Commentary: Welcome the returning worshiper with care

Commentary: Welcome the returning worshiper with care

After a long absence, some former worshipers feel uneasy about returning to church, says the Rev. Scott Wilks.

In Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, the son spends his inheritance on “living it up”: parties and excess. All of this at the expense of his family’s relationship and reputation.
What he asked for was an inheritance, something only granted on the death of his father. But Dad wasn’t dead yet, so the insult was huge.
When the money dried up and his prospects with it, the son found himself in a place of great humility, so much that he was willing to crawl home and live as a servant. The father had not given up on the son and lavished on him gifts and a great welcome-home feast.
I’m sure the father was only acting out of profound love. What he didn’t consider was the brokenness of the son. He was tired from a long journey, depressed from the consequences of his choices, and humiliated by the shame of spending his family fortune on wine, women, and song. I’m sure his sibling’s displeasure stung as well. Was a party the thing he needed, or did he have some need for rest and emotional healing?
Sometimes church people drift from their relationship with the church. COVID-19 drove this reality home, and many who left the church still haven’t returned. Perhaps they left hurt or sought greener pastures at another church. Maybe they spent some time on a church sabbatical.
Needless to say, if any of these persons were to return to church, they might bring some trepidation with them. Maybe they only wish to slip in and test the waters quietly before committing to returning for good.
I have been told by some of our former worshipers, “I can’t return.” Others have been more specific about their reasons, such as, “People have talked about my absence, and someone will make me uncomfortable, even if it’s with well-meaning words.”
If you’ve ever been on the other side of those well-meaning words, maybe you can relate to what it feels like to hear, “There you are. We thought you had fallen off the face of the earth.” Or, “Look, he does exist!” I've even seen church members jokingly hand a returning prodigal a visitor's card, to make a point.
If I were the recipient of such attention, you wouldn’t see me the next Sunday.
Grace is not only something we receive, it’s something we give. I’m not proposing that we ignore a prodigal when and if they return -- only that we give appropriate attention and space for those who need to wade back into the water. No ring from our finger or fatted calf. Maybe just a kind word, a smile, and encouragement to return again. Perhaps the greatest gift we can bestow on the prodigal is quiet amnesty.

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Scott Wilks

The Rev. Scott Wilks is pastor at Memorial United Methodist Church in Clinton, Tennessee.