Somehow growing up I got the idea that “stealing sheep” was one of the mortal sins committed by churches and their pastors. Sheep stealing is when a church actively recruits people from another church to attend their obviously superior church. (Describing this requires overuse of the word church!) It can also happen more indirectly when a fancy new church opens up near your dingy old church and half the people run for the exits.
Church is about Candy
Active sheep stealing is based on competition. “We want our church to grow. Plus, we’re freakin awesome. So let’s go tell everyone to come here!” A couple weeks ago we went to a “church fair” at a local Christian university. This is a time where all the local churches bring their fanciest brochures, displays, and ripped designer jeans to one location to woo potential customers from the incoming freshman class. If you really want to step up your game you bring full size candy bars. It’s like trick or treat while you find a church. It’s not technically sheep stealing because the sheep are just wandering around pondering the great things they’ll be able to accomplish now that they have no bed time, but it’s the same kind of competitive attitude.
The church is the bride of Christ. Active sheep stealing (and a church fair) are kind of like an arm trying to flex bigger than a leg. There’s no place for competition among churches. One strike for sheep stealing.
Awesome Churches [and the other ones]
Passive sheep stealing happens when people leave the less awesome church they’ve been a part of (or at least attending) for the more awesome church down the street. Shoot, if I could upgrade to a 2013 Honda Accord from my 2002 Accord for free I’d do it, so it only makes sense that when the opportunity arises to get two video screens [or even a hologram!] and a children’s play land instead of the overhead projector and flannel graph people would jump at it. Look, if you want people’s business…er, membership…you gotta bring your A game!
The early church had an issue kind of like this (minus the holograms, and the overhead projectors for that matter). Some people liked Paul while other people were for Apollos. Instead of adopting the hippest style of discourse, they just said people should care about Jesus, not either one of them. Strike two for sheep stealing (even the passive kind). It’s almost out.
Arranging the Body
But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 1 Cor. 12:18
It’s easy to forget that the body of Christ is bigger than each local church (though each local church functions as a body as well). God’s goal is not to build one specific local church but to build up the whole body to maximize his mission in the world. To do that, there are times when he needs to move some of the sheep around to different pastures. Some churches have and abundance of leaders while others are in desperate need. At times God calls a church to undertake specific project and there are people uniquely gifted to participate who are at other churches.
Often when people switch churches it is because they see something better from a consumeristic perspective. At times they are even wooed actively purely for the sake of another church increasing numbers. But sometimes, if we’re listening, God will call us to another place because he needs us there. When God is the one who “steals” a sheep to relocate it, sheep stealing should be blessed. Ball one.