Sheep-stealing: “Hey, those were our sheep!”

by K.W. Leslie, 31 May

Since all the sheep belong to Jesus, what’s the real problem?

Sheep-stealing /'ʃip stil.ɪŋ/ vt. Getting a Christian to leave their church and join yours.
[Sheep-stealer /'ʃip stil.ər/ n.]

My sister and I live in the same town. I’m a member of a small church. She’s a member of another, larger church.

When people hear this, sometimes they respond, “Aww. Why don’t you go to the same church? You should be worshiping together.”

Well, sometimes we do. Sometimes I visit her church. Once, she and her family visited mine. Our churches aren’t in competition, y’know. Mine may be in a denomination and hers isn’t, but both churches belong to Jesus: They’re both outposts of God’s kingdom.

Why don’t we go to the same church? Various reasons. Initially it was because I was giving the churches in my denomination a try before settling on one… and this one fit. (Once it wasn’t, so I hung with the Baptists a few years.) If I had to switch churches, I don’t think it’d be too big a stretch to switch to hers, but I fit better here.

And my church lets me minister. Whereas her church already has plenty of ministers. They don’t need me. Don’t need her either. She and her husband used to help in their area of expertise, music. They were eventually told their help wasn’t wanted.

If I were told that, I’d go find someplace I was wanted; but that’s me. I told ’em my church was looking for musicians. Of course my church, being small, would definitely try to rope ’em into ministering every week, and they’d prefer once a month. (That’s what they’re currently doing: They help out at a friend’s church.)

Now, some Christians would definitely take offense at my inviting them to help at my church. They’d see it as “sheep-stealing.” Because my sister and brother-in-law already have a church, already have a shepherd, and how dare I try to swipe them out from underneath their shepherd?

Um… ’cause we all have the one shepherd.

John 10.14-16 KWL
14 “I’m the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me,
15 just as my Father knows me, and I know the Father. I prioritize my life for the sheep.
16 I have other sheep who aren’t from this pen. I have to bring them here too.
They’ll hear my voice and become one flock, with one shepherd.”

Churches have shepherds, or pastors; lots of ’em. But all these pastors work for the head of every church, Christ Jesus. And when they’re jealous of one another, or compete with one another, or try to hoard resources which are meant for the whole kingdom and world, it’s wholly inappropriate. So this idea of “sheep-stealing”? Doesn’t come from the bible.

Still, some pastors get downright territorial.

Envious exes.

Years ago I was chatting with Gilad, the pastor of Peewee Church. (Neither are their actual names.) We were talking evangelism. I brought up Ginormous Church (also not its real name) and it’s as if I pressed a button on Gilad that read, “Volcano of bile.” He had nothing good to say about it.

His biggest complaint: “They don’t get their numbers by leading people to Jesus. They get ’em by sheep-stealing.” Which Gilad claimed to know from experience.

Say you’re Gilad, and you’ve been ministering to another Christian, whom we’ll call Alene, for a good long while. You invested a lot of time, prayer, encouragement, instruction, emotion, and money into Alene and her family. You made them a part of your church family. Invited them to interact with your own family. You’re pretty sure you have a good solid relationship with them. And one day, clean out of the blue, Alene declares, “I don’t really feel I’m being fed anymore. I think I’m gonna try out Ginormous Church. All my friends go there. I like their music; I love that they have Saturday evening services; my kids are already jealous of their youth program. So hey, pastor, it’s been fun!” and off she goes.

And that’s the end of your relationship. Sometimes people bother to formally leave. More often they just ghost away: They quit attending, don’t communicate, never say they’ve quit. Then you notice they’re posting some other church’s activities on Facebook. And months later someone comments, “Hey, remember Alene and her family? I found out last week they’re at Ginormous Church. She’s leading a bible study.”

She’s leading their bible study? She coulda led your bible study. What, weren’t you good enough for her?

Some pastors can handle this sort of thing. They know it comes with the job. They also used to do this very thing themselves: They too bounced from church to church. (Heck, if they weren’t in leadership, they’d be tempted to still bounce.) Christians in the United States are hugely migratory. It’s one of the benefits of freedom of religion: Nobody but God can make us stay with our churches, so if people feel like he has no problem with it, away they go.

Other pastors really can’t handle this sort of thing. Gilad can’t. It bugs him to no end.

Which I get. Gilad invests a lot of time in people… and they turn round and break up with him. No that’s not a metaphor. It’s precisely what happened: People ended their relationships with him. They figured they only quit attending the meetings of an organization, but that’s not what church is. Church is meant to be family. They just weren’t feeling the same way as Gilad was. To him, it wasn’t mere attendance, but a relationship. To him, and all such pastors, it hurts.

Y’know how some people resent the heck out of the next person their ex dates? Well, that’s kinda happening here too. That’s why Gilad is so bent out of shape about Ginormous Church: His exes go there. So he’s got a grudge about their new relationship. Makes him feel good to trash-talk Ginormous Church. Nitpick the idea they don’t share Jesus with unbelievers; they simply swipe believers from other churches. They steal sheep. Just like they stole his sheep.

But dude, you don’t own those people. That ain’t healthy.

Y’know, the more Gilad went on, the more I started to wonder about him. His attitude is Jesus gave those sheep to him to boss around, and by switching churches, they’re evading his authority. Started to sounds a little cultish of him. And yes there are people who church-shop ’cause they wanna evade accountability. Made me wonder if that wasn’t a factor.

“But if you’re seeking a new church…”

Here’s where we get to the ironic part. After Gilad’s whole rant against sheep-stealing, he fixed his eye on me and said, “I know you got a church. But if you’re not happy there, I invite you to give us a visit.” And he gave me his card.

“Hold up,” I said. “Aren’t you trying to steal me from my shepherd?”

He laughed. Shamelessly: He really didn’t recognize he’d done the very same thing he’d just railed against Ginormous Church about. To him, it was just a friendly invitation… in case I was church-shopping. ’Cause if I ever think about switching churches, why not try his?

I get these sort of invitations all the time. It’s because, like I said, Christians in our culture are so migratory. There’s always a chance a Christian might go church-shopping in the next couple years. So, just in case that happens, wise pastors and evangelists let everybody know their church is an option.

I’m not knocking the practice. It’s smart. But if Gilad thinks it’s evil when others to do it, he’s got a double standard. And a pretty big blindspot.

He’s not alone, though. I’ve heard many Christian leaders complain the lack of commitment in Christians nowadays. And yeah, when people are going from church to church because they don’t want accountability, don’t wanna minister, don’t wanna donate, don’t wanna put in the time, don’t want anyone tying them down: They’re dodging Christian maturity. They’ll think they’re mature because they’ve been Christian a long time, but they never developed deep Christian relationships, and as a result are in no position to mentor, foster, or lead anyone.

But read the gospels and Acts. Jesus and his apostles moved around a lot. Their permanence was in the kingdom, not their location or position. The Spirit sent ’em to work wherever he needed them. Might be another place in the same city; might be on the far side of the world.

Which brings up a whole different problem: Christians who won’t leave, and they really need to. God’s got bigger ministries in mind for some of us. It requires us to step away from our comfortable churches, and strike out in some very uncomfortable churches. Tiny little startups. Missions in other countries. Missions in difficult communities. Missions which lack the resources and money of great big churches. The Holy Spirit wants us to find, preach to, and make disciples of, the lost. He wants us to go; we complain we need to stay, because we—unlike everybody else in our culture—believe in commitment. Wrong excuse.

And yeah, sometimes the Spirit’s gonna send them to our church. And yeah, their previous pastors might be the type who enviously eye our church, and accuse us of sheep-stealing. Yet never feel guilty about taking in new members; their hearts are pure. Double standards, man, I tell ya.