Luke 15 gives us a unique perspective into how people get lost. Some are lost like a sheep – they wander away. Some are lost like a coin due to neglect or the actions of another. Others, like the prodigal, make the conscious decision to go to the far country. But what about the older brother? Is it possible to be lost while in in the Father’s house? And if so, how would you go about bringing that person into the light?
If I read Luke 15 correctly, the old brother represents the Pharisees. While the tax collectors and “sinners” gathered around to HEAR him, the Pharisees “muttered” about the kinds of people Jesus welcomed into the kingdom. (In fact, something gets lost in the chapter break you might not have noticed. In the last verse of Luke 14, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In chapter 15 it is the “sinners” who gather to HEAR Jesus (verse 1), while the Pharisees voice their complaints (verse 2). The Pharisees speak, while others listen. They do not have “ears to hear.”
So here’s the question: How do you reach a Pharisee? It wasn’t until recently that I saw the wisdom of the Father as he reasoned with the older brother. While Jesus teaches us to pursue lost sheep, to fiercely search for lost coins, to wait, pray and welcome the prodigal back with joy and celebration, the Father takes a much different approach with the older son. He seeks to bring about change through patient instruction. He goes straight to the root of the problem. When the older brother says, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you,” the Father responds, “All I have is yours.” When the brother objects to the celebration, the Father replies, “We had to celebrate.” Jesus seeks to change his orientation, a paradigm shift of sorts. He compels him to see through the eyes of grace instead of duty.
In the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus constantly seeking to bring about a change of perspective which reflects the values of the Kingdom. He taught, continued to teach, and taught some more (Luke 5:22-23; 6:9; 7:41-42; 10:36; 14:5). It is, therefore, my conviction, that if we want to change an older brother, it takes “great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2) over time to bring about a change of heart. It takes the kind of teaching that helps people evaluate their positions in light of Kingdom values.
Questions for discussion:
How are people lost like a sheep, a coin, a prodigal, an older brother? What is the best way to pursue each?
How would you go about changing a congregation of older brothers? (Consider the verses from the Gospel of Luke above. Notice Jesus’ use of questions to challenge inaccurate assumptions).
What are the effects of an older brother in the pulpit? How might you help bring about a change of perspective?
What guidance do the Scriptures give concerning the pursuit of lost people? (See 1 Thessalonians 5:14; Jude 22-23)
Twelve Keys to an Effective Church (Kennon Callahan) is a helpful resource for understanding why some churches thrive while others die and fade. Much of the problem with decline in churches, he suggest, revolves around the concept of a “motivational gap.” According to Callahan, the highest biblical values for people in the pew are compassion, grace, and community. However, the greatest values for preachers are challenge, reasonability, and commitment. Challenge is defined as accomplishment, achievement, attainment; reasonability as data, analysis, logic; commitment as duty, vow, obligation, loyalty.
Callahan argues that all values have importance to people in the pew, but when leaders more routinely emphasize the last three values to the exclusion of the first three—compassion, grace, and community—a “motivational gap” is created within the congregation. When a motivational gap occurs, a church loses drive and spirit. People grow weary of sermons that persistently emphasize obligation and data. However, when leaders emphasize the values that are longed for in the pew, there is a “motivational match” and the church flourishes.
Callahan also suggests that local congregations must be “legendary” in some respect in its community. Churches are known for what is shared on the grapevine. They do not have to do many things well, but they need to be known for ONE thing in particular that community members talk about and celebrate—perhaps the youth program, a benevolent work, a recovery ministry.
Here are some helpful questions for discussion:
What church ministry would our community consider legendary?
Are we known to be legendary in the present or only for our ministry in the past?
What values do we more regularly emphasize: commitment/ authority/reasonability, or compassion/grace/community? Does this have any relationship to our spiritual health or decline?
Callahan says that when preachers sense decline in a local church, they most often overcompensate by emphasizing “commitment.” When a church does this, it is in a declining phase. Is there a sense that preaching “commitment” is a reflection of our own insecurities? What are some ways we could better listen to the heart concerns of our people?