An increasing body of research suggests that young people are leaving the church. Churchgoers don’t need the research to tell them what they see playing out in their own congregations.
As a person of faith, I care deeply about this phenomenon. As a youth pastor, this phenomenon breaks my heart.
For those reasons, I was excited to read Hope for the Prodigal: Bringing the Lost, Wandering, and Rebellious Home by Jim Putnam with Bill Putnam.
That said, this book isn’t what I expected. For me, the word prodigal refers to someone who leaves the church and then returns to it, just as the prodigal son in the Biblical story leaves his family, returns to it, and is welcomed home by his father.
And indeed, Jim and Bill use the parable of the prodigal son throughout the book. They even define a prodigal as “Anyone who has known God or appeared to know Him but who is now not walking with God.”
Despite their definition, Jim & Bill seem to forget that the story of the prodigal son is one that oozes grace. Instead, they dwell on the prodigal’s rebellion, saying “outward prodigals are living in defiance.”
Jim and Bill focus extensively on the rightful consequences the prodigal suffers and how that translates to prodigals today; how, because of their sin, the church must help enforce those consequences. For example, at one point, Jim shares, “I would not allow my son Christian to go to youth group because I knew he would intentionally lead others toward sin… I could not sacrifice other kids for the sake of mine.” Quite honestly, this made me want to hurl this book at the wall and yell “Where is the grace?”
Despite this, there are a few things I appreciated about Hope for the Prodigal. For example, I appreciated Jim and Bill’s emphasis on NOT taking responsibility for what’s not yours to own. According to them, “In the situation of any prodigal, there are three levels of responsibility… God’s part refers to things that only God can do… My part refers to the responsibility of the person who cares for the prodigal… Their part refers to the responsibility of the prodigals. Ultimately, the prodigal is responsible for their own actions.” This is, I think, a helpful framework for parents, youth workers, and people of faith to have as they consider the prodigals they know.
I also, perhaps strangely, really appreciated their chapter, While They Are Away From Church. I found it challenging and helpful to envision the older son in the story of the prodigal son as the church. I agree wholeheartedly with Jim and Bill when they say, “That’s our prayer for churches today – that we’d look at the story of the prodigal son, ask ourselves what the older brother should have done, and then live that way, because there are prodigals all around us in our churches and circling outside.”
Unfortunately, I fear that someone who reads Jim and Bill’s Hope for the Prodigal: Bringing the Lost, Wandering, and Rebellious Home will only ever condemn prodigals to a life outside the church. That's ironic since Jesus told the Pharisees, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12)
If that’s the case, then there should be no question about where prodigals belong: In the church.
I pray people won’t lose sight of that if they read Hope for the Prodigal: Bringing the Lost, Wandering, and Rebellious Home.
After all, Jesus offers hope (and love and restoration) for the prodigal even if this book doesn’t.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Hope for the Prodigal: Bringing the Lost, Wandering, and Rebellious Home from Baker Books in exchange for a fair and honest review.