Pastoring Prodigals

Paul is the lead pastor at  Four Oaks Community Church  in Tallahassee, Florida. He will be leading a breakout at our upcoming  Leader's Summit . You can follow him on Twitter  @revgilbert .

Paul is the lead pastor at Four Oaks Community Church in Tallahassee, Florida. He will be leading a breakout at our upcoming Leader's Summit. You can follow him on Twitter @revgilbert.

One of the greatest challenges of pastoral ministry, at least for me, has been how to best care for folks who have lost a loved one. But I am not speaking here of physical loss and death; I’m referring to the collateral damage of relational losses that take place when spouses, friends, children, or family members go spiritually dark.

We often refer to such people as prodigals, rebels, or ‘the wayward,’ but the terminology is hardly the point. Every pastor or ministry leader has sat across from someone who has tossed his or her biblical roles and relationships overboard, only to be tossed to and fro by the winds of spiritual wanderlust.

Beth was such a person.

The sixteen-year-old daughter of Josh and Katie, Beth had been in full-blown rebellion for the past 6 months – breaking curfew, lying, partying with friends, and sneaking out of the house with her boyfriend. In their attempts to “love” her through this rebellious season, Beth’s parents had made concessions and compromises in a desperate attempt to keep the peace.

Josh and Katie’s efforts toward relational détente, however, only served to empower Beth in her prodigality. Instead of modifying her behavior, Beth simply upped the ante and threatened to run away from home if she was not given complete control over her life and schedule. Beth’s parents thought that their empathetic responses to her cries for more freedom were the most loving thing that they could do. Their efforts to love had failed, and they were now just confused and disillusioned.

How would you shepherd Josh and Katie down this prodigal path?

To effectively lead people through such situations might mean that pastors and ministry leaders will have to help wayward sufferers redefine the very nature of love. When people talk about love, they often think about feelings of attraction, joy and excitement. Or, like Josh and Katie, they tend to measure love by the good intentions that it fuels versus the standards it requires.

@@To love a wayward rebel, you need a love rooted in God’s promises.@@

For prodigals to change, however, it will require a love that is not only well-intentioned, but also holistic and courageous. To love a wayward rebel, you need a love rooted in the hope of God’s promises. This kind of rugged love is bold, yet redemptive; forceful, yet forgiving; gallant, yet gospel-based. Rugged love is a love that has biblical teeth.

Here are two features of rugged love that Beth’s parents need to keep in view as they wrestle with the best way to love and engage her:

Rugged Love Is Strong Enough to Face Evil

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil” (Romans 12:9). @@True love sees evil and graciously but honestly calls it what for what it is.@@ Because the wayward person has issued a Declaration of Independence from God, the path to grace and forgiveness does not run through accommodation and denial. True love identifies sin and courageously responds to it. It is neither loving nor gracious to forgive someone simply to empower them in their sin.

Beth’s parents need to be able to see that their concessions and compromises, while well-intentioned, are in fact spiritually harmful. According to Jesus in Luke 17, there cannot be a fully restored relationship apart from Beth’s changed heart. However, Josh and Katie’s accommodations are enabling Beth to live under the illusion that she is just fine with both them and God. This deception only further empowers Beth in her prodigality.

Rugged Love Is Courageous Enough to Enforce Consequences

Rugged love takes culpability and accountability seriously. True love draws lines and enforces consequences. While rules and consequences themselves lack the power to change a person’s heart, they must be clearly enforced and felt in order for the power of grace to do its work. Nehemiah 9 is such a picture of God’s rugged love in action towards His rebellious people:

Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet they would not give ear. Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God. (Nehemiah 9:30-31 ESV)

God had patiently borne with His people through their seasons of rebellion, giving them constant warnings and signs. When they refused to respond, however, God disciplined Israel by allowing them to be conquered and then carried into exile in Babylon. They were allowed to experience what life was like apart from God’s protective love. “In order to repent,” says Dan Allender, “prodigals must feel pain.”  


Of course, there are many other aspects and features of rugged, biblical love that must come into play if we are to love prodigals faithfully. Dave Harvey and I spell these out in our soon to be released book, Letting Go: Rugged Love for Wayward Souls.  It is here that we have attempted to lay out the contours of rugged love that we hope will serve pastors in their ministries to prodigals. In fact, we are going to be giving away a copy of this book at the upcoming Sojourn Network Leadership Summit, October 24-26, in Louisville. We hope that you can join us there!