Who Are the “Lost”?

At the recent Southern Baptist Convention which met in Orlando, a theme reiterated throughout the meeting was the “lostness” of the world. Consider the following quotes, taken from an article in the Western Recorder by Editor Todd Deaton titled: SBC takes ‘fresh look’ at nation’s lostness:

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, declared: “We need to be looking forward with an aggressive agenda to penetrate lostness around the world and in North America.”

Ken Whitten, a Great Commission task force member, said: “Every pastor has to walk away from this convention asking, ‘What can I do . . . to make a difference by penetrating lostness?’”

Roger Spradlin, the newly elected Executive Committee chairperson, proclaimed: “I think God has put in the forefront in all our minds the tremendous lostness not only of the world . . . but also of North America. We are a nation of lostness.”

Until the theology, God-image, and basic worldview that are foundational and undergird all this talk of lostness changes, I can’t see how Southern Baptists will offer any hope or wield any positive influence in our world.

As membership within the majority of churches within the SBC declines (both membership and baptisms are on a plummet within all branches of American Christianity) their solution is to engender louder rhetoric (shout louder) and more aggressive strategies (work harder) to proselytize those who don’t share their faith (“the lost”).

At one time I believed this way—that I was one of God’s elect, God’s chosen, and everyone else who didn’t share my faith in Jesus was “lost,” “unsaved,” or “under the wrath of God.” And though it pains me now to admit this, I even used words and phrases like “doomed” and “condemned” and “children of the Devil” to describe all those who did not fit my definition of a Christian.

Jesus’ parable of the Father and his two sons (Luke 15:11-32) may serve as a corrective here. Both sons, the wayward prodigal and the resentful elder brother, are in some sense “lost.” But in their “lostness’ they never cease being the beloved sons of the Father. There is no “us” who are saved and “them” who are lost.

Whether we are “lost” like the younger son, through greed and rejection of the Father’s way of life, or “lost” like the elder son, through resentment and failure to share the Father’s  heart, we are still, in our “lostness,” God’s daughters and sons, loved with an unconditional love by the ever seeking God.

The beautiful words the father speaks to the angry, bitter elder son are reflective of the all inclusive gospel Jesus embodied and represents: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:31-32).

I have a notion that wherever this inclusive gospel is rejected and a dualistic version of Christianity prevails, Christianity will increasingly become irrelevant, and may become more of a hindrance than a help in healing and bettering our world. Dualistic religion tends to polarize and divide, establishing the “in” group (the chosen, the ones who alone possess the truth, etc.) as superior.

This trend toward irrelevance and decreasing influence will become more evident in major urban centers, than in small, conservative towns, but eventually, even the most Christian-entrenched areas will feel the impact. This diminished interest in Christianity is now widespread in Europe, and America is not far behind.

According to recent surveys and studies, only about 10 to 20 percent of America’s younger generation is finding a connection to Christian faith. Most church growth comes at the expense of membership loss from other churches. Mega churches are in some sense both the result of and cause of this loss in smaller churches. All signs point toward decreased interest in Christianity, even among those who claim to be Christians. From the perspective of dualistic Christianity, it is more difficult these days to get “lost” people “saved,” and more of the “saved” are rejecting the faith once embraced.

I am convinced that traditional Christianity has to change (in both its conservative and liberal forms) in order to be a positive, redemptive influence in the world. Our basic understanding of God and God’s relationship to the world must become more inclusive, holistic, compassionate, ecological, and reconciliatory or Christianity will increasingly be regarded with both indifference and disdain.

The sad and ironic thing about all of this is that the good news of Jesus—the inclusive message he proclaimed and the compassionate life he lived—is often lost to the very ones who herald him as their Savior.

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