People keep telling me to “impact lostness.” But what does that mean? The phrase is vague almost to the point of nonsense. Are we being encouraged to have an impact that supports or opposes lostness?
And what is lostness? My Office Suite software insists on placing a squiggly red line under the word lostness, warning me that something is amiss. An online dictionary service told me “no dictionary results” and went on to ask me if I meant “lousiness.”
Surely the word is meant as a reference to the state of being lost. But who or what is lost? And what are we to do about it? Presumably we are being called to create a state of foundness, but my software does not like that word either (“Do you mean ‘fondness’?” I was asked.).
The context in which this phrase occurs must be consulted in order to discover its meaning. I hear the phrase used by Christians when they exhort fellow believers to action. Given that environment, the word lost begins to make sense, maybe.
Lost is a word right out of the Bible. Jesus came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10). He said that the Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones be lost (Matthew 18:14). In his so-called High Priestly prayer Jesus told the Father that none had been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled (John 17:12).
Jesus used the word “lost” in reference to people. Jesus’ mission was about people. He came to seek and save lost people. So the opposite of being lost is being saved and the object of salvation is not a state of being but individuals. Jesus came not to impact lostness, but to seek and to save lost people, living, breathing, hurting people.
Jesus used the picture of a shepherd and his sheep to illustrate his mission. A shepherd looks for, finds, and brings home sheep who have wandered away from safety and sustenance into danger and darkness. Jesus came looking for people who wandered away from God and got entangled by the dangers of sin and worldliness. His mission was to bring them back to the safety of the flock, God’s people, where they receive the protection and encouragement they need in order to heal and to grow stronger.
Jesus entrusted his mission to his followers, the church, with the instruction that has come to be known as the Great Commission. Go, he said, and make disciples from all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). His instruction, to make disciples and to teach them, is easy to understand: convert people to Christian faith and then help them grow in the faith.
Now perhaps people who use the phrase “impact lostness” are simply trying to express Jesus’ meaning with different words. If so, then their word “impact” must somehow relate to Jesus’ word “make” and their word “lostness” must somehow relate to Jesus’ word “disciples.” If the phrase “impact lostness” is meant to be synonymous with the instruction “make disciples,” then what is gained by changing Jesus’ terminology? What is the goal of using different words? Is it possible that something is lost in the switch? Jesus was pretty good with words. We had better have a good reason to change his terminology.
Perhaps the new phrase is meant to be more accessible to our increasingly secular environment. “Disciple” is an old word and maybe people no longer understand what it means. Or worse, it could be an old word with negative connotations and so it creates unnecessary barriers to carrying out Jesus’ Great Commission. Is that the problem?
“Lostness” is a somewhat friendlier word. “Lostness” can mean a lot of things. It could mean a lost culture or society. Pointing the finger at individuals and telling them that they are lost is intimidating, confrontational, and perhaps a bit judgmental. To say that society is lost, or unjust, is softer and friendlier; no one gets their feelings hurt.
A similar effort has apparently influenced the language used by some Christians in the debate about how to define marriage. The word “tradition” is popular with Christians who, no doubt, have a sincere desire to engage the culture in meaningful dialogue. Unfortunately, traditions are usually established by common practice and the common practice for family is rapidly changing in our culture. God’s people should support and promote Biblical marriage, God’s unchanging design for marriage, not traditional marriage.
Perhaps we should simply use Jesus’ words in order to stay as close as possible to Jesus’ intentions. New words come with new meanings that may also usher in new goals, whether intentional or not. True, different visions and missions can be very attractive and can make the church more acceptable to secular culture. But variations to Jesus’ original mission will almost certainly distract from his mandate for his church.
One of Jesus’ followers rebuked a woman for her extravagance in worship because the incense she used to anoint the Lord could have been sold and the money used to great benefit for the poor (John 12:1-8). Jesus’ concern for the poor was clear from both his words and his actions. Nevertheless, on this occasion he subordinated that concern to his primary focus: to die for sinners.
Jesus’ commission ends with a promise: He will be with us to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20). To the degree that we stay faithful to Christ’s vision for ministry and mission, the church can count on the authority and power of Christ. If we replace Jesus’ goal with our own vision then we operate without a mandate from the Lord and without the power of God’s Spirit.
The clear implication of Jesus’ promise at the end of his Great Commission is that he will empower his followers for the task of making disciples. He gave no promise about power for other tasks, no matter how good other tasks may be. Good works abound, but the best work for followers of Jesus is to make disciples. The Lord gave no promise about popularity in carrying out the task which he outlined. In fact, Jesus warned that his representatives would meet with firm opposition from the world (John 15:19).
Does this mean that the Lord’s people should not labor to find effective ways to communicate with the world? Absolutely not. Jesus was the master at words, both in his instructions to the people of God and in his outreach to lost people. Compare his approaches to various individuals in John’s Gospel.
To the powerful religious Jewish leader, Nicodemus, Jesus talked about being born again (John 3:1-16). To the outcast promiscuous woman at the well, Jesus talked about living water (John 4:1-26). To the fickle crowd that followed him across the lake, he talked about the bread of life (John 6:25-66). But Jesus’ creativity in communicating one Truth was not used in order to be popular. His bread of life discourse resulted in negative growth!
Jesus used variety and creativity in his presentation of spiritual truth in order to confront people with the Truth. He did not employ his great skill as a communicator for popularizing his message. On the contrary, he seemed at times to use his talent in order to make it more difficult for some of his listeners (Mark 4:11-12). The guiding light for Jesus was not popularity or acceptance, it was adherence to his God-given mission: to seek and to save lost people (Mark 10:45).
Perhaps it is clear to many people that “impact lostness” is just another way of expressing Jesus’ Great Commission. Maybe not. The phrase tends to depersonalize the work of God’s people. “Lostness” has no personal name. Moreover, “impact” requires a lot of clarification. All in all, the phrase seems to leave open the possibility of redefining the church’s mission as social activism.
Without trivializing Jesus’ obvious concern for the marginalized in this world, his followers must not tweak his obvious mission: Make disciples.
May the Lord enable us to fulfill our calling,
Richard Foster, November 2012