Worship and the Lost

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Luke 15:1-71

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

One of the biggest controversies in worship that has been debated in the last few decades has been around the concept of “seeker-sensitive” worship. The term alone sets off bells and whistles in the minds of most church leaders today, although, to be fair, the heat of that conflict has gone a bit underground in the last decade.

The original conflict grew out of the disconnect between tent meeting revivals that attracted people and brought about changed lives, but sometimes could not transfer the same spirit and passion into the regular Sunday mornings of local churches. But it was not just the folks outside of church that were drawn to these. Regular church folk are drawn to the food, fellowship, and musical performances – the entertainment value of these services as well. So are the performers. These services are often set up with names attached to draw people in. Sure you can advertise that your church is going to do a revival and that you expect God to be present and working there… but if you really want to draw a crowd, bring in a popular music group and get a well-known speaker, and everyone will come out to the show.

These kind of revivals are about coming to get something, not coming to give something. Generally, the only people who prefer normal Sunday services over those special worship events are the clean up crew, who pick up the mess left by everyone who came for their religious experience and then went back to live their life again. There are exceptions to this of course. I’ve participated in several revival services that incorporated a day or at least part of a day of community service where people came to give instead of just receive – but these are typically not perceived as “seeker-sensitive”.

It’s not just seekers that push us to ask less of church people, it is everyone. It is easier to be encouraged than challenged. It is easier to be the encourager than to be the challenger – especially if you are challenging in ways that involve supporting them with follow up and help after the service ends. In the last decade, as church attendance in many non-seeker-sensitive churches has dropped, it seems that the practical arguments to the debate have ended and we are now looking at being seeker-sensitive or closing our doors for good. The original arguments against entertainment based services and simplified gospel teaching are still there. Mature Christians still think that watered down gospel will not bring people to God or to the Church, and they may not be wrong… but the number of people outside the church, the seekers themselves, are far greater than those mature Christians inside the church. So many have taken those arguments underground for the sake of attendance, financial obligation, and just keeping the doors open.

Jesus taught that the good shepherd leaves the 99 safe sheep and goes after the one that is lost. It is this kind of philosophy of letting mature Christians fend for themselves while a church focuses its effort on the lost that some have used to justify “seeker-sensitive” worship. The problem arises from how we identify the parties in this analogy.

         For Seeker Advocates  
         - Seekers (non-believers) are the lost sheep  
         - Believers are the 99 "found" sheep  
         - The Shepherd is the Church worship leaders/organizers  

Here is my struggle with this perspective: It is too impersonal. Jesus emphasis is on the importance of the individual here. The lost are not 20 or 30 some people, it is a single sheep. The Shepherd is not a nameless/faceless leadership, it is one leader. The only corporate group is the 99, and even they are counted individually. He did not just say “the rest of the sheep”. Every individual counts.

I think a more literal and accurate application of this parable to worship would be to simply postpone worship until everyone had been personally invited. We won’t start church until we knock on every door in our neighborhood and make sure everyone is 1.) safe and 2.) personally invited to come to worship Jesus with us. I’m not talking about hanging posters or dropping fliers in mailboxes. The good shepherd did not just go post lost sheep posters around the towns. I mean person to person checking in and inviting. We would would hold off the service even starting until we had done that if we truly believed that their needs for God were even equal to our own, let alone more important, as Jesus teaches in this parable.

That would be kinda crazy and impractical, depending on your community, and it certainly would overturn the tables of expectations and leadership in most congregations. It is a practical exaggeration, just as the parable itself is. Yet it is the absurdity of it on a practical level that brings to light the true point Jesus is trying to make. In the absurdity of leaving 99 for 1, I believe, lies our true relationship and purpose with the lost sheep of our neighborhoods. The question is not about what we do with them once they come to church (although those details are certainly important). The question we have not been asking for some 30 years, that we need to be asking is: How are we reaching the lost sheep of our communities before they come to church?

Ezekiel 34:1-10

Israel’s False Shepherds

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

We, the Church, (meaning all those who have chosen to follow Jesus, making disciples in His name) are called to be good shepherds, but we have turned down the task. It has become to hard for us to try to bring salvation to people and then bring them to church. It is more convenient to my time to let the church building, the church programs, the church staff,… maybe even just God Himself go after those lost sheep. Yes, Jesus, I know You gave me the commission, the command to go out into all the world, look for Your lost sheep, and take the salvation I received from You and share it with them. But if I’m honest, sometimes I just don’t want to. I would rather just keep You to myself.

How does your own personal worship affect the lost in your community?

Who are the lost sheep that God has brought to your attention?


  1. (Mt 18:10–14)

The Art and Science of God – Cracks in the Foundation

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The Art and Science of God

Cracks in the Foundation

Isaiah 25:1-5

Praise for Deliverance from Oppression

O Lord, you are my God;

I will exalt you, I will praise your name;

for you have done wonderful things,

plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

For you have made the city a heap,

the fortified city a ruin;

the palace of aliens is a city no more,

it will never be rebuilt.

Therefore strong peoples will glorify you;

cities of ruthless nations will fear you.

For you have been a refuge to the poor,

a refuge to the needy in their distress,

a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.

When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,

the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,

you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds;

the song of the ruthless was stilled.

Probably the biggest criticism of Christian Theology is the problem of evil and suffering in the world. It is the “catch-22”) of humanity. We want to have freedom of choice and we want to have God be in charge of everything… except ourselves. We want God to control our neighbors but leave us alone. We want to have our cake and eat it too… and can you really blame us?

That’s our perspective. God however, has long been in the business of cleaning house. Sometimes our own dirt gets in the way and we get cleaned up ourselves. It is often a painful ordeal. Especially when we fight Him over it. It is not always easy to tell whether it is God cleaning us up or suffering coming down upon us from some other source. Saul – who would later be renamed Paul, the Apostle, had a famous conversation with a Jewish leader shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Saul spoke with Gamalial while he tried to figure out what to do about the growing number of disciples following Jesus, who was supposed to be dead. Gamalial cautioned him and the other Jewish leaders:

“Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

Sometimes, instead of humanity trying to bend God to our will, we submit, surrender, and put God in charge. Yes, it doesn’t seem to happen often enough, but it does indeed happen. Most of the time, it takes very little human effort to encourage us to make those decisions, and more self-reflection upon the path we are headed down.

Jonah, for example, finally did go to Ninevah, and preached probably the shortest sermon in the history of the world. There was no worship band. There was absolutely nothing entertaining about it. He may have still smelled of fish guts out in the marketplace. Worst of all – he gave no instructions on what the people should do to get their lives right! He literally just told them their life was over and left them to deal with it all on their own. (This is one of the worst examples of preaching I have ever come across.)

However, in spite of this pitiful effort (or lack thereof) from Jonah, one of the world’s greatest revivals broke out here. The entire nation repented, fasted, and prayed. They even made their livestock fast. Can you imagine the backlash that would occur if our own country – supposedly founded upon Christian principles were forced to fast and pray to God. Even our own Christians would throw a fit. Americans don’t fast. But the pagan Ninevites did, and God won them over with the worst example of preaching and pastoral guidance.

Jonah 3

Conversion of Nineveh

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. “

Mark Batterson has a really good concept of this surrender and submission to God’s will. I have not read his books, but I have heard him speak about his idea of circle making. The short of it is that we draw a circle and pray for God to bring revival (think surrender and submission to God’s will) within that circle. More importantly, we do not start by drawing a circle around our neighbor’s house. We draw the circle around ourselves. Revival begins with ourselves.

Jonah didn’t get this. But Saul/Paul would. Peter would. John would. The wonder of this all is that even when people do not get it, and refuse to let God come and change their lives, God still works in, around, and sometimes through them to bring salvation to those all around them.

God is using us all as examples. That is His business and His way of keeping His all-powerful hand at the helm of creation. We have the freedom to choose whether we will be good examples or bad examples. I can’t help but think that when the people of Ninevah saw Jonah puked up out of a giant fish upon their shores, they gave a second thought to whether they should ignore the threat of destruction from a God who was not afraid to treat even His own prophets with such creative severity. If Jonah, who was one of God’s people, faced that kind of gross discipline from God, what hope would a nation of God’s enemies had. I think even Jonah’s disobedience added to the effect of God’s message to Ninevah. The cracks in the foundation of God’s power to work in this world only continue to show us that the world will not hold together without Him holding us together Himself.

If God brought revival into your life, even in a small circle around you today, what would you have to submit to and surrender to Him?