The idea that those outside the Christian faith are ‘lost’ has, in the past, been of central importance in evangelical devotion. Around 10 million times a year, Christians sing John Newton’s autobiographical devotional hymn:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Newton was, of course, writing from his own experience, and seeing a sharp contrast between his previous, unreligious and irreligious former life, and what he now experienced. But this idea is more than merely experiential; it has been a central part of evangelical theology in the way that it understands the world. When I was leaving home for a gap year which included time in Israel (on a kibbutz), my youth leader gave me a copy of David Watson’s book God’s Freedom Fighters (later republished as Hidden Warfare) which set out his understanding of New Testament eschatology. In it, he explores how the NT talks of two ‘kingdoms’ or realms—the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God—and that becoming a Christian means passing from one realm, one way of life, to the other. This understanding lies behind the ‘conversionism’ which David Bebbington identifies as one of the four key hallmarks of what it means to be evangelical, along with activism, Biblicism and crucicentrism.
But one of the interesting things that appears to be happening (at least in the C of E) is that, as mission finds its way into public discourse more often, and apparently with less embarrassment, the language of conversion has largely been left behind. There has been a tacit but widespread rejection of using the language of ‘lost’ and ‘found’ as a way of characterising the boundary between faith and non-faith. Brian McLaren, the theologian of ’emerging church’, recently posted on his blog a letter from an appreciative reader. This person had been brought up with precisely the kind of ‘in/out’ understanding of reality that I outline above, and was grateful that he had been able to move beyond this, in part through reading McLaren’s books. He goes on:
I have three parishes with falling electoral rolls (I am in Norfolk UK, three rural parishes) and falling Sunday attendance though I work my socks off from Monday through Saturday and can easily become discouraged and sad. It seems that though people love to hear that God loves them, they do not want to worship him. Whereas my old Charismatic/ evangelical persona would have been preaching salvation is through the blood and the cross – Get Saved!!!! Mind you, I’m not sure that would fill my churches today either!
However, I pray that the seeds I am planting with this gentler and more inclusive understanding will one day produce a harvest for God’s Kingdom that we can see this side of heaven! In the meantime I think [my denomination] will expire and God will do a new thing.
It is hard to miss the sense of relief that this person has found by shedding the burden of past, possibly unrealistic, expectations. But it is also quite hard to miss an important link here: because God is at work outside the Church, and even outside articulated faith, then it is not part of loving, Christian ministry to offer the challenge to ‘get saved.’ And, lo and behold, without such a challenge, the churches this person leads are not growing—in fact, this person is fairly clear that his denomination (I am guessing the C of E?) will simply disappear. I confess to having felt a great sadness in reading this—and not just a sadness of this minister’s toil and discouragement.
I hear a similar rejection of the ‘lost/found’ distinction all the time in media coverage of Christian events. A while ago, the morning service was broadcast from Worcester College, Oxford chapel. And in the intercessions, we were led in prayers to the Spirit ‘who is at work in all the world and amongst all people of faith.’ In a radio broadcast, it always sounds so uncharitable to assume that God is present amongst those who profess Christ in a way which is not true of those who don’t—and besides, it is not very British! This instinct was captured rather well in a Tweet sent by a friend following it:
‘So people are basically lovely and kind, strangely misguided at times and occasionally rude but mostly nice’.
A recent article in the Independent was quite clear how the Church could find new life—by having fashion shows, beer festivals and art installations.
This type of vicar is more likely to appear on Gogglebox than encourage everyone to be baptised via total immersion; I am referring not to Alpha Group leaders here but C of E vicars who, alarmed by the current sogginess of things, want to spice them up a bit.
It’s not about challenging people regarding faith, but about having a bit of fun. (As it happens, I am not sure that either of the people described in the article would agree with that.) But at one level, she has a good point—it does seem to work. People are drawn more by honey than by vinegar.
Of course, there are many other reasons, besides politeness, for dispensing with the ‘lost/found’, ‘in/out’ paradigm for understanding the relation between the ‘church’ (the body of believers) and ‘the world.’ For one, it can lead to a serious detachment between church culture and the world around. In Poole, we set up an afternoon service once a month for older members of the congregation who liked a traditional service, and offered a sandwich tea afterwards to which they could invite their friends. After several months, still no-one new had come. When we asked them why, the reply was ‘All our friends are already here!’ This group had become totally self-enclosed socially. Having a ‘lost/found’ theology does not have to lead to this, but it often does—and I think it is why many evangelical churches have struggled to take seriously an agenda of social engagement.
There are other problems with it too. Such an outlook can lead to a very static understanding of discipleship: once you are in, that’s it. The most important thing has happened. All that is left is to enjoy the new place you are in, rather than having a sense that this is the first step on a journey. And the ‘in/out’ approach can often have a credibility problem. Are Christians that good? Are non-Christians that bad? Do they really look lost, especially when they have reasonable houses, nice cars, and 2.4 kids making their way happily through the education system? Besides which, who wants to be told they are ‘lost’ in need of being found, or are sinners who need to repent? It doesn’t make church look very attractive.
For those in Christian ministry, there is a final blow to this kind of thinking. Can I really live with the burden that, in a parish of 10,000 souls where, even in a ‘successful’ church, I might be fortunate to see a few hundred on a Sunday, the vast majority are ‘lost’? If I really believe that, how do I sleep at night, let alone take a day off, go on holiday, or have any kind of life outside ministry? I think it is this, more than any other, which Brian McLaren’s reader is reacting to. But to abandon this understanding then raises the exact opposite set of challenges. If people are not ‘lost’, do I really need to ‘find’ them? If life is not all that bad, why should I follow the costly path of obedience to Jesus, and the costly path of Christian ministry—and why would I invite them to?
I was really challenged about this by listening to our friend Kim. Kim had no Christian background of any sort, but approaching her fifties, divorced and with the children having left home, decided she ought to sort her life out. So she looked online for somewhere that offered an Alpha course, came to ours, and became a Christian. She came with us on a week at Lee Abbey in Devon one summer, and I asked her about her story, and what difference it had made coming to faith.
It’s really hard to put it in words—becoming a Christian has just changed everything in my life. The best way I can describe it is that it is like being a child who has got lost, separated from its parents in a supermarket—and now had suddenly been found. That sense of relief, and the end of worry.
There is nothing quite like talking to someone who has recently come to faith for showing up, in sharp relief, the difference faith makes! And it reminded me that the Jesus of the gospels had a very developed ‘theology of lostness.’ At the core of his preaching on the kingdom was a call to radical change, to ‘repent’, or (perhaps better translated) start living with a complete change of mind and outlook. He goes on, in the Sermon on the Mount, to talk about the narrow road that leads to life and the wide road that leads to destruction (Matt 7.13–14). And it is in Matthew that, six times, Jesus talks of a place of ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ (8.12, 13.42, 13.50, 22.13, 24.51, 25.30).
Perhaps the most focussed teaching by Jesus on lostness comes in Luke 15, with the parables of the shepherd searching for his one lost sheep, the woman for her lost coin, and the father awaiting his ‘prodigal’ son. Jesus’ clarity about the ‘lostness’ of the lost puts a number of things in focus. The Red Letter Christian movement wants us to take notice of Jesus’ radical teaching on ethics—but to focus on Jesus’ words also highlights the lostness of the lost and the urgency of responding in what looks like a very ‘in/out’ view of life. And current discussion of Jesus’ ‘inclusiveness’ also gets a corrective. Jesus was really clear that the tax collectors, prostitutes and all manner of ‘sinners’ really were lost, heading for destruction and (as yet) outside God’s kingdom, which is precisely why he spent time with them. ‘The Son of Man has come to seek and save that which was lost’ (Luke 19.10); Jesus did not come to approve of such people or their lifestyle, but to include them in the dynamic of God’s transforming love. The ‘lost/found’ dichotomy appears to be a fundamental category of thinking and motivation for Jesus, and he appears to expect it will be for his disciples too.
Continuing through the NT, it appears that Paul, too, had a developed theology of the lost similar to that of Jesus. ‘Such you were, but you have been washed, you have been sanctified…’ (1 Cor 6.11). Before coming to faith, we were ‘dead in [y]our sins’ (Eph 2.1) until we made that remarkable transition to being made alive in Christ. ‘All have sinned…’ (Rom 3.23) and are enemies with God until reconciliation takes place (2 Cor 5.19). Put this way, it all sounds rather obvious and unavoidable. How can we read a page of the NT without seeing this ‘lost/found’ divide? But it means that mission is not simply about going out and ‘seeing what God is already doing and joining in’ as is so often said at the moment. If our mission follows that pattern (and motivation) of Jesus and Paul, then it must be much more about ‘going everywhere Jesus wanted to go’ (Luke 10.1) into places where people do not yet know God.
This leaves me with a challenge: can we (can I?) recover a theology of lostness that is motivating, realistic, credible and sustainable? Answers on a postcard, please…
(First published in September 2014)
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