What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? Matthew 18:12 NRSV
One percent, that's what Jesus is talking about in this example. Depending on what we're counting, that's not much. For example, if you had a roll of pennies and one were to drop out of the roll, you wouldn't spend much time looking for it; chances are there's another one close by. (Have you ever noticed people don't bother to pick them up anymore? Even if they're heads up.) As a project manager, I'd sometimes let the one percent item go if it wasn't crucial to the project's overall success.
But when we're talking about lost souls, those who don't know of Christ's love or have stepped away from the faith, one percent takes on a different meaning. You've heard of new math; this is spiritual math. Forget the one percent; one takes on a special meaning because that one is an individual worthy of dignity and a sibling of our Creator on this big blue marble we call Earth. God loves them, and because they are loved by God, as his disciples, we are to love them as he loves us.
Loving them doesn't mean waiting for them to come to us. So often, we lament about our dying churches, "No one comes to church anymore!" Our mistake has been waiting for that one to appear in our church pews on Sunday morning magically. But, making disciples of Christ doesn't work that way; it never did. As Jesus taught his disciples through this parable (and many others), evangelism is an action required of the church. It is about going out searching for that one (and more).
How many lost sheep are there? We can use some simple real-world math to help us. According to the World Population Clock (1), as of today, February 2, 2024, there are 8 billion people on Earth. Another survey done by the Gordon Conwell Center (2) reports that as of 2024, there were 2.6 billion people who identified as Christians–they don't report those who have lapsed in faith. That means there are 5.4 billion lost sheep (nearly 33%) who have never heard the message of God's love or stepped away from the faith.
Applying spiritual math, how many are essential–simple, all of them. There's not a single sheep that is unimportant to God and, by extension, to us. God desires 100%.
For the lamenters of the dying church, if we were to go looking for those lost sheep, we wouldn't need to worry about empty pews. Is it reasonable to make it 100%? Probably not; if we save a few, even one, it's one more added to God's fold.
Dear God, our Good Shepherd, thank you for your love and mercy. We pray that you watch over us and protect us from harm. We ask that you help us be like the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep, who left the 99 to find the lost one. Help us to be patient and compassionate with those who have not heard and who have gone astray and to never give up on them. We pray that you guide us in bringing all to you. We ask this in Jesus' name, Amen.