Sheep stealing is a term generally used to describe what happens when a church grows as a result of people leaving other churches. Many Christian teachers have suggested that churches should only grow as a result of evangelism; that is, church growth should reflect the number of unsaved and unchurched people coming to the Lord for the first time. Pastors who seek to build their churches by siphoning members from other churches are accused of “sheep stealing.”
Put more positively, sheep stealing has also been described as “transfer growth,” as Christians transfer their membership from a church they feel is not meeting their needs to a church they hope will be a better fit for them. Such transfers can occur for any number of reasons.
Is it wrong for a church to accept attendees or members from other churches? Or, to put the focus on churchgoers, is it wrong to leave one church to join another in the same town? The answer is complicated.
All Christians (“the sheep”) ultimately belong to Christ, the Great Shepherd. He taught that we are safe in His hands and that we cannot be “snatched” away (John 10:27–30). Even if we leave one Bible-believing church to attend another, there’s no ultimate “sheep stealing” taking place. We are not being stolen from Christ. We remain His sheep no matter which “pen” we find ourselves in.
With that said, if a local church actually attempts to lure Christians away from other Bible-believing churches with similar doctrine simply for the purpose of growing their own numbers, it would likely be roundly condemned by the Christian community, for good reason. That kind of sheep stealing is wrong and would seem to fall under the Bible’s warnings about causing divisions among Christians. It’s disputable how many churches are actually engaged in such direct sheep stealing. Most churches hope to attract the unchurched, both the unsaved and Christians who have fallen out of the practice of attending church.
Some of what is called sheep stealing may not be. Many legitimate reasons exist for a Christian to leave one Bible-believing church to attend another. Obviously, a move to another town may require finding another church family to join. It’s also possible that a person’s own convictions about specific doctrinal issues or methods of worship may change over time, requiring him to change churches and find a like-minded body of believers. Sometimes a member may feel the need to leave a church over the mishandling of discipline, scandals, or interpersonal problems. Those who change churches should be able to do so in good conscience.
Churches, too, can change in their convictions. Over time, denominations or local churches may change their teaching about who Christ is, their view of the Bible’s authority, or their stance on specific moral and social issues. If someone decides his church has stopped being a truly Christian church, he would be obligated to move himself and his family to a church still committed to preaching the Word of God and following biblical doctrine. If one church’s attraction is that it is holding forth the truth in contrast to another church’s abandonment of truth, it cannot be rightly accused of stealing sheep; it is simply feeding the flock.
In some cases, what might appear to be sheep stealing is actually church hopping. Immature Christians may grow discontent with a church over shallow issues. If the motivation to move to a new church is simply to find a younger demographic or more exciting music or a trendier congregation, then this flow of “sheep” from one pen to another is especially selfish. Instead of understanding church as a place where we serve (Romans 12:3–8) and encourage (Hebrews 10:25) each other, these “church hoppers” seem to be searching out churches that will best serve them or make them the most comfortable.
Some “sheep” allow themselves to be “stolen” away by whatever church becomes the next big thing in their town. Unfortunately, some “shepherds” actively seek to “steal” from the flocks of others rather than evangelize their community. Both situations are unhealthy and not conducive to sacrificial and Christlike service of others.