Moved Mountains

Banner - Mt Trio, Stirling Range National Park, Western Australia - (c) 2007

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sheep Rustling

In the early days of colonial Australia the crime of livestock stealing - known colloquially as "rustling" was treated pretty seriously. Up until the early 1900s the standard punishment inflicted on a convicted rustler was hanging by the neck until dead.

Unfortunately the topic of sheep rustling still has some relevance in modern Australian life - and not just for those living and working the land. Most of it is taking place in the church where it's commonly referred to as "sheep stealing".

Recently our long term community focused ministry has been the unwitting victim of this heinous crime (yes - my tongue is, if barely, inserted in my cheek). Actually the perps have been at it for a couple of years but without much success - due mainly, I believe, to the emphasis we put on the relational process side of things rather than the evangelistic project approach.

Most of the people we have been developing friendships with have had no introduction to the seedier side of church politics, and so are blissfully (if only it could stay that way for all of us) unaware of how things "really" operate in the world of evangelical/pentecostal Christianity. They are unaware that some fellowship consider themselves to be better than others. These are the people who are prime for the picking.

So when it happens - when the jolly swagman creeps up on the unsuspecting jumbuck the jumbuck is all too willing to jump head first into the open mouth of the tuckerbag. And, a sheep is stolen (if you have no idea what I'm talking about Google "Waltzing Matilda").

Now I know the "good Christian" response to this. It's "God is in control and will sort it all out in the end". That "he is and has been at work and will continue to be at work in the situation and in the lives of all involved".

Please don't get me wrong - I know with all my heart this is true. But even with this knowledge my immediate human response is a little different.

When it happens I find myself experiencing all kinds of (mostly) negative emotions. Some of them are legitimate - legitimate concern for the ongoing discipleship of someone who has been in my care or the care of others close to me for several years and is still a baby in the faith. Concern based on experience, where the end results of other sheep rustling efforts by the same perps has ended in messy, stuffed up situations.

Some of the emotions aren't so legitimate - indignation that someone else would have the gall to knowingly step in and entice someone away from an active faith community with no comment or contact or warning. Anger over all the time and energy and work that has gone into growing a disciple only to have them snatched away at the very same time the work is starting to produce tangible fruit, and the hurt that comes with a realisation that now it feels as if we're competing against for a friendship that has for the longest time, been genuine and committed.

Unfortunately there seems to be an almost utilitarian justification for the act of sheep rustling itself. Even when it happens in an opportunistic fashion. The justification is based on the real right an individuals has to freely choose who they will and won't involve themselves with. This right undoubtedly exists, but there is also an ethic involved. The question is, is it ethical to knowingly encroach on the life of someone already involved in an existing faith community with the intent of transferring them into another community when that person may be naive to or unaware of the underlying political agendas in play?

Fortunately for modern-day church based sheep rustlers, the hangman's noose is outlawed - but there has to be something of a solution. The biggest issue as I see it comes down to the level of responsibility and more directly, who is going to take it - particularly when it involves new believers.

Who is responsible? When new believers are lured away from us I find that I still feel responsible for them, and this sense of responsibility never really goes away. It is the same sense of responsibility I feel for all who are a part of my life. I think I can understand, to some degree, how Paul felt when others encroached on his spiritual "children" and tried to lure them away. There is a definite duty of care involved that starts before and extends beyond any initial conversion experience.

While I don't have any direct solution I think there is at least one thing that can be done to alleviate some of the angst created by this issue. It exists in fellowship leaders taking responsibility for the actions of their members and ensuring, as much as is humanly possible, this kind of thing isn't happening on a continual basis.

I believe leaders have an ethical responsibility in every circumstance to at least endeavour to understand what has led to a person a leaving one fellowship and joining theirs. If, as has been the case with most of the recent attempts at rustling in my community (where we are the only fellowship which meets), the attempts are opportunistic then it is up to the leadership to ensure this kind of thing doesn't happen or is stymied when it becomes apparent.

I wanna know the godly way of dealing with this. If anyone has any advice I am sure we will all benefit from it as I know this isn't an isolated issue and I am not going to be the only one experiencing it.

9 comments:

David said...

That is a really frustrating situation for you. Sorry I cannot offer more Godly advice.

I think you are right that leaders have responsibility to find out why members are jumping ship to their fellowship. But they are likely to accept any answer they are given. In any case it is difficult for them to know if the answer is genuine.

Do all the local pastors meet together on a regular basis?

Helen said...

Andrew,

I have mixed feelings about this. I feel that even new believer are adults and you need to let them make their own choices about which church to go to. And if it's not yours don't you need to let go of that? What if the other church really IS better for them? Might that not sometimes be the case?

Perhaps the best approach is to send them a personal note saying "I heard that you are now attending Such-and-Such.

We will miss you. Please don't hesitate to get in touch if there's anything I can do to help you."

And/or you could contact them in humility and say "I'm sorry we weren't able to meet your spiritual needs. Would you mind filling out and returning this brief survey?"

And on the written survey ask them what they like better about the other church. And make it name optional.

It seems to me that humbly asking "What are we not doing that they are doing?" might be more helpful and constructive than trying to take action to stop other churches doing anything that causes your members to switch to them. Why would the other churches not want people to switch to them if they think they are better than you? I don't see how you will persuade them to say "We think that other church is worse - but to be nice to them, stay there."

Sorry if this was not what you wanted to hear.

The Creature said...

Thanks Helen and David.

Helen - nothing there that I don't want to hear! Great ideas.

I think perhaps my post wasn't (as usual) completely clear. I was trying to draw a distinction between mature, regular members of the congregation - we have these come and go as does any church and what I call the "fringe dwellers".

When I first moved to the area we had about half the church take off, and while this was disappointing at the time, it was their choice and I can respect that. And I actually encouraged the leadership at the time to do the things you suggested - talk to them to find out why etc. etc. I would never want to "take action" at least not in a direct and confrontational way - unless there was something horribly and deliberately deceitful going on - to stop people from doing what they felt they had to do, whether or not I felt their reasons where right, wrong or otherwise.

What I was really trying to relate in my post related to the "not yetters" or the "just starting to" guys. The people who we have been building friendships with and who are starting to take an interest in spiritual things and are beginning to want to follow Jesus. They are easy "prey" (terrible choice of words but you know what I mean) for others who have a "backsides on seats" and "numbers in bible study groups" kind of mentality - basically project Christianity. In a nutshell, we put in the work and they come along and jump in when it's nearly all done - and why I don't think it's calculated I do think it's deliberate.

The people in the middle - the fringe dwellers - are not aware of what is going on and if they were might not make the decisions they are making - there is almost a level of deception involved - I think you know what I mean Helen as I get the picture you have been exposed to this kind of Christianity yourself.

I think it is seen as "the way it's done". Numbers = success, therefore "we need to increase our numbers no matter what". "Because we go to a mega church (or a small town version of one) we must be doing things right so we must keep focussing on building the numbers!"

Anyway - read this in conjunction with my post and hopefully it will start to make a little more sense! ;)

David - There is a local ministers fellowship, but (and now I'm really risking my local cred) it is pretty insipid. All talk, no action - "lets pretend we're all united and mates when we are really just about serving our own interests". I stopped attending regularly about 12 months ago.

I think that you are right also that in a church organisation with a corporate-growth mentality leaders are really not going to be too interested in where or why people are coming, just so long as they are - it's all about numbers.

Before my time on the leadership here, when a large number of the younger members took off to the nearby city and a big church there, I was told the pastor of the big church told the pastor of our fellowship at the time, he would train them up to grow our church and send them back to us. I found this incredibly condescending and, incidentally, we're still waiting!

Well I think that constitutes a rant and probably comes across as sour grapes, which to some degree it is! :(

Thanks guys for your comments!

Helen said...

What I was really trying to relate in my post related to the "not yetters" or the "just starting to" guys. The people who we have been building friendships with and who are starting to take an interest in spiritual things and are beginning to want to follow Jesus. They are easy "prey" (terrible choice of words but you know what I mean) for others who have a "backsides on seats" and "numbers in bible study groups" kind of mentality - basically project Christianity. In a nutshell, we put in the work and they come along and jump in when it's nearly all done - and why I don't think it's calculated I do think it's deliberate.

The thing about this is, I can't tell why this bothers you. If it's purely because you think the people will suffer spiritually then I can see that's a fine reason.

But it seems like there could be some resentment/jealousy mixed in there too. Which would mean maybe you are thinking of these people as 'yours' rather than 'God's'. If they are God's it really doesn't matter where their spiritual home is.

I might be wrong about the mixed motives and this is really between you and God so I would simply suggest you ask him to search your heart and help you to confess any wrong motives that might have got into the mix. If there are any, that is ;)

(Ahem...that is all what I *would* have said were I more Christian than I am)

I think that you are right also that in a church organisation with a corporate-growth mentality leaders are really not going to be too interested in where or why people are coming, just so long as they are - it's all about numbers.

Funnily enough this is the second blog post referring to numbers I've read today.

Before my time on the leadership here, when a large number of the younger members took off to the nearby city and a big church there, I was told the pastor of the big church told the pastor of our fellowship at the time, he would train them up to grow our church and send them back to us. I found this incredibly condescending and, incidentally, we're still waiting!

I agree that that's inappropriately condescending. I would think that discerning people would not want to go to the church of someone that condescending - but I guess some do if his 'numbers' are good.

The Creature said...

Helen:

I might be wrong about the mixed motives and this is really between you and God so I would simply suggest you ask him to search your heart and help you to confess any wrong motives that might have got into the mix. If there are any, that is ;)

(Ahem...that is all what I *would* have said were I more Christian than I am)


I think you are right about the "mixed motives". I said as much in my original post. I think you are also right that these guys do belong to God and ultimately that is where the responsibility lies - and in my opinion there is no finer place! Unfortunately I am not always as godly as I would like to be in every situation.

I think you are more Christian than you give yourself credit for Helen!

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. :)

Helen said...

Thanks Andrew :)

Maybe I am more Christian than I give myself credit for - but it is true that I don't go to church, pray or read the Bible (except that I look things up sometimes if they come up in conversation) and I'm not sure if God exists.

Sista Cala said...

Entering the Kingdom of God is about NEW BIRTH of both the individual and of a particular congregation.

For many churches today, it is easier to rustle some sheep than to begat their own.

Labor pains and birthing are hard work. Work that few ministries are willing to get their hands dirty doing.

I would much rather grow a church from ground up with new-converts eager to grow in God than with a bunch of church hoppers or moochers that come to church only for the touchy-feely stuff.

Sista Cala said...

People leave churches today for all sorts of reasons. I believe a lot of it is the culture we live in. If a person does not like one resturant for any reason, they don't have to go there. If they get disgruntled w/their job, they can just find another and never step foot in their previous employer's business. We are living in a throw-a-way society. If mothers can leave thier newborns in dumpsters w/o remorse, then it is no small wonder people can leave a church family behind w/o the slightest of quams.

I believe the question should be asked of newcomers, "What church have you come from, why, and do you have a letter of reference, why or why not? Certainly if they have not ever attended a church, every effort should be made to show them the positive aspects of being a member of a local church.

The word committment comes to mind........

The Creature said...

Hi Sista Cala and welcome. Thanks for your comments. :)

I think you are right about the "throw away" society.