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?
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?
- (Mt 18:10–14) ↩