Our Lost Sheep

Editorial by Charles W. Keysor, 1967

The air is thick, these days, with suggestions for what The Methodist Church needs most. If we may be so bold as to add our voice to the clamor for church renewal, we suggest that some­ thing must be done to win mil­lions of indifferent Methodists to vital faith in Jesus Christ.

Most of us Methodist pastors have to admit that large numbers of the names on our membership rolls represent people who are members in name only. At best, they have a Christmas and Easter nodding acquaintance with their Creator and His Church. They are strangers to God’s Word. And they have no inkling that Jesus Christ requires anything from those who bear His name as Christians.

To put it bluntly, these marginal millions are atheists — even though we number them as Methodists. For to ignore God is the same thing as denying that God exists, practically speaking. The scandal of lukewarm Christianity is what makes the Church so tragically impotent today. Vital, New Testament faith seems the exception, rather than the rule, among us. Our educational enterprise is withering. Our membership is sagging even though the population of our country is increasing. And we Methodists rank almost at the bottom, in per capita giving of money. What else can we expect?

Serious commitment to Jesus Christ and His Gospel has become the mark of eccentricity. Millions of Methodists love God so little they aren’t willing to worship for even one hour each week. Can we expect that their lives, during the week, will reflect anything except the carnal worldliness of unregenerate men and women?

Yes, we have Methodist lost sheep — millions of them. (Backsliders, in the now-archaic language of historic Methodism.) We have a very big obligation to these sheep of Christ’s, lost and straying from His fold. Love of the brethren ought to cause us to tremble when we think of their effrontery before God. For every indifferent Methodist has “taken the name of the Lord in vain.” In vain has the backslider become a Christian. In vain does God seek his or her service. In vain has the backslider promised loyalty to the One who died in order that the ingrate might not perish but have everlasting life.

The Lord will not hold guiltless those who take His name in vain! So the inactive Methodist lives under the holy anger of a righteous God, and each “back­slider” must personally be reconciled to God. Indifference is sure proof of estrangement. And those who are estranged from God face a hopeless future.

The Church must show its love by helping inactives “flee from the wrath to come” (to use a time-honored Methodist phrase which remains valid as long as God’s Word is true).

But let not the Church feel self-righteous! The blood of every inactive Methodist lies heavy on our hands. For decades, we have permitted millions of inactives to slumber, blissfully unaware of their eternal peril. We have been content to regard them as mere statistics, rather than persons needing redemption. We have, alas, been afraid to jeopardize their nominal giving by demanding that promises made to God must be taken at least as seriously as pledges made to pay off auto loans and home mortgages.

Yes, we have failed, as a church, to warn our marginal millions that God holds them personally accountable … and that unfaithfulness to God is the worst of all sins. We have forgotten that it is our prophetic responsibility to challenge the unfaithful to turn from their materialistic idols and serve, instead, the living God.

But perhaps our greatest sin, as a church, is that we have failed to be “the household of faith,” a place where people can encounter the living Christ in worship, in study, in service. The church is not always the place where we rub shoulders with people who have become new persons through the miracle of rebirth in Christ.

Confessing the magnitude of our failure and recognizing the plight of our lost sheep is the first step. Beyond this lies the very practical matter of evangelizing our marginal millions. This cannot be accomplished by a gigantic church-wide “program.” Nor by setting up new committees. Nor by beefing up agencies of the church. This is a job of continuing, personal evangelism for the local church. Pastors and people must unite to remedy decades of neglect. The Holy Spirit must dynamite our apathy and give the remnant of faithful Methodists a zeal for salvation for those who have gone astray. We must go to them in love. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we must offer Christ as the one source of life that is abundant and eternal.

Charles W. Keysor (1925-1985) was the founder and editor of Good News.

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