January 29, 2008

To Seek The Lost

As a churchgoer, I'm often instructed and encouraged to seek the lost and win them for Christ. I've always imagined that the first step would be to understand who or what "the lost" are, and to find out if what I think I know about the word matches up with how the Bible uses and describes it. If not, it would be helpful to examine the difference. I decided to try that.1

If you search for "win the lost" on Google you'll find a list of sites telling you that "Winning the lost should be a special concern for every true Christian." The lost, we're taught, are those who haven't devoted their life to Christ, and who are therefore in danger of eternal separation from God should they die without accepting his Grace. I was interested to know if this understanding was consistent with Scripture's use of the word or if any of the references to "the lost" painted this picture of them. I found four main kinds of references to the lost.

The OT Prophet references (
Jeremiah 50, Ezekiel 34, and Zechariah 11) all use "the lost" to refer to sheep. It's being used as a metaphor, not for pagans and heathens, but rather for the lost sheep of Israel who are God's children who have lost their way.

The Lost Sheep of Israel references found in Matthew (Matthew 10, Matthew 15) are a continuation of the Old Testament references. Matthew 10 quotes Jesus as saying,
"Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel." Don't go to the people who don't know God, go to the ones who know him but have forgotten him. The lost.

The Parable references of the gospels (Matthew 18, Luke 15) are about lost sheep and lost coins and lost sons. In each, the animal or object or son belongs to the God-figure, and then is lost. God is shown as the one who would go after his lost items until he finds them. God doesn't go and try to recruit another 100 sheep -- he's only worried about finding the one that got away.

The final and perhaps most well-known "lost" reference is found in Luke 19:10, where Jesus is explaining to a crowd that "the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." This is after Jesus has found Zaccheus up in the tree, and asks him to come down and have dinner with him. Jesus's explanation is telling, when he said, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham." Zaccheus was "lost" because he was a Jew who had lost his way.

So when the Bible uses "the lost", it describes them as being those who know God but have somehow lost their way.2 Which is a different group than those who don't know God at all, the Gentiles and the Samaritans. If we seek the lost among those who don't know God, we won't find them, according to the Scriptures. So maybe these aren't the people we're meant to seek (in this way), which isn't saying we should ignore them entirely.

Jesus spent a lot of time with the Gentiles and Samaritans, the sinners, prostitutes, Romans, and other outcasts. He was often seen eating and drinking with them in their homes at the risk of great scandal among other religious leaders. If we follow his example, we're meant to go out to them where they are and spend time with them in their homes and in their neighborhoods. And his example didn't include tracts or evangelism strategies, either, unless you consider relaxing on their couch an evangelism strategy. It seems like we're not supposed to seek them and win them as much as we're meant to go to them and love them and just be with them.

If that's true, then there must be another group of people who are considered "those who have lost their way". And while I'm fairly certain there are a lot of people who fit that description, I believe one of the biggest groups are the Christians who have become disenchanted with the church as a whole. This group has been growing a lot over the last fifteen years. And when Jesus talked about these people, he urged us to seek them out, find them, and bring them home.

So maybe our focus has been somewhat misdirected. People have been encouraging me to seek the lost when they meant "Make new Christian converts", while we've all remained convinced that all "real Christians" already go to church. And so we spend our time thinking up ways to convince people that God loves them when what they need to hear about is how we love them.

In fact, maybe that explains both sides of our confusion. Those that don't know God aren't lost. They don't need to be sought and found and brought home. If they don't believe in God or don't like God, they won't care that God loves them. But they'll be interested that we love them. Suspicious, at first, that our agenda is the same as it's always been, and they'll wait for us to bring up our walk with God or some event that's happening at our church this weekend. But the more time we spend with them in their homes, in their neighborhoods, at restaurants and in bars and at clubs and festivals, at the farmer's market or in the schools, the less suspicious and more confused they'll become. Everybody likes to be genuinely loved.

And then there are those who know God but have left the family found in the church. They do feel lost, and probably sad that they've been disconnected from some of the things they really loved about church. We can seek these brothers and sisters, and we can bend over backwards to invite them back. But it might take flexibility, and creativity, and a willingness to change. They know God loves them, but they wonder if we love them as much as we love our doctrines and our firmly-held beliefs. And they wonder if we'll really leave the ninety-nine just to search for the one who's gone away.

I want to be part of a church who loves sinners and seeks the lost.

1A word search through the Biblical text returns a relatively short list of 48 uses of the word "lost" in the NIV translation (26 OT/22 NT), most of which are the past tense of "to lose" and refer to losing one's foothold, appetite, courage, etc. New Testament uses where "lost" refers to a person or group of people are typically in the form of "the lost sheep of Israel" or parables about sheep, coins, and sons.

2I felt like it would be wrong for me not to admit that I understand that other people probably read the same verses I've outlined and come to a different conclusion about how the Bible presents the idea of "the lost". Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments and we can talk more about it -- I felt like it would disrupt the flow of the post to get too into it in the middle of the text.

January 24, 2008

A Story About Absoluticity

Some friends over at Merging Lanes posted a link to Albert Mohler's blog, where he talks about the dangers of postmodernism for the church. One of the comments on Merging Lanes said this:

But if you can’t say the Trinity is true across all time, humanity, comprehension, etc. then what good is it? Aren’t we to be pitied above all men if it’s only true to us(that would seem to imply that it doesn’t really exist, if it can’t be equally true to any person)? If the Gospel is not an absolute truth, then it seems to rob it of all of its divine power beyond the Thomas Jefferson-manual-of-living-a-good-life stuff.

I like to think of this conversation about absolutes in the context of a metaphorical story about two guys looking up at God, describing him. We'll call them Larry and Todd.

Larry: I can see God, and he's definitely a square.

Todd: Oh yes, I see God too and he is most definitely a square.

Larry: A square with a circle inside it.

Todd: Yes! A red square with a circle inside it.

Larry: It's true, a red square with a blue circle inside it.

Todd: Whoa, um... you mean a red square with a yellow circle in it, right?

Larry: No, it's definitely a blue circle, right there, inside the red square.

Todd: Well I see the square, and the circle, but the circle is colored yellow. Look, it's yellow just like the sun, or a dandelion, you know... yellow?

Larry: I know what yellow is, but the circle is blue, like the ocean or the sky. I can see it right there.

Todd: Well, I hate to break it to you, but you're wrong. Perhaps you should listen to these collected recordings of some famous modern apologists who argue why the circle is yellow, and how it can be proven using logic and reason.

Larry: Hmm... well, maybe it's both?

Todd: WHAT? Oh no, are you some kind of relativist?

Larry: Well no, I mean I think there's an absolute truth about the color of the circle, but maybe the circle I'm looking at is blue while the circle you're looking at is yellow?

Todd: Ohhhh, so there's no circle at all. It's just whatever color we want it to be, to us, and that's the "truth". I get it. Everything is true.

Larry: No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that maybe... maybe there's a 3rd dimension that we don't understand, and what we're seeing is a "cube" that actually has 6 different sides with 6 differently colored circles? And how God chooses to reveal himself to me is with the blue-circle side but to you he's the yellow-circle side?

Todd: A "3rd dimension"? A "cube"? What are you on about? Here, take these tapes, read these books, and you'll begin to understand that there IS absolute truth and it involves a yellow circle...

...and so on.

For a much better version with the same moral, see John Godfrey Saxe's Blind Men and the Elephant.


January 22, 2008

Sarah Vowell the Preacher

Read this op-ed article by Sarah Vowell.

And if you don't want to, at least read this quote from it:

Here’s what Dr. King got out of the Sermon on the Mount. On Nov. 17, 1957, in Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he concluded the learned discourse that came to be known as the “loving your enemies” sermon this way: “So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you: ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’ ”

Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

I can't tell you exactly why, but her whole op-ed struck me as well-written, well-said, and actually supportive of Christianity in what it's really meant to be. It gives me hope that people like Vowell can see that still.

January 3, 2008

A Smart Dinosaur

A friend of mine sent me a link to an online cartoon that pretty much summarizes my earlier post here. I'll paste it in below, if it fits. I hope you all had a great holiday.