On Sheep Stealing among churches

Published 7:46 pm Sunday, April 2, 2023

By Michael Brooks

They were a great family who had no denominational underpinnings. I knew them as Presbyterians who became Baptists who became Methodists. I once heard a pastor remark, “It doesn’t hurt to change the label on an empty bottle.” 

Ouch. I think I’d just say, more charitably, that denominations don’t have the appeal they once did. 

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Baptists used to joke, “I’m Baptist born, Baptist bred and one day I’ll be Baptist dead.” Maybe not. Many today look for churches with specific programs for themselves or their children and denominational distinctions are insignificant, or at least secondary.

As I often tell my wife, I’m not arguing, I’m just reporting.

Another trend today is that numbers of believers attend churches for a long time before requesting membership. One study suggested this “trial” period can average up to 18 months. One family visited our church for three years before joining, and we just kept on loving them after they became official members!

Though there is value in church membership, I know pastors and congregations welcome all those who attend, even those for whom membership isn’t a priority.

The coming and going of members is probably more frequent today. However, churches must respect one another, and ministers must not criticize other congregations in order to get new members.

Christians joining other churches is called “transfer growth,” and we all welcome this. But we know the most important task is “conversion growth” when we bring people to faith as new believers.

I know of two groups who decided they’d start new churches to “reach new people” through conversion growth, but first raided their mother churches of their finest leaders.

One group was superintended by the mother church pastor who encouraged leaders to come with him, though the new work wasn’t sanctioned by the mother church. Another group did a similar thing, though they quietly enlisted other church members in their cause before going public. Those enlisted were primarily younger couples with energy and income. In both cases new churches took members without sanction from the mother churches. This is what we used to commonly call “sheep stealing.”

The much better option for new churches is that these be a shared vision with sponsoring churches who agree to support, love and pray for the missionaries they send to seek unbelievers.

Pastors welcome conversations with members of other churches who show interest in joining their churches. This is fine. But I also believe we must refrain from plundering other congregations in the process. After all, we cannot lift up the churches we serve as exemplary in every respect. All churches have the same spiritual DNA: imperfect people who imperfectly try to seek and serve a perfect God.

“Reflections” is a weekly faith column written by Michael J. Brooks, pastor of the Siluria Baptist Church, Alabaster, Alabama. The church’s website is siluriabaptist.com.