“Know well the condition of your flock, and pay attention to your herds,”
– Proverbs 27:23 CSB
This proverb is basic to the work of a pastor and shepherd. Jesus called himself the “Good Shepherd” who knows his sheep by name and whose sheep know His voice (John 10). Jesus described the good shepherd as the one who lays down his life for the sheep, as the one who leaves the ninety and nine to go and search for the one lost sheep (Matthew 18:10-14, Luke 15:1-7). A good shepherd will know the health of the sheep and the conditions in the fields under his care. So, what is the state of our churches and the conditions in our mission field?
Let’s start with what is going well. We have much Gospel work to celebrate in our region. Churches are Christ-centered, Gospel-focused, and biblically faithful. People are coming to faith in Christ, and we see baptisms. Many churches are engaged in community ministry. New churches are starting throughout the region—six this year with CBA as a partner! As a whole, our congregations grew about one-percent. These are things to celebrate!
While we have much to celebrate, we also have much that should concern us. Our county population increases by 80 people a day (Dallas Morning News, 17 Jun 2018), four percent a year. If a church is not matching the population growth rate, then the fact is that the church is in decline. By this measure, unfortunately, the church is in decline in Collin County.
Not only are we not matching population growth, but church involvement in the county has dropped by 10.4% from 2012 to 2017 (Mission Insite Quadrennium Survey 2012 to 2017 Comparision). Shifts in beliefs about Jesus in our county reflect the drop in involvement. For example, nine percent more people say Jesus was a good man, and no more, 13% fewer people believe Jesus rose from the dead, and 12.5% fewer people believe Jesus is the only path to salvation. All the religious belief survey questions show a trend away from orthodox Christianity.
All of this data points to an incredible need for Gospel witness in our region. Many people are lost; many people have wandered away from Jesus. As I process the data the story of the lost sheep comes to mind:
10 “See to it that you don’t despise one of these little ones, because I tell you that in heaven their angels continually view the face of my Father in heaven. 12 What do you think? If someone has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, won’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillside and go and search for the stray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over that sheep more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. 14 In the same way, it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones perish. Matthew 18:10–14 (CSB)
Here are a few observations from this passage that seem applicable to our Gospel situation:
The failure to engage in the work of the Gospel is a despicable act in God’s eyes. (vs. 10)
God and all his angels are watching to see if we will engage in going to the lost. (vs. 10)
We must start leaving the many already gathered to get the many that are in danger—this is counterintuitive to most modern church practice. The church must go into the community because the community is moving away from the church. (vs. 12)
We must celebrate what God celebrates. Church metrics of success must shift to celebrate activities that search for the strays. (vs. 13)
God’s will and priority is for none to perish—that must be our priority and our act of obedience.
This story of the lost sheep in Matthew is nestled in between Jesus teaching about who is the greatest in the kingdom (a humble, obedient child), the restoration of a believer who lives a sinful lifestyle, and the story of the person who was forgiven much, but then would not offer forgiveness to one who owed him little in comparison.
The context of this story speaks volumes to the will it takes to make the change from a predominantly “come to the church” method of mission to a “let’s go get the one” method of mission. The articles in this edition of The Encourager Magazine speak to the kind of shifts our churches are making.
Our Annual Gathering, literally a steer roping event with a Gospel presentation to lost sheep (the human kind), is another visual example of how churches shift their methods without changing the Gospel message. What do you think? Who would leave the 99 to go get the one? Jesus did. Any good shepherd will. God gave me an enduring image of the shepherd’s work when I was just a boy, long before I knew He called me to this work.
My grandfather was a small rancher in southern Oklahoma. I was a city kid, but my dad sent me to the ranch every summer for a few weeks so I wouldn’t lose touch with our roots. Some of my earliest memories are riding in Papa’s pickup “counting cows.” We would drive through the pastures in his old, battered Cheyenne Silverado tallying the cows. My job was to make hash marks in “the book.” I loved putting the diagonal slash for the fifth cow across the four straight marks.
One hot, ground-cracking, July day we were bouncing through the south pasture. Papa’s face clouded up, and he said, “Vincey, I don’t see that brindle cow.” Papa knew each and every cow. To me, they all looked the same. I didn’t know a brindle cow from any other cow, but he knew each and every one of them. Papa continued, “She should be calving any day now. Let’s go find her.”
We climbed out of the truck and started walking through the Johnson grass. I was always afraid of stepping on a snake, so I kept my eyes down and didn’t see the cow as soon as my grandad. Papa shouted, “There she is!” as he pointed down into the ravine. The cow was down, and a new calf was down beside her. We slid down the hill beside the cow. It was too late for her, but the calf was still breathing. The smell of death and excrement filled the air. I had to run away and dry heave.
Grandad, in his mid sixties, reached down into the filth and excrement and heaved the calf over his shoulders. Looking like a superhero to me, he climbed the side of the ravine and laid the calf in the bed of the truck. He had me get in the back and hold the calf’s head in my lap. It was puking all over me. I learned blue jeans and boots were designed with a purpose in mind, not simply to look good.
We took the calf to the barn, and my grandad went to work saving his life…and save his life he did. He was oblivious to the smell and the stuff all over his clothes and mine. His single-minded purpose was to save the calf’s life. This image clearly describes the work to which God entrusts us. It is dirty, smelly, and life-saving.
It is God’s will. Heaven is watching. Let none perish. Let us live for the day when every girl, boy, woman, and man within our reach experiences a living witness.