There has definitely been an acceleration in the trend towards individualised discipleship. Some people simply feel like they don’t need others, they are flock-less sheep, and there is a danger that as churches and church leaders we’ve fed this as we have taught God’s word unawares through the lens of individualism, through individualistic application of corporate passages, through underplaying the role of the church and discipleship that is corporate not privatised. But that has profound consequences for how we live and how we relate to the bible.
Over the last century or so a force has arisen that has been so significant that it now holds us all in its grip and we’re largely unaware of it. It is so hardwired into our brains that it’s the natural way we think and view everything, it even impacts how we read the bible, teach and apply the Bible. That force is radical individualism and its legacies are legion. But I just want to focus on the way this is playing out in the way we approach lost sheep – those who drift from church having professed faith but who would still maintain they are Christians. That spiritually they are fine because they read their bible and pray without being part of a church.
In Matthew 18v12-14 Jesus tells the well-known story of a shepherd who has 100 sheep but realises there are only 99 in the flock; one is missing. This is where illustrators and storytellers and pastors have not helped us with what Jesus is teaching. How do you picture the lost sheep? He’s tangled in thorn bushes, wandering unawares towards a cliff, or oblivious to the wolves with glowering hungry yellow eyes and slathering jaws gathering in the woods in the background isn’t he? But none of that is in the story – the sheep is just lost. And that’s the point Jesus is making; it’s being lost that is the greatest peril. The greatest danger is our lostness.
Unlike in Luke where the focus of a similar story in a different context is used evangelistically to show God’s joy in the lost found, here in Matthew it’s used in the context of the church Christ inaugurates. It is separation from the flock and the safety of the shepherd’s care that is the danger. For believers there is danger in being separate from the flock, there doesn’t need to be any additional dangers, bring isolated from the church is enough of a danger that it ought to be sounding alarms.