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.


Anonymous said...

I think maybe the way I'm reading this and interpreting it is that there is more of a word confusion that a mission confusion. When the bible talks about seeking out the lost, I can understand and see what you are saying about those that were once with God but for whatever reason are "lost"... however because of the "Great Commission" I can't think that Jesus was not emphasizing new converts as well (sidenote: although I think your methods of loving and having real relationships are absolutely the way to go. But what if you go through that whole relationship and never tell them what you believe and that you feel they need to know about the love of Christ. Is that a real love then if you are hiding that part of yourself from them?)

Scriptures on the Great Commission

Matthew 28:
18Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Mark 16:
15He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. 16Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

What I am reading here is that Jesus is saying to go out and preach to ALL... and he is specific about who will and will not be condemned.

Anonymous said...

Also, in Luke 15, the parable of the Lost Sheep was told in reference/context of the Pharisees/teachers criticizing Jesus for eating with the sinners and tax collectors. And then he says "I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent."

So here, going with your meaning of who a lost person is I can see it that way, but because of the context of speaking of sinners and those who are unrighteous, can't He also be saying that the other 99 sheep are Christians and the one that is lost is one who never found its way in the first place?

And doesn't a lost person (one who already knew the gospel) understand what he/she needs to do? You can of course love them and talk to them about spiritual issues, but i have a few friends who are in this position and i find continuing to "Pursue" them with the gospel message further pushes us away. They know where i stand and i know where they stand and if they want to talk about it they can... but there is even less pushing i think that can go on in that situation.

so there is my very long comment.

Jason said...

Thanks, Rachel (puremotif).

I will reserve too much comment on the Great Commission for another day, because I think it would be worth a full post and I need to think about it a lot more. For now, I'll say that I think we typically combine "seek the lost" with "go make disciples" in assuming they both refer to people who don't know God, and I'm not sure that's the correct way of understanding either of those things.

But in responding more to your second comment, I think we might disagree about what happens once we find the lost that we seek. I don't think that "pursuing them with the gospel message" needs to mean anything more than being there for them as a loving friend, not giving up on them when they hurt you, and being willing to talk about anything when they need to. Even that is usually too much good news for one person to handle.

So yeah, I do think that the groups I talk about in this post will overlap sometimes. But what I maybe didn't make quite clear enough is that our response to both can be about showing them how we will love them. I'm not surprised that some people will feel pushed away by continual presentation of the gospel message if that includes unwelcome advice on how to live, unwelcome invitations to church events, or unwelcome questions about their religious walk or spiritual life. I think we feel like we should do all those things.

I think we feel that way because of something else you said -- "is that a real love then if you are hiding that part of yourself from them?" I'll say pretty emphatically that I don't think we should hide anything. I have friends who I have known for years now who are not Christians, but who know I am. And I think they feel like they could talk to me about it, too, precisely because they know it won't turn into a bigger conversation that hinges on whether or not they agree to come to church with me, etc. They know I'll just be honest, and let them be honest, without strings or agendas. That's how I think we can best love sinners, the lost, ... maybe I just mean everyone.

So there is my very long response.

Chris and Laura Gruner said...

Hi Jason,

So, I just happened upon your blog and had to add a comment.

Your blog is very thought provoking (I had a big long comment written and then decided that I need to really think more to truly articulate what's in my mind).

But... very thought provoking, and that's a good thing.

My thoughts bascially boil down to the second greatest commandment... and lost or not, to love sincerely, consistently, and sacraficially... which is very hard and goes farther than many of my present actions.

Jason said...

Laura -- I think that's it exactly.