what she believed. I listened to her story. As we talked, I reminded her of the gospel. I reminded her of our church’s love and concern for her. I reminded her not to separate herself from her faith family and cut herself off from the preserving power of church fellowship.
You could hear the change in her voice.
While Joan’s tone at the beginning of our conversation was peppered with fear and long pauses where she didn’t know what to say, by the end of our conversation she was joyful. She praised God’s faithfulness and the love of our church. She made commitments about what she needed to do, not out of guilt or resignation but out of a desire for the joy of faithfulness.
As I hung up, two questions overwhelmed me: First, what would have happened to Joan if no one had called? And second, had anyone from Steve’s church ever called him? When he stopped showing up, did anyone notice? Did anyone from his church community reach out to him, not to chide him for non-attendance, but to listen to his heart and the areas where he was struggling? Did anyone remind him of the gospel? Affirm their affection for him?
In short, did anyone from Steve’s church take responsibility for his soul?
The Bible calls on both the church community and the leaders of the church to care for and oversee each of its members. The writer of Hebrews says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” The same writer will say later on in 13:17 that leaders are keeping watch over the souls of those they lead, as those who will have to give an account.
Faithful shepherding secures souls. Where would Steve be today if his church and his pastors had taken seriously the charge to watch over his soul? What if he had access to a loving, sympathetic ear to share his doubts and struggles and sins while he still had some measure of faith?
Church member, is there anyone in your church community that you have not seen for a while? Don’t wait! As long as it is called today, reach out to them. Listen to them. Point them to the gospel in a loving, compassionate way. Church leader, do you know the spiritual state of every member of your church? Are you watching over each of their souls and constantly, lovingly pointing them to Jesus?
Faithful shepherding has an everlasting impact.
**Names were changed for this post.