Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Disposable Sheep and the Church Brand

These days, I think often about Luke 15:14 and Matthew 18:12.

If I am remembering the setting correctly, Jesus is having a meal at the home of a Pharisee. Luke tells us that the tax collectors and sinners drew near as Jesus offered parables to teach about God's grace and mercy...God's heart of redemption for the lost.

When I look closely at the ways Luke and Matthew describe the lost sheep in this parable, I notice a subtle distinction.  Luke describes the missing sheep only as lost. Matthew describes a sheep that has wandered astray. 

In other words, it doesn't matter whether we're talking about a sheep who has haphazardly, or even willingly gone astray. Lost is lost, and it's the shepherd's duty to take the risks and attempt the rescue.  

David, once the young shepherd of his father's fold, told King Saul about fighting off wild animals to protect, defend, and rescue the sheep. David talks about beasts that tried to snatch the sheep from his fold, and we might do well to understand David's anecdote as more than just a report, but also a metaphor that reminds us of the warning in 1 Peter 5:8

It may well be incumbent upon the sheep to beware and resist the lion, but in the end it is the shepherd's responsibility to ensure their safety in the fold.

Unblemished sheep...those without illness, weakness, or defect...were required for Old Testament sacrifices. Sick or wounded sheep were probably more of a burden than a value to the shepherd. 

Yet regardless of whether a sheep wandered off foolishly, or came to be lost as a consequence of weakness, the shepherd's duty was likely the same...restoration to the fold...at least that's what the illustration that immediately follows the Parable of the Lost Sheep sets out to teach us.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son makes it clear that the reasons for becoming "lost" are irrelevant. The lost are longed for in their absence and treasured in their restoration. No doubt that prodigal's father was ever in prayer, and ever watching the horizon for his boy to return. And that father was well-prepared to welcome his son with emotion, joy, celebration, and honor. 

What interests me in these two parables is their representation of God as savior and God as Father. 

The Good Shepherd goes after his lost sheep and carries them back to the fold on his own neck. He risks much...including his own life. 

God our Father loves us lavishly. It is His delight to do so. He waits with hope and is prepared to make much of our return. 

What troubles me is how often these verses are preached by pastors and valued by elders, who want us to understand God's sacrifice and love. But how often do we see such sacrifice and love exerted for people who fall from our church folds...or even from our Christian lives? Presumably the parables are more than metaphors for God and His people. We should also read these texts as models of human responsibility and care for God's people.

It's pretty sad that we don't usually act on what we read. 

A lost sheep is lost for a reason. A sheep well, or wise, or strong, or able enough to stay with the fold wouldn't need anyone to pursue it. And not all lost sheep are initially happy to be rescued. They may initially be fearful and uncooperative. They may be prone to wander again and again. 

Maybe I'm too much of an idealist or something, but I don't think the disposition of the sheep necessarily changes the shepherd's job description.

Last I checked pastoring and discipling aren't laid out in the scriptures as well-paying gigs with nice offices, good vacations, study times, free meals, and frequent flyer miles. 

Shepherding and fathering/discipling are two very difficult careers where the demands are high and a fruitful yield may be a long time coming. 

Souls not sales. 

If you come to the work saying it's your calling but working like it's a job at Corporate...I dunno...  

When I look around, talk to others, and reflect upon my own experiences as a sheep in the fold, I see a sorrowful trend toward disposable sheep. During my times of being wounded and lost at church, the number of pastorally-initiated calls I received to ensure my care and my restoration to the fold was precisely...ZERO.

No pastor called to ask what I needed, how they could pray for me, or offer me a clear path of restoration. No pastor sought me out, risked anything for me, or carried me to safety around their neck. No lions or bears were fought for me. 

No pastor watched the horizon for my return, or made me feel valuable when I tried to find my way back.

In fact, it seemed clear enough to me that I was not a priority, and not worth much to the fold in my wounded condition. 


Pastors are busy preparing the next sermon series, planning the next community initiative, and purchasing the next plot of land for a new church plant. There's not a lot of time for lost sheep...if the pastor even notices anyone is lost. 

The pastor assigned to care ministries is busy with weddings, funerals, and hospital visits. Lost sheep are sometimes passed off to an elder. Elders are concerned with church business and church doctrine. Lost sheep in need of shepherding and care are passed off to counseling centers or lay leaders...maybe. Progress reports may be given...or not. 


Is that the same thing as shepherding and fathering/discipling? Scratching my head on that one.

The contemporary church seems far more about branding sometimes than about shepherding and familying when the sheep have wounds requiring long-suffering for indefinite periods of time. 

Sad reality...

The contemporary church is ill-equipped to adopt special needs sheep/family members who may not, or cannot, best represent the marketing initiatives of the church brand

My take...

Sheep hear about the brand and wander into the fold, and church leaders endeavor to care for them through outreach, teaching, discipleship, and replication...ideally in an efficient, linear progression. Sounds like an interesting concept, but kinda...I dunno...more like an institutional program and less like the rough, earthy, dangerous, and dirty work of shepherding. 

Somewhere along the way church leaders lose focus...probably because they take on more than they can support as if each person were a treasured family member worthy of the shepherd's/father's personal attention. 



  1. Preach it, sister. Mary and I have been there, done that in a previous church.

    ~Steve Millikan, who can't sign in because he's too old to figure it out.

    1. Thanks, Steve. On my end, I see the "sign in" on the top right of the page. Not sure what it looks like for visitors. Blessings just the same, and thanks for following my posts.