Pull out your church directory from a few years ago and chances are good you’ll find a few faces who just don’t come around on Sunday anymore. Whether it’s young people who lost their faith after high school, families who got busy with activities, those who spiraled into sin, or whoever else it may be, unfortunately it’s inevitable that members will fall away from the church from time to time.

Some people leave loudly, causing great division in the church or refusing to repent of an uncovered sin. Most, however, simply drift. They miss a Sunday here or there, then a few more. Next thing you know, no one’s seen them in months. They might answer a phone call and say they’ll “try to be there this Sunday,” but the departure has begun. The cares of the world have choked out their faith and God and His church just don’t register on their priority list anymore. 

The parables of Luke 15 (lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son) show us the great value God places on the lost and the straying. It should hurt us when people abandon our Lord. To use the New Testament metaphor of the church as a body, a man or a woman who deserts the church should feel like an amputation to the rest of us. That pain must get the attention of all of us and affect our actions. 

While we can attempt the calls and visits, I believe the Bible calls us to be more proactive than reactive. In other words, efforts to strengthen the faith of the weak should be happening long before they show they are weak – perhaps even before they are weak. But who’s going to do it? God expects all of us to be involved in strengthening each other. Unlike Cain brushing off God’s question of where Able was, we are our brothers’ keepers. 

In Hebrews 3:12 the writer commands each Christian to take care that they don’t fall away. The next verse, however, changes the perspective. The inward focus turns outward. “Encourage one another day after day… so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (emp. added). The two principles to take away: first, it’s each one’s responsibility to encourage their fellow Christians to stay faithful. Second, this is to happen regularly. It doesn’t say “step in when you see someone drifting.” It says “day by day” for a reason. We need constant encouraging to keep believing in Jesus and keep obeying Him. 

The writer revisits this idea in 10:23-27. In 10:26-27 we’re told if we practice willful sin, we have a terrifying expectation of judgment. 10:23-25 tell us what to do about it: hold fast our confession, consider how to stir up our fellow Christians to love and good works, not forsake the assembling, and encourage one another. Again, with the threat of falling away as the backdrop, Christians are commanded to find ways to help their fellow Christians stay on the straight and narrow.

A necessary disclaimer: we have to understand that we can’t ensure salvation for everybody just by being more involved and encouraging them. In 1 and 2 Timothy Paul references Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Philetus, former co-laborers who turned from the truth. And, of course, Judas Iscariot spent 3 years with Jesus yet still betrayed Him when the time came. When Jesus Christ Himself (along with the apostle Paul) did not force someone to stay faithful, we have to accept the fact that we can’t guarantee the faithfulness of everyone in our church family, either. 

On the other hand, we shouldn’t let that fact keep us from making every effort. Galatians 6:1-2 commands the spiritual to restore those who are caught in sin and to help bear their burdens. James 5:19-20 reminds us the importance of turning back those who stray to save their souls and cover their sins. Over and over the church is encouraged to proactively keep each other from sin and unbelief and reactively try to restore those who fall. 

How do we do this? The only way is through close relationships. We can’t “encourage one another day after day” if we’re only interacting for a few minutes before and after Sunday worship. We have to be close enough to speak difficult truths into each other’s lives, and that kind of rapport takes time to build. 

It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. Souls are at stake. Make the commitment today: I will draw near to my church family. I will do what it takes to stir them up to love and good works. I will carry them when they stumble. I will be my brothers’ keeper.