Embracing the Prodigal: Welcoming Back Our Brothers and Sisters in Christ

It’s not an unusual sight: A familiar face, once a cornerstone in our congregation, reappears after a noticeable absence. The return of a brother or sister who, for reasons of their own, had to step away for a while. How should we, the Body of Christ, respond?

When I recently made my way back to the sanctuary, there was an undercurrent of anticipation. Would the inevitable question pop up? “Where have you been?”

Yes, my hiatus had a backstory. Before embarking on a short family sojourn abroad, I’d been feeling a bit disconnected from the rhythm of Sunday services. This emotional distance wasn’t born overnight; it was the echo of a past wound from a youth group long ago. Thanks to understanding pastors and the healing touch of the Holy Spirit, my spiritual wound began to mend, reigniting a yearning for the Sunday fellowship I had missed.

But with my return came apprehension. What would others think? Rachel Held Evans in her book, Searching for Sunday, speaks to the unease one feels when reentering the church. The fear of judgment or of not living up to expectations. I too, had such fears.

How can we ease this transition for the returning members of our church family? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Recognize God’s Hand Everywhere
    A dear friend, our children’s ministry director, once reminded me that everyone’s journey with God is unique. When people shift away, it’s not a sign of their faith diminishing but perhaps just finding a different expression. Embrace their journey with an open heart and mind, trusting God’s eternal guidance.
  2. Embrace Without Personal Bias
    It’s natural to feel a tinge of disappointment when someone we cherish distances themselves from our church community. But their absence isn’t necessarily a reflection of the value they place on the church or its members. It’s crucial to remember that individual spiritual journeys are intricate and deeply personal.
  3. Extend a Warm Hand of Fellowship
    Acknowledgment goes a long way. Even though it might seem awkward at first, expressing genuine happiness at someone’s return can bridge the gap. Let them know they’ve been missed, and their place in the community remained intact, awaiting their return.
  4. Seek Stories, Not Reasons
    Instead of asking pointed questions, open the conversation with, “What’s been on your heart lately?” or “How has God moved in your life during your time away?”. These open-ended queries give room for the returning member to share their story, fostering deeper connections.

Returning to the church after a break is akin to a spiritual homecoming. As the Body of Christ, it’s our responsibility to extend compassion and understanding, making every member, new or returning, feel truly at home. Remember, our faith isn’t just about our personal relationship with God but also about how we nourish and nurture our relationships within the Church. In these heartfelt moments of reunion, we see the beauty of Christ’s love manifest, binding us closer than ever.