How to Reach a Lost Generation 1: Parable of the 60 Lost Sheep

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Everyone is asking about what we can do to reach the 20s & 30s somethings who are leaving Christianity. I want to share my thoughts on this in a series of posts. I don’t claim to have all the answers but I think there are some concrete things we can do that I would like to share.

First, a parable…Jesus taught us that when 1% of the sheep leave the shepherd that the need to reclaim that sheep is URGENT. Here is what Jesus said.

3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 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.” – Luke 15:3-7

The most optimistic estimate out there is that 60% of our young people will leave “the church” during their late teens-early twenties. How urgent is it when 60 of the 100 sheep leave? At least that is how we have traditionally seen the problem. Traditionally we have read this parable like this,

There is a shepherd (Jesus) who has 100 sheep in his pen (the church). When one leaves the pen, the church sheep stay in the pen while the shepherd goes out and retrieves that lost sheep, brings it back and then the rest of the sheep rejoice that the shepherd returned the erring sheep to the pen.

Understanding the problem:
That is not what Jesus said. The sheep that wondered away didn’t leave the pen. There wasn’t even a pen in the story! The problem is not that sheep are leaving the pen (that is how the church research people and even ourselves have framed the problem). The problem is when they leave the shepherd. Some sheep who leave the pen of the institutional church don’t believe they ever left the shepherd. While others believe if young people aren’t showing up on Sunday that we have lost them. It is important to remember that we aren’t winning them to a pen. We are winning them to the shepherd. People miss this. They don’t believe someone is reached until they attend the institutional church on Sunday. It is important that we frame the issue correctly and ask, “What are we really trying to win them to?” The other sheep? A pen? or the Shepherd? How we answer that question makes all the difference in the world. The next post will address that. Of course, I am not downplaying the importance or role of the church in all of this. However, it is important that we are asking the right questions and keeping first things first so that we don’t win them to the wrong thing.

0 Responses

  1. It might be considered that a pen could be used to keep the sheep away from the shepherd, lest they escape and follow his voice. But it is like you said, there was no pen in the original parable. I think you’ve discovered a good perspective.

  2. “Jesus taught us that when 1% of the sheep leave the shepherd that the need to reclaim that sheep is URGENT.”

    I understand you think you’re advocating truth, but do you feel a very strong compulsion to condition other people into believing it too?

    1. Larry, if you believe something to be true, it is right to feel a very strong compulsion to persuade others. In this case I am not sure what you are objecting to, because that seems to be a fair interpretation of the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15. If you think the he is mistaken, would you please demonstrate why? That’s also part of being sincere.

    2. Sometimes we’re the shepherd, going after lost sheep. Sometimes we’re the ninety-nine faithful who hang back. Sometimes we’re the lost sheep who has gone astray.

    3. OK, sometimes we are the shepherd, and sometimes the sheep. Are you agreeing with this or disagreeing with this? Would you please explain?

    4. I’m agreeing with you that spreading your message & your beliefs is a good thing. Sorry if I phrased my original question in a way which seemed to the contrary of that; I was merely asking a question and didn’t wish to provoke you in any way.

  3. Matt,
    I’ve often said that the otherwise great hymn is dead wrong in its first line: “There were ninety and nine who safely lay in the shelter of the fold….”

    The grace of Jesus shines through his leaving the 99 “in the open country.” That is, on one level, very reckless. But isn’t grace reckless at its core? What assurance is there that any will accept what Jesus gives so lavishly, even recklessly? As one preacher story says when the angels in heaven asked Him, “What if the 12 you have chosen fail in the mission? What is your plan then?” He replied, “There is no other plan!” Reckless! Jesus is reckless to the core.

    1. God is pretty smart, so I bet he could improvise. What if Moses didn’t want to speak to Pharaoh? I bet he would have brought in Aaron or something to help out then, right? Or what if one of his prophets didn’t want to go warn Nineveh and got on a boat to go the other way? What would God do then, eh? Pretty reckless? Maybe not so reckless when you’ve got a big budget and a great imagination. He might even raise up rocks to be children of Abraham.

  4. My husband, also a pastor, just finished reading You Lost Me, which talks about the max exodus of kids raised in church. You are right. We are not trying to get them into the pen but to help them have a relationship with the shepherd. Traditional church doesn’t seem to reach them. We left conventional ministry to try a market place coffee shop ministry. ( Our goal is to reach folks who would never set foot in church. The hardest realization is that we minister to folks who come and go and we may never become their sheepfold but we may introduce them to the shepherd.

    1. We have done this, because it has become our conviction that Jesus said “Go…” The only “stay” command he gave was to the disciples *until* they were empowered to go out and be the “EK-klasia.”

    2. This is quite a paradigm shift. We like to congregate more than we like to disseminate. Sounds like a great title for a post 🙂

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