Another one bites the dust…
I just received a phone call from the manager of our discipleship house. “Jimmy has bolted (run away) and he’s not picking up his phone.” Jimmy is a recent convert from our scheme. He has struggled with alcohol and drugs since the age of 11 but he has recently heard the gospel, been convicted of his sins and trusted in Jesus. Due to the temptations that he faces in our community, we moved him into our discipleship house for some intensive discipleship. We have spent many hours of time investing in his life. We have spent a lot of money covering travel and food costs. He has been baptised and become a member. He has become part of the church family. But now he has run back to his addiction.
What should we do?
This is a typical story that many face working in our poorest communities. We invest our time and energy into people and then, out of nowhere, it blows up in our faces. We don’t know what to do. Do we chase them and get them back? What do we say when we see them? Do we chastise them or hug them? Do we need to move through our discipline process? When is the time to remove them from membership?
Here are a few steps we take at Niddrie when dealing with these issues.
Firstly, we pray. This seems like a nice Christian answer, but its the most important thing we can do. We need to commit the person to the Lord. The temptations of the flesh and the attacks of the enemy have combined to cause this young believer to run. Its only the Lord, if indeed they are saved, who can bring them back. If the Spirit of God is living in them then he will carry them home to their church family.
Our first instinct when someone bolts is to chase after them. We text. We ring. We run around the scheme looking for them. But, if someone wants to contact you then they will. Don’t panic. Don’t get overwhelmed by the situation. Don’t think that your whole church is going to fall down because your trophy of grace has done a runner. Entrust their souls to the Lord.
Secondly, watch their own heart. Often our first reaction to someone’s sin is self-righteousness. How could they be so stupid? How dare they? Often, our self-righteousness quickly becomes a hardening of our heart towards them. This particularly happens when it’s a repeated pattern in a person’s life. When they do the same stupid thing again and again we start to harbour bitterness, resentment and anger towards them. How dare they waste our time? What about all the things we did for them? This is a real danger.
When someone walks away form the church, we need to think about the people of Israel in the OT or the disciples with Jesus. We need to remember how the people of Israel walked away from the Lord so many times, and yet how gracious the Lord was with them. Or how the disciples just didn’t understand who Jesus was initially, despite the many miracles he performed. And yet how patient he was with them. When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother, Jesus answers him by saying, ‘seven times seventy seven’. In other words, time and time and time and time and time and time again. Many of our men and women fall hard, and publicly, but this is not a time for self-righteous judgementalism. Instead, we ought to assess our own hearts and remember the grace we have been shown many times by the Lord.
Mature believers who are not bathed in the gospel often run to self-righteousness because they are not getting drunk or taking drugs. But an addict walking back to their public folly is no worse then our private little sins that we keep locked away behind closed doors. We are all damned sinners saved by grace and when we remember that it helps us to keep a soft heart towards those we are discipling after a fall.
Thirdly, counsel the gospel. Many of our members who are saved from our community are like boomerangs - they come back at some point. It’s not like in a gathered church where people can run off to another part of the city and avoid Christians for years on end. We are a closed community and so inevitably we will see the person who has chosen sin. Our people more often then not come back to see us when they are ready and the key, if they are repentant, is to counsel the gospel.
We need to remind them that their sin is against the Lord not us. We need to remind them that they need to repent and not wallow in self-pity. And we need to point them ultimately to Jesus and his death on the cross. A favourite set of verses I read during this initial meeting is 1 John 1:5-10. These verses remind us that we are all sinners and if we deny that then we deny the gospel. They remind us of our need to walk in the light not the darkness. And they remind us to confess our sins and Jesus will cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.
The problem with many Christians (and I’ve been one of them) is that they counsel legalism. When we say in the meeting, “If you just do x, y and z then things will be better.” Give up your phone. Stop watching TV. Read your Bible more. Cut down on your Methadone. But, the reality is that in giving rules to a rule breaker we are giving them an open invitation to just break them again! The only person that can help someone beat their addictions is Jesus. There is power in only one place and that’s in the finished work of Jesus. We need to point them to Jesus and the glorious fact that, “Our sins are many but his mercy is more.”
Now that’s not to say that we don’t suggest some immediate measures, such as handing over their bank card or phones. Sometimes we need to put them in a safe place to remove temptations. But, that we don’t leave them with that. We can take phones, money and even move them to the middle of the desert, but they will still find somewhere to get drunk and shoot up again if they want to. They need to see the stupidity and darkness of sin, the beauty of Christ and that true contentment is only found in him.
Fourthly, if there are no signs of repentance over a prolonged period of time then you move through the discipline process. We move through slowly and patiently according to Matthew 18. If you want to find out more about that then read this set of blog posts by Mez (https://20schemes.com/church-planting/isnt-church-discipline-just-an-excuse-to-control-abuse-people-1/).
Finally, carry on. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:16: “Therefore, we do not lose heart.” The tendency when we have been burnt is to retreat. Its to not help the next person who comes our way or be extra harsh in our interactions with them. Neither is biblical. We have to give everyone the same chance and counsel the gospel to them. In the Lord’s providence and the power of the gospel who knows what the Lord will do in the next person’s life. At the same time we have to be ready and willing to readmit the member who has been removed if there are signs of contrition and repentance. We are hopefully going to be doing this at our next members meeting as a ex-communicated brother has shown fruit in keeping with repentance while at a Christian rehab.
Working with men and women who have come from addictive backgrounds is hard work and at times painful. Its hard to know what to do sometimes. But these are the initial things that I would do in light of someone going on a bender. Its going to happen to all of us working in poorer communities. We need to watch that our hope ultimately is not in them but in Christ and his power to save. Keep pressing on!