By Tim Harlow
My daughter Becca was 4 when we lost her on a beach in North Carolina.
We’d been camping with extended family and having a great vacation. Becca was the youngest and was hanging out with several of her cousins. They had all gone back to the campsite over the dune, but Becca decided she would go down to the beach—and no one noticed. By the time we realized she was missing, she could have been anywhere.
Lost and Found
We immediately alerted the lifeguards, and my wife went north while I went south. When I say “went,” it doesn’t accurately describe my journey. I ran fast enough to qualify for the Olympics. I dropped off my flip-flops and hit that place in the sand usually populated by hardcore runners who know the sand is wet enough to be hard-packed for the best traction. I tried not to think about how it’s also the place where children stand, dangerously unaware of the power of the ocean.
Ran? I flew.
I stopped occasionally to ask if anyone had seen a brown-haired, 4-year-old girl in a blue swimming suit, and on I went. In a situation like that, you don’t feel like you’re even breathing; I’m not sure your heart really beats. It’s all adrenaline and sheer panic.
I was half a mile down the beach before I spotted her. I can still remember the feeling like it was yesterday. If you’ve ever been in a similar position, you know that you immediately try to wipe the scared look off your face and act normal so that you don’t transfer your own trauma on to your kids when you find them. So I was panting heavily, wanting to scream, and trying to be casual. “Hi Becca,” I said, my voice bouncing around like an adolescent’s. Becca’s face lit up with an angelic smile, as if I had been lost and she had found me.
But then I had another problem. These were the days before everyone had a cell phone, and I knew that as anxious as I was in this situation, her mother was dying a slow death without the knowledge that Becca was safe. So I hoisted her up on my shoulders and ran almost as fast back up the beach to the place where the rest of the family was and dropped off Becca so I could run even faster and further up the beach to find her mother. I couldn’t let Denise live with the pain any longer.
Being lost is bad. Losing someone you love is worse. Becca, like a lot of people in the world today, didn’t even know she was lost. She just assumed her parents were nearby. She had little cause for concern. Her parents, on the other hand, were a basket case. We knew better. We knew the dangers—all the awful things that could happen. Until we had her safely in our arms, we would not rest. Every parent is like that.
Even the heavenly Father.
Jesus was all about the lost. In Luke 15, Jesus was surrounded by tax collectors and sinners gathering together to hear him speak, while the Pharisees and teachers of the law stood off to the side, muttering, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (v. 2). This was a charge of which Jesus was actually proud—so much so that he proceeded to answer their accusation by telling three stories about seeking after lost things and the joy of finding them. This was something the Pharisees knew little about. Their relationship was with the law and with maintaining their own religious image; his was a relationship with lost people like tax collectors and sinners who knew something was wrong.
God loves the lost. He sent his Son to seek and to save them. His heart breaks over lost kids the way mine broke when I realized Becca was gone. The gospel is not about making people religious—it’s about finding the lost and bringing them home.
I grew up in Sunday school, so I’m very familiar with the charge to bring a friend to church. I know it gets me more points at VBS or extra candy on Sunday morning or whatever. It’s the mark of a super Christian. And this is a great thing—it’s fantastic that people show up to a place where they can hear that Jesus loves them and died for them. If I didn’t believe in the church, I wouldn’t be a minister.
But Jesus didn’t say “bring.” He said “go.”
“Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We tend to associate this verse with overseas missionary work, don’t we? Other people are called to do the going, and we support them financially and pray for them and see them once a year for an update. Again—it’s great that we do this. It’s biblical. But church, we are missing our own calling.
Did you know that “None” is now the second most common religious affiliation in America, after Catholic? Did you know that if all of the unchurched people in America were a country, they would be the fifth largest country in the world?
I had a friend tweet recently that he was on a plane to Dallas with 50 kids from South Korea—who were on a mission trip. To Dallas? Isn’t that the buckle of the Bible Belt?
There’s no getting around it, friends. We live in a mission field.
So what does this mean for Christians who aren’t called to vocational ministry? What does this mean for the web developers, teachers, parents, engineers, business owners, and baristas?
It means we all have work to do!
When Jesus told his followers that they would be his witnesses, he wasn’t just speaking to the eleven. He was talking to all of the believers who were meeting together after his resurrection—approximately 120 people. These were average people, not scholars and priests. The only thing extraordinary about them is that they had been with Jesus (like Peter and John in Acts 4), and Jesus left them with a mission.
We can’t afford to sit around, waiting for seekers to wander into our churches. We should be the seekers. Jesus came to seek and save the lost—he went into homes where Pharisees wouldn’t dare go, he ate with “tax collectors and sinners,” he sought out the Samaritan woman at the well in the middle of the day. He found the people who would never dare wander into a church, and he loved them right where they were.
Friends, you have a mission. It’s to eat dinner with your neighbors. It’s to build a friendship with that guy at your gym. It’s to learn that server’s name where you eat every Sunday afternoon, leave her a big tip, and get to know her.
There are folks all around you who would never feel comfortable in a church, and that shouldn’t disqualify them from hearing that Jesus died for them. You don’t have to be God’s defense attorney; you don’t have to be the judge of your neighbors. Jesus asked you to be a witness—to share what you’ve seen and heard, to tell your story of what God has done for you.
It looks like we both have a job to do. I’m grateful to partner in ministry alongside you.
Living on mission,
Tim Harlow is the senior minister at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois, and the 2014 president of the North American Christian Convention.
Find Your Fit
S.H.A.P.E.: Finding and Fulfilling Your Unique Purpose for Life by Erik Rees looks at the unique elements of individuals in five categories to help people better understand how God made them and for what purpose:
Jot down what you know about yourself in each category. Which do you have a good handle on? Which do you need to explore more? What parts of your life fit well with your shape? In what area is God leading you to do something new that fits how he made you?