My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins. (James 5:19-20, NLT)
As promised, James’ epistle has been packed with practical wisdom for everyday Christian living. If you quickly scan the verses of the book in its entirety, he has indeed addressed a wide variety of issues. Each of these passages can be beneficial when they are isolated and studied. But when I think about the book as a whole, it appears that one of the high level goals of James’ writing has been to address issues that may jeopardize the community’s vitality.
Protecting and preserving the unity of the community of faith is one such umbrella theme. When we weaken in the face of trials, or yield to temptation, we jeopardize the community’s health. When we fail to control our tongues or we show prejudice, we jeopardize the community’s health. When our personal ambitions produce jealousy, lying and division, we jeopardize the community’s health. When our lives are characterized by pride and we judge others, or selfishly hoard what we have to the neglect of others, we jeopardize the community’s health. That’s not the only way to read the book of James, but it is one way. I’d like to encourage you to read the book of James in one sitting, with one eye on the individual and the other on the community as a whole.
All of that leads to the final two verses of the book. James does not conclude with Paul’s more traditional conclusion where he expressed well wishes to individuals, exchanges greetings and shares forth coming travel plans. His conclusion is a call to action for, you guessed it, the protection and preserving of the community. Note the pastoral tone he uses in his conclusion. His concern is for those who were fully engaged who then became isolated through choices they made. His solution is to make an attempt to “bring them home.” While it is unclear what James is claiming with regards to saving a person from death, it is more clear that forgiveness is one of the products that comes with reconciliation.
While some of the specifics of these two verses can be debated, there are two big takeaways in drawing this post to a close. First, we never sin in isolation. Everything we do that is harmful, even if it is self inflicted, is always harmful to those around us who love us. We already know this to be true. Now we need to remember it.
The second takeaway is for the church. When I speak to individuals who are no longer connected to a local church it usually comes up and is almost always expressed that no one has reached out to them since they departed. Not one time. It doesn’t seem to matter if they were offended or the offender, that narrative remains largely consistent. They’re not interested in going to the greener grass of another church. They have found spiritual support from other sources and have dismissed the organization.
Some of today’s larger ministries can easily absorb the loss of attendance, volunteer hours and dollars contributed, like a large corporation that budgets for anticipated losses like “breakage” or theft. There are plenty of new faces who quickly crowd into the void. For smaller churches where everyone knows everyone else, however, this can be catastrophic.
I think the biggest initial step churches can take is to learn better listening skills for those who are present as well as those who are absent. One of the factors included here is to create and cultivate a safe environment where people can talk about things that are authentic and real without fear of being judged or fixed. Churches should easily have cornered the market in authenticity, but regardless of their size, many are woefully behind social clubs, civic organizations, affinity groups, 12 step recovery programs, therapy, and neighborhood pubs. Granted, that level of vulnerability can be messy. But we need to remember that the call to discipleship is the call to become like Christ, and not like those who are already in the church.