The following is from Jack Wilkie’s new book, Church Reset: God’s Design for So Much More. For more information, click here.
In John 6 we see the account of Jesus feeding the 5,000. The crowd’s instant reaction was to declare that He truly was the prophet they had been anticipating and was the one they wanted as their king. Even as He got away with His apostles and crossed the sea, they still pursued Him.
Isn’t that exactly what we’d want? Thousands of people who believe in Jesus and are ready to follow Him, even making Him their king? Even the greatest of our seeker-sensitive, producer/consumer churches couldn’t dream of starting with a dedicated following 5,000 strong. If Jesus believed in our business-like approach, He would have been well on His way. He would’ve kept the meals coming, even offering variety because, like Israel in the desert, people aren’t going to stay on board for a steady diet of the same meals that brought them in. He would have set the apostles about the business of making sure each demographic was being kept content and connected. In short, He would have done whatever it took to keep those numbers up and offered them whatever they needed to stay.
And yet, despite this situation that many church leaders would give their right arm to have, Jesus did the unthinkable. First, He ran away and left the crowd behind (6:15). Then, when they persisted in following Him, He told them straight to their faces that they only wanted Him for the free meal He provided (6:26). Finally, when the people refused to pick up on the hint that He didn’t want them following Him because they didn’t accept Him as He was, He went for the one of the most strange-sounding teachings He could give. “Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (6:53).
The crowd struggled greatly with this teaching (6:52, 60). You can almost picture the perplexed looks on their faces – “He wants us to do what?”
The result? “From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more” (6:66).
All of those followers… gone. Even after His greatest miracle of rising from the tomb we see only 120 gathered in the upper room in Acts 1. He turned a following of 5,000 into a following of 120. At His ascension He left behind a group that was 1/40th the size it had once been. Not exactly a great church growth strategy, right?
Did He really have to send them away though? Sure, they were following Him for the wrong reasons, but maybe over time they would have come around if He could have just kept offering the right things to keep them coming. Likewise, people who come to our churches because we have advertising that speaks to them and their wants might not be coming for Jesus, but maybe if we keep them coming, we can turn them into real followers eventually. Thankfully, Jesus did not and does not think like us.
Jesus knew that if they didn’t accept Him as Lord it didn’t matter how dedicated they were; they were unfit to carry out His purpose. It’s the same reason why He turned away the would-be followers who wanted to say farewell or bury their dead in Luke 9:57-62. It’s the same reason why He turned away the rich young ruler despite the man’s supposedly impeccable dedication to law-keeping. If people didn’t value Him above all else, He knew they weren’t fit for discipleship.
That’s why the people He ended up making His followers were those who dropped their nets and left their boats or hopped up and left the tax booth behind. He meant what He said when He told the disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Jesus didn’t want customers who liked Him for what He had to offer them. He wanted disciples who were ready to take up their crosses for Him.
Why did Jesus demand so much more commitment than we do? Because He wasn’t here to amass a crowd. He was here to train people to be like Him in order to launch the kingdom, a worldwide project predicated on preparing people and sending them rather than attracting people and keeping them. He knew that unless people were following Him as both their Savior and Lord of their entire lives, they weren’t fit for carrying out the goals of the kingdom. With such a lofty, worldwide purpose in mind, His method was to establish a church to carry it out. Why would He want a church system that turned around and viewed crowds and success exactly the opposite of the way He did?