A terminology that has always been used to describe the Great Commission is to “reach the lost.” Those who do not know Jesus as their savior are “lost” in a state of aimless spiritual wandering, separated from Christ as the source of their life on earth, and will remain lost for eternity if they do not come to know him. And this breaks the heart of God.
A classic passage of Scripture that paints this picture is the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15. Jesus tells the story that a good shepherd will leave the security of 99 sheep to find the one that wanders away. He searches and searches and searches, scouring through the terrors and dangers of the Judean hill country to find this single lost sheep. When he does, he’ll “joyfully carry it home on his shoulders” (Luke 15:5).
To be lost is usually in reference to a location. When I was lost in Target at the age of 6, it was because I did not know where I was in relation to where my mom was. Similarly, the sheep wandered away from home (location) and is now lost in the vacancy of the Judean wilderness (location). The sheep’s lostness is based on a separation from where he needs to be. This unfamiliar territory in which he finds himself brings fear, terror, anxiety, insecurity, and pretty much a guarantee that he will die unless he is found.
The sheep’s lostness is a metaphor for people’s own “lostness.” Ninety percent of time, lostness refers to one’s salvation and whether they will end in eternal paradise (location) or eternal hell (location). It is a matter of where they are now and where they will be if they are found or not. Therefore, joining Jesus’ mission to “reach the lost” embarks us on the journey to find those who don’t know Christ and bring them back “home:” eternal security with God that can be lived in this present life.
But here’s something we don’t often think about when it comes to this parable. Have you ever noticed that the sheep was also alone? Not only was he separated from the security of home (location), but he was also separated from the community of his brothers and sisters and shepherd. His lost state was not just about where he was, but whom he was missing: the security of the flock and his protector.
What we can learn here is that spiritual lostness and spiritual loneliness go hand-in-hand. If spiritual lostness describes what they are missing—eternal security and a redeemed life—then spiritual loneliness describes who they are missing—a friendship with Jesus and his Church. At its core, one damned to hell (location) on judgment day will be alone, deprived from the eternal community of God and his Church in eternal paradise (location).
Hell, then, isn’t just a location. It’s a state of eternal loneliness. Perhaps this is why loneliness bears such catastrophic consequences to people’s physical health on earth, because it parallels to the ultimate spiritual consequences of separation from God and his Church. Everything about loneliness goes against how we are designed—even for our souls.
I get this vibe that the Western American church puts an emphasis on spiritual lostness because it articulates what one receives when they are found. Too often salvation boils down to professing a particular belief system to give them the right answers to their questions so the individual can have a redeemed life on earth with a guarantee for where they will end up when they die. But this type of thinking flies over the heads of a post-Christian, lonely America that is all too used to searching for answers and products and plans to empower the self-motivation needed to pull themselves together without the help of others. It’s individualism at its finest.
The Gospel without the promise of being saved into community with God and his Church becomes just another product that helps put people’s lives together. This is why the early church always understood salvation as a community-creating event above a new set of intellectual belief and a change of habits. More on this later.
It strikes me that the parable of the lost sheep doesn’t end with the shepherd bringing the sheep home (location). Rather, it culminates with the shepherd reuniting the sheep with the community of the flock and calling the community of “his friends and neighbors” to celebrate (Luke 15:6). But the best part of the parable of the lost sheep is that it’s told in the context of the Pharisees questioning Jesus for why he hangs out with sinners (Luke 15:1-2). The parable itself is told from Jesus’ ministry to befriend the world.
For a culture steeped in loneliness, perhaps a new terminology is needed to describe the missional zeal to reach this demographic. What if in addition to “reaching the lost,” we understand our mission as “befriending the lonely?” With the richness of spiritual friendship and the depravity of spiritual loneliness, the term “befriend” takes on an entirely new meaning soaked in missional fervor.