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“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon,that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 31-32

 Frank grew up in a good Christian home. He was a preacher’s kid, active in school, a good athlete and just an all around nice guy. After high school, Frank went to the Bible College his denomination supported and later to Seminary.  He married his last year in seminary to a young lady he met his first year in Bible College and they entered the ministry together. Frank was a poster child for his family and his church.

 But in those quiet times, Frank wrestled with a secret sin that plagued him since the day he found that ‘girly magazine’ in the park during Jr. High. That was the start of Frank’s struggle with lust and pornography. It followed him through high school, college, seminary and into his marriage and ministry. It had bloomed from an occasional magazine to internet porn and on occasion physical contact with the opposite sex. Frank knew it was wrong. He constantly went before the Lord and begged for forgiveness and release from the bondage. But nothing worked.

One night, Frank left the wife he loved and drove to a nearby city and met with an online friend for sex. What he didn’t know, what he couldn’t know, is that it was a police sting operation. Frank was caught red handed. In the ensuing weeks Frank’s wife left him and they would soon divorce. The denomination stripped him of his ministry. Frank ‘disappeared’ in disgrace. He spent a few years trying to sell cars and insurance. He continued to struggle with sex and relationship issues. Eventually, Frank gave up on church, God and any hopes of reconciliation.

Dan’s story is similar to Frank’s in many ways. He accepted Christ at a youth group meeting in a local church, having been invited by a girl he had a huge crush on. After high school he married that same girl. They went to Bible College, Seminary, the whole path. Although Dan and Frank were miles apart their struggles were the same.

Dan was a youth pastor in several churches. There was a pattern that developed in his ministry. He would be at a church for 2-3 years, build a thriving youth group and then unexpectedly resign and move on to a new location. During the third year of his fifth church, rumors began to surface about Dan and one of the young ladies in the youth group. The board met with Dan, who assured them that there was nothing going on. One week later, Dan unexpectedly handed in his resignation.

But this resignation wasn’t going to be so easy. Pastor Johnson, senior pastor at First Church, felt an urging from the Lord to do some investigation. He began to research a bit more thoroughly the history of Dan’s ministry. As he dug deeper into Dan’s past he found that in every church Dan had served in, there were allegations of inappropriate relationships with young ladies in the youth group. Since Dan was a likeable young man with lots of promise, each board had gratefully accepted Dan’s resignation and sent him on his way with glowing recommendations.

After much prayerful discussion with his board members, Pastor Johnson and his wife invited Dan and his wife to dinner, where he confronted Dan about his findings. Dan broke down. In front of the Johnsons and his wife he confessed to a life of infidelity. After much prayer and discussion Pastor Johnson laid out his idea for the future for Dan.

 First of all, Dan’s resignation was not accepted. Secondly, Dan was granted a paid leave of absence from the church during which time he would agree to counseling and be given every opportunity to rebuild his relationship with his family and most importantly with Jesus.

 It was a tearful Sunday morning when Dan and his wife stood side by side with the board and the Johnson’s to confess his struggle, ask forgiveness and announce how the healing would begin. After 18 months, Dan was restored to his ministry within the church, where he enjoyed many more years of fruitful ministry.

While the stories of Dan and Frank are fictional, Frank’s story is played out over and over in the church today. It isn’t always the high profile sex revelations. Sometimes it’s financial issues or relational struggles. Occasionally it may be simply a result of differing view of ministry and vision.

What excites me about the way ‘Pastor Johnson’ and First Church handled a very touchy situation is that they realized that Dan’s spiritual and emotional well-being was more important that ‘doing the right thing’. While each case is different and must be handled cautiously and with prayer, we as believers need to put more effort into restoration of struggling souls, whether those souls indwell church leaders of laity.

The ground is level under the cross. Jesus said that as the Good Shepherd He would set everything aside to go after that one wandering, stubborn, rebellious sheep. He calls us, as His church, to do the same.  

Our churches are full of ‘empty pew people’ who have failed miserably and in their shame have walked away. Some may be looking for just one person to reach out to them and show the love and Grace that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s risky business. That means that sometimes we may work on a ‘restoration project’ that takes everything out of us. And that is exactly what Jesus did when He saw me. I was a restoration project that took His very life out of Him!

A few years ago I sat in a restaurant with a close friend of mine. We were roomies in college, had lost touch for nearly 30 years and had now renewed our friendship. Funny how you can pick up some friendships where you left off after all those years!

Both Jack and I were going through some difficult times when our paths touched again. He was in the healing process of being brutalized by the church where he had served as pastor for years. In the midst of that trauma, his daughter had left her husband and children and run off with her boyfriend. Jack was battered, bruised and broken. A man of faith whose feet had been knocked out from beneath him.

 I on the other hand, was watching a marriage of nearly 30 years crumble. I’d resigned from the church where I as bi-vocational pastor and had recently lost my ‘day job.’ I was scared, angry, embarrassed and ashamed.

 After some small talk, I asked Jack how he was doing. These times we had together weren’t some ‘ultra-spiritual’ accountability group. There were no open Bibles, no scripture memory assignments and no ‘questions to answer.’ We were just a couple guys trying to make sense of life in the hard times.

 It was a simple question, but Jack’s answer has stuck with me all these years. “You want to know how I feel? I’ll tell you how I feel. I feel like God is saying to me, ‘Jack, you are a failure. I love you. You will spend all of eternity with me. When your time has come I will welcome you at the gates of heaven and tell you I love you. But, I’m not ready for you up here yet. Your mansion won’t be ready for 20 years yet, and actually you don’t qualify for a mansion but you will get a really nice cottage! Since you have messed up so badly I’m going to just let you sit for the next 20 years. When I’m ready for you I’ll come. But for now I have no real use for you. You’ve just messed up too bad.’

 I remember chuckling and saying to Jack, “I don’t think we should be together.” There were two reasons for my comment, both in jest of course. The first reason is that often in our Christian circles we tend to shy away from people we perceive as ‘spiritual’ when they utter statements like this. It makes us uncomfortable to think that God would, in all His love, really abandon us.

 The second reason is closely related. In those times of brutal honesty I think each of us has felt that way. Especially those who have endured broken relationships, abuse of any kind, or any other calamity that overtakes us. This seems to be especially true if we can point to poor choices we have made. Then, the ‘stuff’ we are going through can be attributed to the ‘consequences of sin.’

 Jack had clearly and bluntly stated exactly how I was feeling. God had abandoned us. We had failed miserably. We had dropped the ball. We played the game of life and lost. No matter how we’d tried to get back off the bench, it wasn’t happening.

 The reality is we were both basing our demeanor of that night on feelings, not fact. That attitude was a lie straight from the pit of hell and contradicted everything we knew about our loving Heavenly Father. Jesus’ ministry on earth is a constant reminder that He seeks after the lost sheep, the hurting, the bruised and the battered.

In our hearts we both knew the truth. Scripture is full of people such as Abraham, Samson, David, Solomon and the Apostle Paul who had failed miserably to ‘walk the talk’. Yet through the forgiveness of Jesus Christ we serve a God of second chances. Jesus still utters the words he spoke to Peter before Peter openly, defiantly and intentionally denied he knew Christ. “When you return, feed my sheep”. Key word there is ‘WHEN’ not ‘IF’.

John Eldredge, in his book ‘Wild at Heart’ reminds us that we are God’s Plan A and there is no Plan B. He has put us here on earth for a purpose, to glorify His name, to build a relationship with us, to enjoy our company. He knew from the beginning that we would fail, rebel, and act like selfish two-year olds. But He loves us anyway. That’s why Jesus came to die for us while we were still sinful, rebellious, stubborn humans.

 Satan would like us to believe that there comes a point in life when we outlive our usefulness to God. Age, changing times, stupid choices and errant spouses or children are just a few of the reasons we believe we have reached our ‘expiration date’ when it comes to the Christian life.

 Our churches are full (or empty as the case may be) of ‘The Empty Pew’ people. People who for whatever the reason has given up on God. It may be because of abuse. It may be due to poor choices. I don’t think it really matters to God why these sheep have strayed from the fold. The important thing is that the body of Christ, the church, finds ways to bring them back to the safety and comfort of the fold.

 My passion for ‘The Empty Pew People’ is the driving force behind “Built with Grace Ministries”. Please pray with me that together we may reach out to those who need to hear, once again, that no matter what, Jesus loves them.

If you are struggling today with the faith. You’ve wandered away. You feel defeated, abandoned and of no value to God, please don’t believe the lie. You have value. You are God’s Plan A. Jesus is longing to rebuild the relationship He died to create.

 • Janet grew up in a Christian home. Mom did what she could to make sure that her brothers and sisters were in church Sundays, at youth group and knew the importance of a relationship with Jesus Christ. It wasn’t easy as a single mom, but she did her best. To the joy of her church and family, Janet married a boy from the youth group. Shortly after their marriage, signs of cracks in the relationship surfaced. In a whirlwind of events that caught the church off guard, Janet was divorced, and the father of their little girl was in prison on drug charges. Janet struggled financially, spiritually and emotionally. The church did little to reach out. Soon, Janet met Gary. Gary had recently accepted Christ and had also come from an abusive relationship in which he and his daughter were frequently attacked by his alcoholic wife. In spite of the moral issues, and against the recommendations of the church, Gary and Janet moved in with each other. They continued to go to church and had two children together, but for reasons they would only share with a few, marriage at this point wasn’t an option in their minds. After a visit from the church elders Gary and Janet were told not to return to church since they were ‘living in sin.’ When I saw Gary and Janet a year later they shared that Gary was dying of congestive heart failure. A few months after that Gary died, leaving Janet alone once again, now with four children. Gary’s funeral was held in a funeral home with a few friends and family members. The church refused to reach out to Janet. It’s been several years now. After several broken relationships and financial turmoil, Janet has renewed her faith. In the midst of her healing, she still can’t ‘force herself’ to go to church.

• Brandon and Nancy came to town shortly after their marriage. As youth pastor and wife they added the missing ingredient to the struggling church that called them. The small town soon began to take notice of the youth group at First Church. So much so, that some people brought their kids to youth group while still attending their own church. On occasion, the weekday youth meetings drew more kids than the regular services of the church. Then trouble arose. Rumors started spreading that Brandon was ‘a little to close’ to one of the girls in the youth group. The elders of the church investigated the situation thoroughly and found no evidence of this. Strangely, the rumors seemed to have originated at the home of the senior pastor, who had become increasingly critical of the youth pastors work habits, theology and methodology. Brandon and Nancy resigned under the scrutiny of the senior pastor and due to increasing health problems with Nancy which doctors attributed to stress. Brandon left the ministry and now works doing odd jobs around town. The family attends church 50 miles away in a mega church where, as Brandon put it ‘they can avoid the stories and rumors.”

• The Vietnam War was a terrible dark spot in US history. Still, Jack was proud to go and serve his country. He was stationed near the front lines and relates how one week had been particularly horrendous. Three of his buddies had died in a fire fight in which he was only yards away. As he tells the story you can still see his eyes will up with tears. Then the letter arrived. It was from his church back in North Dakota. Jack had been an active participant in church all his life. He’d been baptized; He studied his Bible every day. He loved Jesus. When Jack talks about the letter, blood still drains from his face. The letter informed him that since he had not kept up with his annual offerings his name had been dropped from the church membership list. If he were to catch up on these ‘pledges’ they would gladly consider reinstating him. Jack came home from Vietnam a new man. Still strong in his faith, he refuses to attend any church. He prefers the purity of his relationship with Christ than the politics of the organized church.

And the stories go on. People who have been beaten up by divorce, drugs, emotional and financial distress, health issues and a variety of other crisis, only to be kicked by the church while they are down. Some of them, to be sure, are suffering the consequences of poor choices of their own. Others brutally abused by spiritual leaders. To them, it doesn’t really matter why. It hurts. It hurts badly. And the fact that ‘Jesus loves them’ becomes small comfort.

Built with Grace is about the EMPTY PEW PEOPLE. It’s about asking the hard questions. How can we reach these people who are bruised and wounded by the very people that are sent to comfort and encourage? Sermons won’t help. They won’t come to church anymore. Even if they did come to church it would be risky. We in the church fear the tarnish of sin among us. While Jesus says “come just as you are”, the church can often appear to add a line that goes something like “as soon as you are cleaned up.”

Join with me in prayer. Prayer for those you know who are hurting. Those who feel beaten up and battered. Pray that they will know the overwhelming love and forgiveness that only comes through Jesus. I firmly believe that most people who have ‘left the church’ have done so because the pain they are in has not been addressed. Jesus, as good shepherd, vowed to make sure every one of his lambs returned safely to the fold after wandering. Let us pray for the lost sheep of our society.

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October 2009
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