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The Prodigal Church?

My husband Thom and I released a book called Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. Its message has resonated with tens of thousands of people who see the decline of the American church and want to do something about it. They’ve especially embraced the subtitle of our book, which is How Four Acts of Love Can Make Your Church Irresistible. If the church can make loving people its priority again, there’s hope.

But there are others who don’t agree. They’ve given us a lot of heat for our “negative” message. Some say that we’re wrongfully pointing fingers at the church, when we should be blaming all the sinners who’ve abandoned their places of worship.

They seem to think we’ve labeled the church as a “Prodigal Son” of sorts—a wayward soul in need of redemption. I wondered if there were any truth to that.

People who know me know I love the Church. In fact, my entire life has been dedicated to church ministry. When I was young I served almost 100 different churches for two years as a district youth staffer in rural, suburban, and inner city youth ministries. For the next seven years I served full-time at a church in Wisconsin wearing multiple hats—youth ministry, children’s ministry—everything. And for the last 30 years I’ve partnered with my husband Thom at Group Publishing, which exists for one purpose: to serve the church.

I love the church, I love being a part of my home church, and I love working alongside the amazing people who serve in churches all around the world. But there are many serious issues that most American churches need to address if they want to survive the next ten or twenty years. Yes, too many churches seem to have lost their way, spending the majority of their time and effort on things that simply aren’t effective or just don’t matter.

I don’t see the church as a Prodigal Son. But there is another character from that parable that does represent today’s church. The Older Son.

The Older Son was known for being judgmental. He thought it was unfair that his younger brother, who did everything wrong, should receive love and grace from their Merciful Father. The Older Son had done everything “right.” He followed the rules. He lived according to the way things were supposed to be done. If his wayward brother couldn’t be just like him, he didn’t deserve a place at the table.

We’re seeing a similar attitude among many church leaders today. It’s become all too common to hear stories about ministers and parishioners alike who reject the prodigals of their world. They resent those who dare to step outside the norms and love people no matter what. And they resent the Merciful Father for accepting them. Like the older son, they spurn the principles of the Four Acts of Love: Radical Hospitality, Fearless Conversation, Genuine Humility, and Divine Anticipation. The Merciful Father demonstrated all four of those acts of love in welcoming his long lost son home, and it was worth the biggest celebration of his life.

Even though the church in America may face a challenging future, I know that love—real, practical, unconditional love—can turn things around. Let’s be more like the Merciful Father and less like the Older Son. That’s something all the “prodigals” out there just might run home to.

What do you think? Ask a friend to join you in this brief challenge: Read the Prodigal Son parable in Luke 15:11-32. Talk with your friend about which character most portrays today’s American church.


2 thoughts on “The Prodigal Church?

  1. Mark McGraw

    My favorite parable. I am the Prodigal Son and both my earthly and heavenly Fathers ran to me. I like the older brother image of the church (little c). For all to many that is what they have experienced when going to a church for worship. They have been greeted with “the look”, the less than warm handshake, the holier than thou attitude and one time to many with the ” if you will be like us we will welcome you”. I have witnessed the whispers and looks because someone came through the doors of the church that did not dress for church, had tattoos showing, piercings, streaks of color in their hair or a man with long hair. I used Kool Aide to put color streaks in my hair once to get a Mom and her three daughters to come back a second Sunday and give the ones over in our children’s building a chance to meet them and love them. Teresa and I are still close to them five years later. Thee Church is Jesus personified, loving, caring and accepting you as you are and rejoicing in the time when you start your personal relationship with Jesus knowing that He will make all the changes that need to be made. Thee Church “goes ye therefore to the corners of the earth” and now that I am a Done I am free to make where ever I am my corner. Being a Groupie, I feel like I am seeing the future Church becoming right before my eyes. Thank you Joani and Tom for stepping up and offering a paths and solutions that the church can use to find it’s way back to being Thee Church.

  2. I great piece. And very true in most cases. But what about us in the church that HAVE loved the prodigals, that have gone out of our way to love unconditionally and pray with and for those ones, but got slapped in the face one too many times for simply being gentle and gracious with these people who’ve turned their back on Christ? (I’m not talking about those who bible-bash of sorts, I’m talking ‘genuine’ here).

    Our pastor answered much of this recently with the best thought-out sermon I’ve pretty much ever heard. He spoke about the “citizen of the far off country” and the whole aspect of the prodigal and how he partnered with them (the citizen) in Far Far Away (ie. working for someone is a contract basically, a binding agreement, showed his alegences to Far Far Away not Home).

    But then we see how the prodigal eventually “comes to his senses” and decides to return home. Will he be rejected and reprimanded by his dad, he sure deserved it, he thought. He thought he’d be better at Home as a slave than where he was here at Far Far Away eating pig-slop.

    So he returns… and finds the welcoming arms of the father! The father, who has been waiting, waiting for his son to return (locate himself, his allegences) back with Home. Until then, until the prodigal made the intentional decision to be located back Home, the father could not ‘locate himself’ with the prodigal. He could not partner with Far Far Away but had to wait looking at the horizon, with a hope-filled heart for his son to return.

    Are we going to be a church that welcomes the prodigals with open arms and open hearts and fall on their necks and kiss them? Or are we going to reprimand them for where they’ve been and the lost inheritance they’ve squandered?

    (I think I know which one you guys are… Loving them back Home.)

    It is my heart to see a healthy, loving, genuine-hearted church that shifts from being judgemental older brother to loving, forgiving father, truly representing the love of our Father. 😀

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The Prodigal Church?

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