Do Prodigals Feel Welcome At Our Churches?


We all know “prodigal” kids. Maybe you are a prodigal kid. The kid who grew up in church, went off to college, and proceeded to make a royal disaster of his life. The church girl who got pregnant at age 17. The pastor’s kid who started hanging with the wrong crowd and picked up a heroin habit.

In his kindness, God often brings a prodigal to the end of his rope. No money. Living on the street. Kicked out of college. A string of broken relationships. Tempted to eat food that is intended for pigs. You get the point. And when prodigals bottom out, they often return home and to the church.

When a prodigal returns to your church, what sort of welcome will he receive?

See here’s the thing about prodigals: they have baggage. (Of course, we all have baggage, we’re just a little better at hiding it.)

The prodigal needs to get a smoke in between the singing and the sermon.

The prodigal has tattoos that may not be “church friendly”.

The prodigal has a girlfriend who isn’t modesty approved.

The prodigal smells like beer.

The prodigal wears a t-shirt of a band that would not be played on a CCM top 40 station.

Will we stay away from the prodigal until he gets his life back together? Until he starts attending small group, stops smoking, and ditches the girlfriend? Until he starts talking the talk and walking the walk? Will we talk about the prodigal behind his back? Will we point out the prodigal to our children as an example of what happens when you disobey your parents?

Or will we embrace him? Laugh with him? Invite him over for dinner? Tell him how happy we are to see him? Take a real, concerted interest in his girlfriend? Shower him with love and affection and gratefulness?

The way welcome prodigals back to church says a lot about our knowledge of God, and a lot about our awareness of our own sinful tendencies, and a lot about our understanding of grace. And the way we welcome prodigals back to church has a significant impact on whether that prodigal keeps coming back to church.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ?Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.? But the father said to his servants, ?Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.? And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24 ESV)

Never Miss Any Goodness

* indicates required


  • Awesome piece! This is the kind of church we all should long to be a part of.

  • Monte Bartek says:

    I think there is something that is very much missing here though. The prodigals son in the bible was repentant. He brought NO baggage back to his father, except for the scars. I think we are moving to a place were we make others feel guilty for not welcoming unrepentant sinners back into our church.
    Based on the article, if a “prodigal son” brings his girlfriend to church, and they are living in fornication, then he really isn’t repentant is he? If he must go and have a smoke between singing and sermon, he is actually bringing his “act of rebellion” back with him. If he is doing everything to fight it, then I would understand. But if his acts of rebellion are still with him, then he is still “away”, but is hoping we will “welcome him back” despite his unrepentance.

  • I would argue that unless a prodigal is a church member under church discipline, then he should be welcomed back into the church with open arms. After all, it is only in the context of the church that he will hear the continued call to repentance. I’m not encouraging the church to condone sin. I am encouraging the church to be a welcome place for wayward sinners.

  • Anne says:

    Absolutely Stephen. We are always in danger of falling into the trap of asking Folks to act like Christians before they come to faith – and making clean living pagans instead of disciples. I’d be really interested to hear your thought son how this applies to what we teach our kids!

  • Steve Kennedy says:

    I’m on board with it all, except “shower with him” in the third-from-last paragraph, which I think is going a bit too far. Oh wait – I think I read that wrong. …

  • Aphobos says:

    I enjoy your posts. I feel this one hits 50% of the nail on the head, and i dont disagree with that half. The other half is that the original prodical needed no church context. He came back repenting, not looking for a proper context. The Church indeed needs to repent of its sins, but its guilt does not prevent the prodigal from making his decision. What must I do to be saved? The answer is not “Search for the proper context”.

  • Aphobos says:

    I also do not disagree with your not mentioning the other 50%. A prophetic call for God’s people to repent does not require the mentioning of other people’s sins as well.

  • Mike says:

    We’re typically explained to that as long as we stay out of trouble and don’t attempt to influence anyone, we’re welcome to come on Sundays. We get chaperoned around until it is too uncomfortable to even drop by for a sermon every now-and-then. The expectation that we have returned for help in changing our lives is abrasive and a bit condescending. It feels like giving your last penny and being told that if you work hard enough and do as they say, you’ll one day be able to give them a dollar. We see no incentive. The belief that we can feel loved, cared for, or even understand an intention when confronted with even the most selfless elucidation of our diversion from sanctification, is presumptuous. Many of us have been through situations, lived horrors, and felt pains that are misunderstood (or not understood at all) by those that did not wander from the flock. Many of us still harbor ill feelings towards the churches we left only to return to distrust, fear, and anger towards us. Many of us feel lost more than any atheist only to leave again in heightened confusion. Many feared re-approaching the church only to be given confirmation of our insecurities. This is not an attack, complaint, or word against the church. This is only a glimpse into the mind of one of the “one”s so the ninety-nine might understand.

  • Monte Bartek says:

    So a church member who is unrepentant is welcomed back into the church?
    I don’t follow your comment on “context of the church”…so lets look at context of the bible and the prodigal son. He repents. He returns. NOT he returns, he repents. I agree that a church should not be afraid to call one to repentance, but that is simply not the only way.
    I don’t follow your comment on wayward sinners. But what I do know, is the church is for saved people, not unsaved people. The church is for fellowshipping, equiping the saints to go out and fulfill the great commission. It is not for inviting goats into the fellowship of sheep.

  • Pingback: Links I like
  • JB says:

    I am so thankful that our church views itself as a hospital for the sick, not a playground for those who think that their righteousness (Which Christ views as being as filthy as rags) is the key to their salvation.

  • Monte Bartek says:

    A hospital for the sick of those that are His.

  • Monte,

    I agree with much of what you say. On the flip side, I think we would do well to listen to much of what the main article says. Paul did talk of unbelievers being at the regular services of the church (in 1Corinthians 13). If they are there, it is best that we don’t treat them as though they ought to behave as though they already have the Spirit and have already been regenerated. We ought to expect that they will be sinners, in keeping with their unregenerate nature. We should also expect that the preached word of God will do what it will. It will either call the the unregenerate to repentance and faith (ultimately, in God’s timing) or it will further damn them in their suppression of the truth in their unrighteousness. I think what we need to remember is that it is our job to remove whatever barriers necessary to allow the Spirit to do His work, whether that work be salvation or reprobation. Soli Deo Gloria!

  • Nicole says:

    I think that the first step in the right direction, to Christ, is coming to church, with baggage and rebellion. We need to act in the likeness of God and welcome them with open arms, build a relationship, and educate them as to why their rebellion and baggage needs to be left behind and of the rewards of repentance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>