This guest post is brought to you by Danny Franks, our Connections Pastor. Danny oversees guest services at the Summit, and his ministry at our church embodies the plumb line, “People are the mission.”
He heard the music as he crested the hill.
It had been an exhausting day in the field, just like every day since the incident. His workload had doubled and the weight of the family’s farm fell squarely on his shoulders. His father was not much help; he spent most days staring at the horizon, more intent on replaying the past than seeing what was right in front of him.
So at the end of this particular day, the faint strains of instruments were more than curious. They were a bit annoying. “There’s a party while I’m working? Who has time to plan parties? What reason do we have to celebrate?”
The firstborn saw a servant exiting the house. “What’s going on?” he snapped. “Why are all of these people here?”
The servant broke into a wide smile. “You haven’t heard? He’s returned! Your father has invited the village to celebrate!”
The firstborn’s face fell as the bile rose in his throat. He could feel his neck burning and he wasn’t sure if he spoke the words or simply thought them:
“You’ve got to be kidding me. He’s back.”
Luke 15 is the place to go for Jesus’ story of a wandering son, a redemptive father, and a judgmental brother. But that isn’t the only place you’ll spot that senior sibling. You don’t have to search far in our congregations to find older brothers: those who have more sorrow than joy when a sinner repents and returns. Those who believe that their mandates are greater than the mission. Those who think that mercy extends just far enough to reach them, but no farther.
The spirit of the older brother circles the wagons, protects the status quo, and guards the inside at the expense of the outside. Sometimes that spirit speaks, sometimes it acts, sometimes it assumes, but it’s a dangerous cancer that will eat away any grace you extend to those who don’t know Jesus.
I’m grateful that the message of the gospel doesn’t stop at the prodigal, because Jesus said the gospel isn’t just for those with a wicked lifestyle, but for those with a wicked heart. And if you’re keeping score at home, that covers all of us. We all fall into the category of either the younger or older brother. Sometimes we earn both of those labels at once. Regardless of where we are on the sibling spectrum, the Father’s mercy can still reach us. But if we want to mobilize the people in our churches to care about the lost, the story of the Prodigal Son reminds us of three lessons:
Older brothers must be pointed to grace. The older brother had forgotten, so his dad reminded him: “Son, you’re always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” His good behavior didn’t make him more of a son. It was his birth into his family and the love of his father that gave the right to be called a son. But he’d forgotten that, so he pouted over his position and raged over the rebel. Our heel-dragging congregation members probably don’t think they’ve forgotten grace. But if they aren’t reaching for the outsider, they have; it’s our job to (gently) remind them.
Older brothers must be given grace. It’s tempting to daydream about how church could be if we were able to round up all the “older brothers” and send them packing. But that’s not what the father did. He didn’t want to change the older brother’s scenery, but to change his heart. The father was inclusive. He made room at the table for those who strayed and those who stayed. The only way your people will extend grace is if that grace is given to them first.
Older brothers need to be reminded of the vision. The father showed where grace leads. “It [is] fitting for us to celebrate and be glad, for [he] was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” We can get so consumed with doing church that we forget the joy of being the church. Jesus didn’t call us to be fishers of committees, or tell us to go into all the ladies’ quilting circles. The forward momentum of the church won’t be built on men’s golf outings. Those things have a purpose and may serve a means to an end, but they’re certainly not the end.
Somewhere along the way, many of us have lost our way. We’ve grown so focused inside the walls that we’ve forgotten about people outside the walls. People are the mission, and it is fitting to be glad when they return. It is fitting. It’s entirely appropriate. It’s what we should do.
“People are the mission” means all people. Good, bad, saved, lost. Churched, unchurched, dechurched, hate-the-church. Pharisees, publicans, saints, sinners. Jesus didn’t give options on what kind of people we reach. We have as much responsibility to love the curmudgeonly deacon within the church as we do the atheist neighbor who lives beside the church.
If people are the mission, we must stick to the mission. The people in our cities – and in our pews – are worth it.