Turn Your Ministry Upside Down: The Poignant Lesson of John 6
John chapter 6 is among the most amazing chapters of the Bible.
Church leaders these days invest a lot of time and effort researching methods to attract as many people as possible to church. Which is not in itself a bad thing - we should want new people at church. In an effort to evangelize our neighborhoods, we research and plan and act according to the latest statistics, research models and advice of popular Christian leaders. But is that the leadership Jesus modeled?
Feeding 5,000 People - The Height of Popularity (vs. 1-15)
At the beginning of chapter 6 we see that Jesus is immensely popular. He travels to the far side of the Sea of Galilee, "and a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick" (v.2). It is here that Jesus performs one of his best known miracles, the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus used the five loaves of bread and two fish offered from a young boy to miraculously feed them all. After seeing this miracle, these people were convinced that Jesus was amazing, and were determined to make him a king right then and there (v.15). And why wouldn't they? He had more than proven that he was a wise miracle worker sent from God, he had all the marks of being the Messiah, and the people were suffering at the hands of the Romans. It was a good time for a new king.
That's when the weird thing happens. As the crowds are at the apex of belief, admiration, and loyalty, Jesus does the opposite of what we might expect him to do: he leaves them, and goes up to a mountain by himself. No victory lap, no big celebration.
He simply leaves. Why would he just leave?
We'll come back to that.
Walking on Water - (vs.16-21)
That same evening, after Jesus had left, things started to settle down and the twelve disciples got back to the boat to set sail across the Sea of Galilee for Capernaum. Jesus was still up on the mountain when they left, so they went ahead without him. Once they were about three or four miles out into the water, the wind picked up and the sea became rough. It was at this point that they were amazed to see Jesus, whom they had left behind, now walking across the surface of the water to the boat, another well-known miracle of Jesus.
Two of his best known miracles have happened in this chapter so far.
Hungry People Looking For More Bread (22-34)
Meanwhile, it is now the next morning in Tiberias, the city where Jesus performed the miracle yesterday, and the people were looking for Jesus the miracle worker. Realizing he was gone, and realizing he was not in the boat when the disciples left, they knew something else unique and miraculous had happened, and they decided to track him down.
Give us a sign! (35-40)
The people find Jesus, their new hero, and Jesus doesn't welcome this fan club, but instead accuses them of being there for the wrong reasons. He gave them bread the previous day, and he accuses them of just wanting more bread. Bread provided by a miracle. Bread that they ate and enjoyed, but bread left them hungry again the next morning.
He tells them that he is not going to give them more bread, but he asked them to instead simply believe in him. Their response is unsettling: 'Then what sign will you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (vs.30-31).
What sign will you show us?!? They seriously want another sign?!?
They started following him in the first place because of miracles, and now they actually ask for another miracle! They had the audacity to mention the story about God providing manna every day, perhaps suggesting that Jesus should keep giving them even more bread. In response, Jesus becomes a bit off-putting: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst". He then goes on to say that he has come down from heaven and will resurrect them on the last day. A clear claim to being the Messiah.
Yet they still had no bread...
Eat my flesh and drink my blood (41-59)
If that wasn't enough, Jesus then takes it a step further by telling them that the manna they want is temporary. The bread they are asking for is temporary. He tells them that he himself is the bread of life and that unless they eat his flesh they will stay hungry and they will eventually die.
Sooooo....things just got weird here.
And they still have no bread.
The people scoff at the idea of eating his flesh instead of miraculously delivered yummy bread, and he takes yet another step further into strange: "Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink" (54-55). He then compared himself to the manna that these people had brought up before.
This crowd came looking for yet another miracle from their new hero - Jesus the miracle worker. They instead found a man who suggested they eat his flesh and drink his blood. Not what they expected to get.
The result of all this?
"After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him" (66).
Jesus was a rising star, a legend in the making, a bread-producing, sickness-healing headline-making magician who had amassed thousands of followers in one day. But instead of working to keep them around and entertained, he works to send them away. He did this intentionally. He knew they were skeptical and offended, saying , "Do you take offense at this?" (61).
Jesus had a megachurch in the making, and he shut it down immediately. His popularity could have been leading to a national TV ministry, a multi-site empire, a nationwide conference, or even a book deal. But he quickly turned things the other direction...
The truth of the matter is this: we can draw in a crowd all day long. We can entertain and amaze with cool music, fog machines, dazzling feel-good messages and bright shiny objects that will keep them coming back for more.
However, we see that Jesus didn't multiply his success - he divided it. Jesus gave the people the bread they wanted in hopes that they would come back for the bread they needed.
When many left, Jesus asked the Twelve if they also wanted to leave. “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (67-69).
They would soon change the world forever.
In the book of Acts we see that the church is again increasing by thousands of people a day. But if we never speak the hard and often offensive truth of the gospel, it all means nothing. The numbers mean nothing, and the people behind those numbers never get fed. We merely create people coming back every week for more 'bread' who may or may not ever learn of the true living bread that gives life. Outreach has to move to Evangelism. Evangelism has to move to Community. Community has to move to Discipleship. Otherwise, what have we accomplished?
As we seek to grow our churches, let us also have the goal of growing disciples plugged into community. This may send some away to find bread and entertainment elsewhere, but the ones who stay will build a strong ministry of hope and love, and will be prepared to face whatever comes their way in the strength of Christ.