“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them,does not leave the ninety-nine inthe wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?…Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them does not light a lam, sweep the house, and search carefully unti she finds it?” (Luke 15:4, 8)
A few years ago, in the context of doing a large study of clergy roles, identities, and relationhips in the Diocese of Derby (Church of England)
, I had cause to spend some time with the diocesan leaders of Youth With A Mission (YWAM). The phrase that kept coming up in the conversation was ‘a heart for the lost’.
“Lost” is an interesting word for the church to be using. I am never sure who the “lost” are. Are they the most destitute and forgotten of society (to whom I think the church does have a legitimate ministry, and needs to get a move on)? Or are they the people the church is unable to convert?
Or–more likely, in terms of the parable above–are the “lost” those who were once in the church, but have discerned that the door through which they once entered could also be the door through which they might exit?
I had an interesting conversation with a diocese recently, about a key staff position in mission and ministry (the most interesting thing was that, in the context of a preliminary job interview, they managed not to talk about the job, and that for a church institution, they made no mention of this thing called God). What I discerned, from reading their strategic plan, looking at their website, and listening carefully in the conversation, they were worried about the loss of people attending church, and what that meant for the future of the diocese in terms of money. They don’t have enough money to continue operating the number of churches they have, but they also realize that closing churches (a major part of their plan, which, because it is published on their website, I have no qualms talking about) will restrict the amount of money coming in.
This treats leavers as lost coins. All that they see is revenue flowing out the door. We rejoice when they are “found” because it makes us monetarily richer.
But is it any better to treat people as lost sheep? In the time and place in which Jesus lived, a sheep wasn’t a family pet (well, except for the poor man in 2 Samuel 12, who brought up his ewe lamb like a daughter, and the sheep would ‘lie in his bosom’–by modern standards, this is probably a bad thing for both the sheep and the daughter. But that is another discssion for another time).
A sheep was an economic commodity. It was carefully tended, not as something for the children to play with, and to have a long and happy life in the family home. It was looked after so that it could be fleeced, milked, and eventually slaughtered and devoured. An incredibly unbalanced relationship, in which the sheep definitely did not get the better side of things.
Perhaps it is better not to talk about persons who do not come to church as lost economic units–and does nobody else find it offensive that the sheep is referred to as an “it”?
Could we maybe talk to them, as…people?