the church of the 99 or the 1?

kathyescobar church stuff, jesus is cool, leadership 26 Comments

iwhen i knew that i was going to be speaking/teaching/facilitating/whatever you want to call it in africa (yeah, i am not too into the word “preach”) i spent some time reflecting on what to share, which passage, which direction to go.  i was nervous because as you all know, i’m a little on the not-so-conservative side, ha! our host and friend told me from the very beginning–just bring the message of the refuge here. to me, that is the message of the gospel in action through community.  i knew after meditating on it for a while that regardless of how a lot of other things went, i at least wanted to teach from matthew 18 & the parable of the lost sheep.  it has been on my heart in a very concrete way for the past 6 months.  oh, it was the right one to use, if only for me.  i can say that speaking it out loud & fleshing it out together cemented new truths in my heart about “church”, something i always desperately need to be reminded of when i am often treading water in a pool filled with churches of the 99.

here’s what Jesus says:

“if a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will he do? won’t he leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? and if he finds it, i tell you the truth, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t wander away!  in the same way, it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish” (matthew 18:12-14, NLT).

one of my biggest gripes about bible stuff is that a lot of us have been taught to mainly read it for “personal application” instead of “community application.”  my friend and teammate karl always reminds me that paul’s letters weren’t written to individuals, they were written to bodies of people, to the church as a whole.  when we read the bible from a “we” perspective instead of an “me-me-me” perspective, things shift.   and actually, i think they get a lot harder.  personal holiness doesn’t require the connection & sacrifice & all kinds of things that life-on-life community does.  but that’s another story.  i don’t know exactly what direction Jesus was going with this parable and i’m not one to waste a lot of time picking it apart.  but maybe Jesus was talking about the whole community of believers, the church, as the 100 sheep.  and as i thought about this more, the part that really got stirred up in me is how powerful the model of the “church of the 99” really is. and what does the church look like from the standpoint of the 99?

we feed it. we tend to it. we worship it. we feel good about it.

from the standpoint of the 1?  maybe it looks like something that has no place for them, that can’t handle their doubts, fears, real life, shame, pain, struggles, questions.

yeah, many of us know that 99 is way more exciting, comfortable, energizing than 1.   we can hide under the cover of the program, the structure, the predictable-ness, the energy of the common & known tasks at hand.

but Jesus, in this parable, tells of the shepherd who is willing to leave the 99 to find the 1 (to me, the 1 is the the outcast, the marginalized, the oppressed, the doubter, the misfit, the one-who-doesn’t-cut-it-with-the-99).  that one is worth it.  that one is his.  that one is valuable enough to drop everything and go find it.

i have no idea what these sheep were saying when the shepherd left, but my guess is, when it comes to the church of the 99, it might go something like this:  “what about me? what about us?  we have needs, too!  we want our kids programs.  we want our amazing preaching.  we want to be inspired.  we want rocking music.  we want more of ‘the word’.  we want to be with other young married couples.  with other singles.  with other people who look like us, think like us, act like us.  we want, we want.  feed us, feed us, feed us.  oh, and p.s., don’t forget that we’re the one who pay your bills.”

yeah, 99 are the ones that pay the bills.  they are the ones who give money & time and show up for stuff.  they are the ones whose voices are loudest, who have the most power, the most voice.  so many shepherds say, “hmm, if we leave the 99, what will be left? we better keep them happy.”

oh i understand the dilemma.  the church of the 99 is so freaking powerful, its culture deeply embedded into our models, our practices, our just-about-everything-related-to-contemporary-church.  and as i hear more and more about the desire for communities to be “missional” and focused on the one, i still see lots of folks trying to do both–take care of keeping the 99 happy and also be about the 1.

in this parable, the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the 1.

i don’t think you can have a church of the 99 and a church of the 1.   the 99 won’t be happy and the 1 won’t ever be found.  the clamor of the 99 is just too loud, too strong, too powerful.

in africa, the church of the 99 is the prevailing model.  it’s what our wonderful missionaries from the west have brought & what we continue to perpetuate because it’s mostly all we know.  more people, more money, more salvations, more energy, more “God.”  i never want to dismiss that God does stuff in the church of the 99.  of course, God is alive & well changing lives in all kinds of weird, broken places–including church of the 99.  but i can’t help but think that so often we’ve missed the whole point.  we’ve built structures & systems in Jesus’ name that were quite precisely what he was challenging.

i think it would be good for us to wrestle with what it means to be the church of the one.  what will that really look like, feel like, be?  how much are we really willing to give up to get there?

i don’t want to dismiss that the 99 have needs, too.   the problem is that we have misunderstood “wants” for “needs.”  i often say that as a leader our responsibility is to give people what we know deep in our hearts we all need (strength & courage to live out the gospel & the wacky ways of the kingdom) instead of what we all really want (to have our inspirational appetites filled so we feel better about ourselves & life).

i can say that i believe that as best as we can, the refuge is attempting to live out the church of the one.  we are filled with all kinds of people on the margins who don’t have any other good options.  that’s why it’s small.  that’s why when the 99 drop by for a visit they usually don’t stay more than once because it can feel completely disorienting & weird.  that’s why we can barely pay our small expenses.  that’s why the church of the 99 sends the weird-people-they-don’t-quite-know-what-to-do-with our way.  yep, the church of the one is messy. smelly. ugly.  irritating.  tiring.  and beyond beautiful.

i’ve been around long enough now to that that so many leaders/shepherds/pastors know that the church of the 99 can be a crock, that the systems that they are perpetuating aresomehow not what Jesus set the stage for.  helping the 99 get fat and stay safe in their pen isn’t satisfying but it sure is easier than leaving them all to cultivate the church of the 1.  i get it, they have jobs they need to protect, mouths to feed, seminary student loans to pay off and so often just feel stuck.  my heart hurts for them because the options feel so bleak.

but it’s time to get some of our integrity back.  to quit pandering to the 99 and live out what we were made to do–cultivate the upside-down ways of the kingdom now.  this will mean leaving the safe comforts of all kinds of things and entering into the great unknown. it will mean the 99 will be bleating in the background saying “what about me, what about me, what about me?” and i think we can call back to them and say “you can come, too, there are lots of ones.  but you have to leave the 99 to find them, or maybe to find you are actually a ‘one’, too.”

oh i would love to hear some of your thoughts on this!

ps:  my friend & one of my favorite bloggers pam hodgeweide wrote briefly about this already, after reading asante, africa.  check out her post–the church of one. more’s coming from her after my post & i can’t wait to read it.