Pastors of the Scattered Flock

We recently finished watching The War, a Ken Burns documentary that is about as long as World War II itself was. The sheer number of people killed was unimaginable. An estimated 50-60 million worldwide lost their lives. The economics of war are utilitarian by necessity: some die so that more may live. Greatest good for the greatest number, and all that. You’re going to lose a lot of men, but that’s the price of winning a war you can’t afford to lose.

Later in The War, as landing parties leapfrogged from one island to another in the Pacific theater, officers were told to expect to lose up to 8 out of 10 men trying to take this beach or that one. Needless to say, that was an unsettling prediction to hear. In anticipation of the number of casualties it would cost to take the main islands of Japan, about half a million Purple Heart medals were made. That supply has not yet been exhausted.

Planning for inevitable loss is a cold mathematics. Accepting its solution is the sign of a grim maturity.

How surprising, then, to see Jesus suggesting a different calculation: leave the 99 to save the 1. A shepherd cannot leave the 99, the whole flock, to save just the 1. The 99 are more important, if only by because there are more of them. But Jesus shows us a God who is not accommodated to loss. A God who came to seek and to save that which was lost. A God who is quite defiant in the face of death.

The shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek the 1 is Jesus, the one who claimed he was doing what God said he alone would do. The prophet Jeremiah promised that the one who scattered Israel would soon gather them together and be their shepherd. Jesus came and called himself the Good Shepherd, the Lead Pastor.

But when he saw the people harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, he asked for more workers to be sent. He asked for more pastors of the scattered flock, who will seek and save in his name. And he had a dualistic perspective on that ministry: “Whoever will not gather with me scatters.” As is common to dualistic presentations, they beg for a decision.

Today the word ‘gathering’ has become church-speak for “get together with other Christians.” We talk about scattering less, and with anxiety. We’ll do it if we have to (and we’re not sure we have to). Both are passive. We are not gathering anything, but are the ones gathered. We are not scattering anything, but are the ones scattered apart from each other. As recipients of the gospel, this is of course the way it should be. Jesus came to gather what was lost, and that includes us.

But Jesus expects us not just to be gathered together, and not just to be scattered (awaiting the time when we get gathered again). He invites us to actively gather with him.

It’s the difference between being churched and being the church. The former means that we come to a building or program to have professionals do churchy stuff to us. (And yes, I meant for that to sound creepy.) Being the church means that we understand ministry is the task of the whole body, and as Paul told the Ephesians, Christ has provided different graces to equip the body to be able to do ministry.

You wouldn’t recommend a family pattern in which one member does all the chores while everyone else watches (and discusses whether or not that person attained to the various standards of cleanliness the rest of the family holds). Similarly, if one part of your body just stopped functioning, you would go to someone who could get that part working again. But when we see ministry as the special task of a few called pastors, it’s just like choosing the absurd option in each of the examples.

Being the church means performing your bodily function. (I just heard it, too….) It means actively going with Jesus to gather the lost sheep, not just passively being gathered together once a week. Gathering happens in the context of being scattered.

We are all shepherds, which is just another way of saying pastor. What parish have you been assigned to? Maybe it’s your neighborhood, or your office building. Who is your flock? Maybe it’s a network of friendships, an artist community, or a non-profit in the area. Is the thought of losing even one of your flock so disconcerting to you that you would be willing to leave the 99 to seek the 1? Would you be willing to skip going to church if it turned out the 1 would meet you for breakfast every Sunday morning? We’re actually losing more than that. Only about 20% of Americans go to church on any given Sunday. If we’re losing 8 out of 10, why do so few feel unsettled? Leave the 99 to find the 1? More like leave the 20 to find the 80.

If we will not be pastors of the scattered flock, shepherds who go with Jesus to gather what has been lost, then we are working against him. Imagine that. Could all of our emphasis on being gathered actually put us at odds with our Lead Pastor, who wants us to gather with him? Or, think of it another way: Is it possible that participating in all the programs a full-service church has to offer might ironically make us less like Jesus, even if we seem to know more about him?