the church of the 99 or the 1?

when i knew that i was going to be speaking/teaching/facilitating/whatever you want to call it in africa (yeah, i am not too into the word “preach”) i spent some time reflecting on what to share, which passage, which direction to go.  i was nervous because as you all know, i’m a little on the not-so-conservative side, ha! our host and friend told me from the very beginning–just bring the message of the refuge here. to me, that is the message of the gospel in action through community.  i knew after meditating on it for a while that regardless of how a lot of other things went, i at least wanted to teach from matthew 18 & the parable of the lost sheep.  it has been on my heart in a very concrete way for the past 6 months.  oh, it was the right one to use, if only for me.  i can say that speaking it out loud & fleshing it out together cemented new truths in my heart about “church”, something i always desperately need to be reminded of when i am often treading water in a pool filled with churches of the 99.

here’s what Jesus says:

“if a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will he do? won’t he leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? and if he finds it, i tell you the truth, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t wander away!  in the same way, it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish” (matthew 18:12-14, NLT).

one of my biggest gripes about bible stuff is that a lot of us have been taught to mainly read it for “personal application” instead of “community application.”  my friend and teammate karl always reminds me that paul’s letters weren’t written to individuals, they were written to bodies of people, to the church as a whole.  when we read the bible from a “we” perspective instead of an “me-me-me” perspective, things shift.   and actually, i think they get a lot harder.  personal holiness doesn’t require the connection & sacrifice & all kinds of things that life-on-life community does.  but that’s another story.  i don’t know exactly what direction Jesus was going with this parable and i’m not one to waste a lot of time picking it apart.  but maybe Jesus was talking about the whole community of believers, the church, as the 100 sheep.  and as i thought about this more, the part that really got stirred up in me is how powerful the model of the “church of the 99” really is. and what does the church look like from the standpoint of the 99?

we feed it. we tend to it. we worship it. we feel good about it.

from the standpoint of the 1?  maybe it looks like something that has no place for them, that can’t handle their doubts, fears, real life, shame, pain, struggles, questions.

yeah, many of us know that 99 is way more exciting, comfortable, energizing than 1.   we can hide under the cover of the program, the structure, the predictable-ness, the energy of the common & known tasks at hand.

but Jesus, in this parable, tells of the shepherd who is willing to leave the 99 to find the 1 (to me, the 1 is the the outcast, the marginalized, the oppressed, the doubter, the misfit, the one-who-doesn’t-cut-it-with-the-99).  that one is worth it.  that one is his.  that one is valuable enough to drop everything and go find it.

i have no idea what these sheep were saying when the shepherd left, but my guess is, when it comes to the church of the 99, it might go something like this:  “what about me? what about us?  we have needs, too!  we want our kids programs.  we want our amazing preaching.  we want to be inspired.  we want rocking music.  we want more of ‘the word’.  we want to be with other young married couples.  with other singles.  with other people who look like us, think like us, act like us.  we want, we want.  feed us, feed us, feed us.  oh, and p.s., don’t forget that we’re the one who pay your bills.”

yeah, 99 are the ones that pay the bills.  they are the ones who give money & time and show up for stuff.  they are the ones whose voices are loudest, who have the most power, the most voice.  so many shepherds say, “hmm, if we leave the 99, what will be left? we better keep them happy.”

oh i understand the dilemma.  the church of the 99 is so freaking powerful, its culture deeply embedded into our models, our practices, our just-about-everything-related-to-contemporary-church.  and as i hear more and more about the desire for communities to be “missional” and focused on the one, i still see lots of folks trying to do both–take care of keeping the 99 happy and also be about the 1.

in this parable, the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the 1.

i don’t think you can have a church of the 99 and a church of the 1.   the 99 won’t be happy and the 1 won’t ever be found.  the clamor of the 99 is just too loud, too strong, too powerful.

in africa, the church of the 99 is the prevailing model.  it’s what our wonderful missionaries from the west have brought & what we continue to perpetuate because it’s mostly all we know.  more people, more money, more salvations, more energy, more “God.”  i never want to dismiss that God does stuff in the church of the 99.  of course, God is alive & well changing lives in all kinds of weird, broken places–including church of the 99.  but i can’t help but think that so often we’ve missed the whole point.  we’ve built structures & systems in Jesus’ name that were quite precisely what he was challenging.

i think it would be good for us to wrestle with what it means to be the church of the one.  what will that really look like, feel like, be?  how much are we really willing to give up to get there?

i don’t want to dismiss that the 99 have needs, too.   the problem is that we have misunderstood “wants” for “needs.”  i often say that as a leader our responsibility is to give people what we know deep in our hearts we all need (strength & courage to live out the gospel & the wacky ways of the kingdom) instead of what we all really want (to have our inspirational appetites filled so we feel better about ourselves & life).

i can say that i believe that as best as we can, the refuge is attempting to live out the church of the one.  we are filled with all kinds of people on the margins who don’t have any other good options.  that’s why it’s small.  that’s why when the 99 drop by for a visit they usually don’t stay more than once because it can feel completely disorienting & weird.  that’s why we can barely pay our small expenses.  that’s why the church of the 99 sends the weird-people-they-don’t-quite-know-what-to-do-with our way.  yep, the church of the one is messy. smelly. ugly.  irritating.  tiring.  and beyond beautiful.

i’ve been around long enough now to that that so many leaders/shepherds/pastors know that the church of the 99 can be a crock, that the systems that they are perpetuating aresomehow not what Jesus set the stage for.  helping the 99 get fat and stay safe in their pen isn’t satisfying but it sure is easier than leaving them all to cultivate the church of the 1.  i get it, they have jobs they need to protect, mouths to feed, seminary student loans to pay off and so often just feel stuck.  my heart hurts for them because the options feel so bleak.

but it’s time to get some of our integrity back.  to quit pandering to the 99 and live out what we were made to do–cultivate the upside-down ways of the kingdom now.  this will mean leaving the safe comforts of all kinds of things and entering into the great unknown. it will mean the 99 will be bleating in the background saying “what about me, what about me, what about me?” and i think we can call back to them and say “you can come, too, there are lots of ones.  but you have to leave the 99 to find them, or maybe to find you are actually a ‘one’, too.”

oh i would love to hear some of your thoughts on this!

ps:  my friend & one of my favorite bloggers pam hodgeweide wrote briefly about this already, after reading asante, africa.  check out her post–the church of one. more’s coming from her after my post & i can’t wait to read it.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Kath, you have so many more than 99 1’s in your life, and this 1 is so grateful for all that you were willing to leave for for us. I’m crying (surprise!) just thinking about how fortunate we all are to be part of our little flock. You’ve got an amazing ability to make each person feel valued and heard and inspiring us to want to do the same for each other..and all others. I’m also so glad that your blog (and your United benies) allow so many more 1’s outside of our walls to be touched by Jesus through you and your family.

  • Great post! We don’t live anywhere close to The Refuge, but it sounds like the group we’d want to be part of if we did.

    Most people I know are among the 1’s, in the eyes of most churches, the churches who think they are the 99. Thing is, the 1’s outnumber the 99’s. The 99’s are aware of the 1’s, but in spite of all the rhetoric, their approach is often to send a check, and hire someone else to work and live among the 1’s.

    Did you hear about the “mystery” (church) “shopper” who dresses like a bum and visits churches? He looks like a guy down on his luck in need of a few material things, with nothing to offer (such as money). If anyone wants to know the response he gets, try it a few times yourself.

    I find it so curious – the “99”, fat and safe in the pen for the most part, really do not want to venture out of the pen. They’ve got it made – at least they’ve got their “ticket punched” for Heaven. So why are most of the mean, selfish people I know among that group? This absolutely baffles me. I tend to find a lot of the 1’s much more likeable. When I’m out on the street among the 1’s on Sunday morning while the 99’s are in church, I feel Jesus’ presence so much more than I do inside the walls of a building with a sign out front that says “church”.

  • Thoughts:
    Were not each of the 99 a 1 at one time?
    Maybe I do not understand the separation of the 99 and the 1 enough. My heart cries out with the feeling of a 1 but grieves for the 99. I understand the shepherd leaving the flock to seek out the 1, but I think there is also something more there…
    I have two concepts of this in my head:
    a) I think there is more to be grasped for what are considered the 99–the shepherd would not have left them without provision or protection of some kind. They are not his enemy, they are still his flock, even if they don’t not happen to be the 1 “missing” at that moment.
    b) I believe there must be a way to mesh with both the 99 and the 1. Maybe that is with each of the 99 seeking out the 1’s? Maybe that is with seeing that any group will appear as 99 to someone, even if it is a collection of 1s together?

    I guess I’m saying that a misfit feels the misfit regardless of the gathering, and maybe the desperation of the 99 with their bleating is just an attempt to ignore the truth of their own 1ness.

    (i mean no intention to offend)

  • Well written, and I hear that you recognize this is one aspect of this passage. I do believe the ‘we’ got lost in the west as the ‘i’ in the east. At least the potential for both is there. I’d go with we and I as well as 99 & 1. No one is perfectly all things to all people. Perhaps another aspect ties in with a concept from the last supper. ‘is it I lord?’ if I think I’m part of the 99, am I deluding myself. Is it possible that in some way I too am lost and need to be found? Am I like groucho, ‘i wouldn’t be a part of any group that’d have me.’ do I prefer the safety of the one while I judge the 99?so I project that ‘they’ are judging or ostracizing me, when in fact, my anxiety goes up around them? ‘thank god I’m not like other people’. I don’t sit in wasteful cathedrals, or tacky converted storefronts or cardboard boxes or or or….

  • kathy … amazing post. I love your heart.

    I used to be part of a community that I thought was like the Refuge, but it turned out they were much more interested in being cool and trendy.

    My dream is to move in the direction of having a place for the 1 in our community … a refuge-like community here. My husband and I have been talking about ways to get started. We’ll see what happens.

  • Wow. I loved this. I want to keep hearing more about what it actually means to be a church for the 1’s. I think it goes with something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately about “us” and “them” or “in” and “out”. The 99 are those that think they are “in”,who are “us”. Are we trying to become like “them”, or are we trying to make them like us? Are we turning our hearts toward those who are the same as us, or those who are different? Or is the problem that we divide the world into us and them at all? Is there any way for humans not to do that?

  • Skylark and Kurt, you make good points. This 99 and 1 thing is an issue of perspective. The usual way is to personalize the story as a salvation narrative, how lucky we are that Jesus loves us, and that is true. This post looks at it from another perspective- how we tend to homogenize ourselves into a good looking cultural identity, while distancing ourselves from evidence of life’s difficulty. There is a rich internal perspective is available to all (and is a part of salvation). The perspective that each and every one of us is the one, invited to both receive and extend grace and love to ourselves and others. Learning to see how we are the 99 at times, and how we are the one at other times is an internal invitation to humility and confession.
    Our internal fears of fitting in has become institutionalized in our actual churches and in our relationships- that is what I hear in this post, and kathy makes a good point. I think we have circled the wagons instead of using the wagons for traveling. And we all need to get better about asking people if they want a ride.

  • Great stuff Kathy! I recently started to read your blog and I’m finding that I’m in agreement with much of what I have read. It is so true that we read so much of Scripture for personal application instead of corporate application. You’re not the only one with a beef in that regard. Very rarely do I hear anything these days in church that is truly addressed to the community. Our identities are lost in the I rather than being embedded in the we. I had never heard an interpretation of this passage like this. It was very thought provoking!

  • I found this when someone retweeted the link.

    Beautiful post.

    I love the way that you applied this Scripture and felt that your honesty was a breath of fresh air.

  • david – thanks for reading

    randi – you, too.

    deb – your post made me cry, ha! you got me. it is a privilege to be with such amazing peeps like you in all of the nuttiness of our life together. wouldn’t trade it for anything. thanks to you for the ways you always look out for the 1’s & pass on love & hope..

    sam – i haven’t heard of the mystery shopper…one point that you hit on that i want to emphasize and maybe didn’t in my post is that the 99’s–the masses inside many church walls–don’t want to really associate with the 1. sure, they want to acknowledge their presence, send money, maybe even “help”, but to align with their “one-ness” is often too scary. i remember years ago getting in a tussle with a church leader who said we need to stop using the words “messy, broken, and desperate” because they were making people feel uncomfortable. i love the NLT in matthew 5:3 – blessed are those who realize their need for God. to me, spiritual poverty is our identification with our own 1’ness. but i think it’s too hard to learn that in the safe confines of the pen & a culture where everyone’s “fine.” just rambling here, see, you got me going!

    skylark – please never worry about offending. i really appreciate what you are saying here and acknowledge that there are parts of the metaphor that works and part that doesn’t, haha. but to me, i think you hit it on the head, really, when you said that the 99 are there bleating, unwilling to admit their 1’ness. that’s really what i was saying to sam & i really believe that is true. i really think the “us and them” the “haves and the have nots” “the put-together & the broken” are really lame ways of keeping us safe from our 1’ness & hiding in the cover of the “99”. and of course the 99 are God’s, too. but i think in the scriptures over and over the place i can’t dismiss is that Jesus always seems to default to the low places, the margins. i don’t think that means he doesn’t care about those with money or power or margin, but i can think of so many instances where he was reminding them that if they held on to that, they’d miss the point. i never want to dismiss that the 99 have needs, too, but i think i’m willing to say that more often than not their needs keep getting fed while the 1’s are left to fend for themselves. feel free to toss out any other thoughts!

    kurt – thanks for your thoughts & taking time to comment. i really appreciate your perspective. i hear what you are saying, too, about using our 1’ness to judge the 99. and sometimes i can really sound like that, hahha. i remember someone speaking into a group of us who are leaders on the margins and him saying “yep, you are already marginalized, but don’t underestimate how much you also marginalize yourself more than you need to be.” this is a paraphrase but the idea has stuck with me.

    sonja – oh i always love to hear from you. yeah, cool & trendy are definitely not words that describe our community, trust me 🙂 but boy do i know how that goes. anyway, keep me posted on what God is stirring up in you guys.

    christen – i think you nailed it, the us and them thing really messes it all up. and as i think about it, it is so prevalent in so much of our christian thinking & i know i perpetuate it often, too, as someone on the “outside” i can easily separate myself from those on the “inside” and set up an us and them that isn’t cool. it’s all such a dilemma, though, because i believe pretty firmly that a piece of the 99 is that they have all the power, so it’s pretty tricky for the “1” to feel included and part. for that to happen, it would require the 99 to spread out, diffuse, welcome, and make shifts that are so counter-cultural. the safety of the 99 is so deeply embedded. i think we are seeing so many big shifts in christianity today, but i guess i still see the metaphoric 99 be the ones who are mainly fed. the squeaky, powerful wheel will always get the grease. lots of ramblings tonight, i always appreciate your thoughts!

    sage – oh i love your last two sentences. “I think we have circled the wagons instead of using the wagons for traveling. And we all need to get better about asking people if they want a ride.”

    jonathan – thanks for the link.

    jacob – thanks for reading. how did you hear about the carnival? yes, that is continually shifting some of my thinking, reading the Bible through the lens of a community of people instead of just me. it is very powerful & also very challenging to us together.

    tdshoemaker – glad you stopped by, thanks for taking time to comment. the angle was fun for me and got me thinking, too. i’m sure it’s probably not the most popular interpretation of the passage, but it definitely stirred up some great conversation in africa and here, too.

  • Some more thoughts then:
    1) I do not disagree with the flaws of majority rule. Those with the power and margin should be using it to help those without. Unfortunately even those that care to do so, most often “help” in ill-effective ways…as the individual in Africa pointed out, many may come but few want to live the life with them. Without knowing what life is really like for the one(s) you wish to help, how can you expect to truly assist? **the you of the prior sentence is purely universal
    2) I believe there is a need for the 99, just not as we have seen it. I think there is meant to be something more. Maybe it is where there is no “us and them” separation. If the 99 did not exist, to where would the 1 come home?
    3) What if Jesus wasn’t seeking the low or marginalized but those who held no pretense of themselves. Knowledge and power can elevate the standing of the self in our eyes. The people Jesus went to, healed, and honored knew who they were without Christ. Would not the Roman solider seeking Jesus for the health of his servant be considered one of the 99? He had wealth, margin, and power, yet God honored him for is faith. He was a man of great standing acting on behalf of someone with little standing.

    Sage–I like how you said what you did.

  • Skylark,

    I may be hearing this wrong, but some of the things you said struck a chord for me. I grew up in the church, plus I’m the oldest kid in my family, and very predictably have always tried very hard to please God and my family (and everybody else). I was never a prodigal, or one of the ones who strayed away from the flock. (Of course I started unravelling about 3 years ago and am feeling less and less like a part of things.) I have often felt condemned by these kinds of talks because I felt like even though I was trying to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, I couldn’t help who I was, and that left me on the wrong side of these parables and analogies–the one who does not receive compassion or have a purpose or get loved by God.

    And to be really honest, even though I have been going through a lot of transition, doubt, and unravelling that makes me feel marginalized, I still haven’t gotten past hating that I’ve always been “the older brother” or the “99” who never left and never stopped futilely trying to please God.

    In this example, though, I think the “99” is not a static concept. It’s not about your status, but about the direction you’re pointing. There are lots of people in the church who are pointing in the direction of those outside. They have learned not to see themselves as a different kind of person from those who are in a different superficial category than them.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that even if you have a lot going for you in life and are in the “church” it doesn’t make you the bad guy in this scenario.

  • I’m a friend of Mark Van steenwyk. he had a link a few weeks back to one of your posts from facebook and I took a chance!

  • skylark – yeah, i think it’s an attitude of the heart that Jesus was getting at (what you are saying in #3 of your latest comment. to me, that’s spiritual poverty, the poor in spirit, those that realize their need for God.

    christen – thanks so much for your honest reflections; i have heard many other speak of the same thing, especially those who were raised in “church” and maybe didn’t have some of the same prodigal-y experiences as others. the last thing i ever want to do is somehow make a good guy and a bad guy scenario, ha ha. we are all just different & at different stages, etc. the part i am most sad about, though, related to “church” is that the 99 pay the bills so they often shape much more of what happens as an overall culture than the 1’s & there’s a lot of wacky teaching that keeps the 99 stuck & the 1’s ignored. just rambling here & think i probably moved away from your idea more than i intended. i so appreciate your thoughts & perspectives and what it is stirring up.

    jacob – cool, glad you took a chance. i try to read mark’s stuff when i can, too.

  • Hmm….I don’t have time for along response, but I wanted to throw this in the mix…some time back, while reading the bible, I saw a link between this parable and Psalm 14….

  • Okay, I’ll post Psalm14 from The Message:

    1 Bilious and bloated, they gas, “God is gone.”
    Their words are poison gas,
    fouling the air; they poison
    Rivers and skies;
    thistles are their cash crop.

    2 God sticks his head out of heaven.
    He looks around.
    He’s looking for someone not stupid—
    one man, even, God-expectant,
    just one God-ready woman.

    3 He comes up empty. A string
    of zeros. Useless, unshepherded
    Sheep, taking turns pretending
    to be Shepherd.
    The ninety and nine
    follow their fellow.

    4 Don’t they know anything,
    all these impostors?
    Don’t they know
    they can’t get away with this—
    Treating people like a fast-food meal
    over which they’re too busy to pray?

    5-6 Night is coming for them, and nightmares,
    for God takes the side of victims.
    Do you think you can mess
    with the dreams of the poor?
    You can’t, for God
    makes their dreams come true.

    7 Is there anyone around to save Israel?
    Yes. God is around; God turns life around.
    Turned-around Jacob skips rope,
    turned-around Israel sings laughter.

  • hey kathy
    love what you came up with when you reflected on this parable.

    i ended up in a different place. the hell thing surfaced for me as i meditated on it. remember our lively discussion about hell when we saw you in denver in 08?

    will be so great to see you next month. for real, if you need ANYTHING, transpo, whatever, give me a shout out. And save some Pam time for me at Convergence!

    Love ya!

  • dustin – thanks for reading & for being dedicated to the 1. i think you are amazing.

    katherine – whoa, those are some powerful words! lots to meditate on there.

    pam – hey there, loved your article & i will comment sometime soon, crazy day here but love the directions that things end up taking, that is one of the things i love about creativity & a variety of voices. i do remember that fun conversation on our patio. i am so excited to see you! yeah, we may need some help with rides, etc. will check in when i know more as 2 other friends are coming, 1 from denver, 1 from phoenix & i’m flying standby. thanks for your passion & heart, pam…you rock.

  • I know I”m late on the conversation, but I can’t help but want to jump and shout. All through the Christmas season, I couldn’t get that parable of the sheep out of my head. I AM In HONDURAS because of the ONE. I left 99 well-fed sheep in a nice comfy mega church in New Orleans. Ahhh, but I am with the Shepherd as we search for the one left behind. And what a great journey it has been.

    • it’s never too late to join the convo 🙂 oh how i love your heart for the 1 and your willingness to leave all that was safe, comfy and predictable to give your life to find, love, include, nurture the 1’s. you’ve got lots of them! peace & hope & strength out there in the wild.

  • I have rethought it all. The people viewed as the lowest by our society are now what I view as my brothers & sisters. I am one of them & I know the shepherd, the lover of their souls. He is in the gutters searching for his lost children. It is now my life’s passion/mission to go with him & love the ones that the MDC has forgotten. The MDC has, in my opinion, become a social club with lots of entertainment for the 99.

    (MDC=the Modern Day Church)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.