On any given Sunday in the UK, less than 10% of the population attend church. And the last census reported that, for the first time, under half of the population describe themselves as Christians. They are some sobering statistics, and paint a rather depressing picture of the UK’s spiritual state.
So what’s the strategy for reaching the spiritually lost? How can non-Christians be brought into church congregations? How can people we know come to faith in the Lord Jesus? Well as we look at today’s Gospel passage, I think we can discern the basic outlines of an evangelistic strategy. Today’s reading provides us with an agenda of actions for church growth. An agenda set by the Lord Jesus himself.
The setting for today’s passage is the north of Israel. The Sermon on the Mount is over, and Jesus is now on a comprehensive tour of the region of Galilee. Matthew tells us in our opening verse this morning that Jesus “went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” As you would expect, Matthew goes on to tell us that Jesus’ miraculous ministry drew a crowd. And in the verses that follow we learn how Christ responded to the multitudes he saw before him.
I’ve divided the rest of today’s passage into three sections, which will hopefully make it more digestible!
So let’s begin, by looking first at the sheep in need of a shepherd…
Sheep in need of a shepherd – so we should feel compassion!
Living here in Ashton, we can make sense of agricultural metaphors and allusions in the Bible. We can easily visualise a flock of sheep or a field of wheat. It wasn’t quite so easy in East London, the location of my last parish!
In today’s reading, Matthew tells us that when Jesus looked out and saw the crowds that had come to him “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
To compare human beings to lost sheep is not the most flattering metaphor is it? It’s not as bad as being called a pig or a rat perhaps, but surely Matthew could have come up with a more complementary comparison?! After all, sheep are not known for being the most intelligent or capable of creatures, are they? For example, I gather that they don’t have the same ability as goats to forage and find food for themselves. Sheep are also pretty defenceless against predators, and if left alone can quickly get themselves into trouble.
A sheep would certainly not be my own preferred self-description! And yet the whole Bible consistently compares human beings to sheep. To lost sheep, in fact, who need a shepherd to save them. As the prophet Isaiah famously phrases it “we all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way”.
The point being made is that human beings are lost without God. Like lost sheep, we all need the Lord to rescue us from trouble and lead us to safe pasture. Without him we are in a state of spiritual crisis and moral confusion – “harassed and helpless”, as Matthew puts it.
So just as often as the Bible calls us sheep, it calls God our rightful ‘Shepherd’. It describes the Lord as the leader and saviour we all need. In Psalm 95 this morning, for example, it describes believers as “the people of God’s pasture, the flock under his care.”
Thankfully, like any good shepherd, God promised in the Old Testament that one day he would search for the lost and bring back the strays. Through the mouth of prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel, God said that one day he would personally come to seek and save his wayward flock. A promise that was fulfilled when Christ arrived and said: “I am the Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:11).
Just as Jesus looked out on his contemporaries and had compassion on them, so should we today. Our non-Christian neighbours are indeed lost sheep without God, harassed and helpless:
• They are harassed by the pace of life and the cost of living.
• They are exhausted the expectations of their employers and the pressure of their peers.
• They are unsure of identity in an age of ethical confusion and moral relativism.
• And, worst of all, they’re hopeless in the face of death and guilty of sin before God.
So I hope our heart goes out to our non-Christian friends and family. I hope we feel compassion for those we know who don’t yet know Christ as their Lord, their Saviour – and their Shepherd.
A harvest in need of harvesters – so we must pray!
But apart from feeling compassion, what can we do in practice to help the spiritually lost? Well, the first answer we’re given by Jesus today is to pray. Let me read verse 37 again. Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Jesus uses a different farming metaphor here to make the point that our emotional concern for the lost should move us to prayer. Above all else, we should pray that God will raise up Christian men and women as his harvest workers. Christian men and women who will point people to the Good Shepherd and invite them into his kingdom.
We should be praying that the Lord will raise up church leaders, evangelists, missionaries and others who will point people to Christ across our community, nation and world. At Emmanuel Theological College, for example, its my privilege to help train future harvest workers for ministry here in the North West.
Here too in Ashton we can be praying for each other as we try to share our faith with friends and neighbours. We can be praying for one another that we’ll be given the courage to tell our peers about Christ, or given the opportunity to invite them to church. We can even pray that God will bring more Christians into our parish, providing more workers for this one particular harvest field!
Amateurs appointed as apostles – so we can play our part too!
Watching ‘The Apprentice’ on TV has become a bit of a Thursday evening ritual at our house. James and Alice are allowed to stay up late to watch one of their favourite TV shows. It’s the one where Sir Alan Sugar gets to say “You’re fired!” to a succession of unsuccessful candidates to be his apprentice. But to one lucky individual at the end of the series, he will say “You’re hired!” They get to become his business partner and earn a six-figure salary.
In today’s passage, twelve men get hired by God’s Son. A dozen disciples get to work for the Lord Jesus, instead of Sir Alan! Because in verses 1 to 4 of chapter 10 we are told that: “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”
Some of these names are no doubt familiar to us. Peter, Andrew, James and John we know. We’re probably also familiar with doubting Thomas. And Judas Iscariot is of course infamous.
But we don’t know a great deal about the rest. They seem to have been very ordinary men, a ‘bunch of amateurs’ you might say! They were fishermen, tax collectors and who knows what else – their only real qualification was their willingness to follow Jesus – a helpful reminder that anyone can be used by the Lord if we will only make ourselves available to him.
The final verses our reading summarise the mission these twelve men were given: “Go to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.”
Unlike Alan Sugar’s apprentices, their task was not to advertise Amstrad computers, market a new cosmetic product or develop a new brand of dog food! Rather, they were to proclaim the kingdom of God by telling people that Christ had come, by announcing that the Good Shepherd was now nearby.
And the apostles were to show the character of Christ’s kingdom too, by performing miracles that demonstrated the Lord’s opposition to death, disease and the forces of evil. So their mission was to point people to King Jesus and the character of his coming kingdom. A kingdom that can be entered for free, by faith in him alone.
Its tempting to think that we cannot imitate the ministry of these apostles. And it is true in one sense that those twelve men had a unique role as eyewitnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
But in another sense, every Christian is called to be an apostle – including you and me! Because the word apostle literally means ‘to be sent’. And if we follow Jesus we are all sent into the world to speak and act on his behalf. Passages like the Great Commission suggest that we’re all called to play our part in the proclamation of the Gospel.
Just like those first twelve disciples, we’re all called to speak and act in a way that points people to Jesus. We’re to point people to the Good Shepherd, and to behave as citizens of Christ’s kingdom.
So as I finish, today’s passage has reminded us of the essential components of a strategy for church growth. It has given us the basic ingredients for bringing non-Christians to Christ….
Copyright © 2015-2018 St John the Evangelist, Ashton Hayes. All rights reserved.