‘’Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)
The following is a Church of Ireland press release issued by Dublin Diocese last week:
In November, the Church of Ireland will be undertaking a ‘census’ of the worshiping Church of Ireland population for the first time in many years.
On three Sundays in November (3 November, 17 November and 24 November) clergy and parish officials will be attempting to ascertain the age profile and gender profile of those attending services in Church of Ireland Churches throughout Ireland. Worshippers on those Sundays will receive a card on which they will be asked to indicate their gender and age. The card will be completely anonymous.
The objective of the census is to provide information on the worshiping Church of Ireland population and to enable parishes, dioceses and the Church at an island–wide level to make decisions for the future based on an up to date analysis of the Church of Ireland’s population.
It is anticipated that the 2013 census will be repeated every three years in order to enable the Church to examine trends in worship attendance and ministry throughout Ireland.
There is no doubt that the results of this survey will be interesting and informative and may well be useful for strategic planning into the future but in the light of today’s Gospel perhaps it should come with a health warning which might be worded as follows:
‘This survey will present an incomplete picture of the ministry of the Church and should be treated with caution’
Why say that? Well let’s hear that verse from today’s Gospel again:
‘’Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
Jesus couldn’t have made this any clearer – Parables can sometimes be a little obscure but not this one! Our concern should not be primarily for the people who are at the centre of the community of faith, not for the gathered but for the lost and the marginalized. If we are in any doubt as to the meaning Jesus intended us to take from this parable then we only have to look at the one that immediately follows it, the Parable of the Lost Coin which hammers home the very same point – Its not about what we have but rather what we have lost! This was obviously a teaching Jesus wanted us to understand clearly and so he tells us twice.
The proposed church attendance survey may have some limited use but it is essentially an exercise in counting sheep and we all know what happens when you count sheep – yes you go to sleep! There is a very real danger that that will be the fate of the Church of Ireland as well if it just counts bums on pews as an accurate and complete picture of the ministry of the Church.
So what about the ‘Lost’? Before we launch out on any crusade to save souls left right and centre we need perhaps to remind ourselves that we may be among the ‘Lost’. One of the greatest weaknesses of Christian mission through the ages has been the assumption that we have the Truth and we are going to show everyone how to find it! The history of Christian Mission is often simultaneously a history of religious imperialism and cultural vandalism as diverse communities all over the planet had their lives destroyed by an arrogant army of zealots who imposed a very particular and often-inappropriate model of Church on a people who were living quite happy lives until the Church came and ‘saved’ them! Sometimes being ‘Lost’ is not the worst possible fate! Indeed our modern guilt for that shameful history may be one of the reasons we are not so inclined to go out in search of the ‘Lost’.
It’s hard to see where that model came from because its not the example of a Jesus who came alongside people in any and all situations and listened to them and more importantly heard them. It’s not the example of a Jesus who very often turned the tables on the ‘righteous’ and recognized and acknowledged Truth coming from the lips of the despised. Its not the example of a Jesus crucified who says to the criminal beside him ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’.
Throughout Jesus’ whole earthly ministry we see him pointing not only to himself but to many who society perceived as ‘Lost’ and who were ironically those closest to the way of Truth. One contemporary theologian, Rob Bell has perhaps described a model for mission today that much more faithfully follows the example of Jesus.
In his bestselling ‘Velvet Elvis’ he describes contemporary missionaries as ‘Tour Guides’, not going out to tell everyone to come back to the centre but going out to the margins and identifying and promoting the places where God is already at work and doing great and wonderful things.
That is a task that all Christians are called to. If we sit at home counting sheep we will never see those things and we will miss the opportunity to participate in what Jesus seemed to think was most important.
So yes, we will fill out the survey and look forward with interest to the results but lets remember that its not all about ‘where sheep may safely graze’ but rather the lost sheep who will lead us into new adventures in following Jesus.