My head exploded a little bit last week as I was reading the Bible. People often are negative towards digital expressions of Church because scripture only references community as defined physically. I love, though, when scripture speaks to methods that work not only physically, but digitally. Last week an old story I was quite familiar with suddenly had new meaning in light of the digital methods we, the Church, operate in during this COVID season. So, let’s have some fun here and learn how Jesus showed us how to do ministry, digitally, almost 2,000 years before the computer was invented.
John 6. Jesus feeds five thousand. Powerful, ministry defining moment. Let’s highlight the big moments, and see what we can learn.
6:2 - Jesus, through the “great crowd”, achieves reach.
“and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick.” John 6:2 NIV
Meeting people’s physical needs made Jesus popular. The popularity was good to a point, as it gave people exposure to Jesus. We see some humility in this from Jesus’ perspective. He didn’t gain anything from the healings. Jesus was doing these miracles to allow people to have exposure with him. In digital terms, Jesus is “reaching” people. The crowd is aware of the healings. They’re following him, quite literally, in the biblical text. To say that they’re disciple-makers… wouldn’t quite be true yet. They’ve been reached.
Reach is vital in any Digital Church. Truthfully, in a lot of Church Online’s today, reach is overvalued. We see it as the metric of whether our church is successful or not. When I read John 6, I don’t get the feeling Jesus was measuring the success of his ministry by his reach. He didn’t stop with thousands following him. Because, as we’ve discussed, you can’t start a movement with consumers. As we’ll see, if Jesus based his ministry off butts in seats mentality, much of John 6 would have been different. So why do we, in today’s church, celebrate reach as much as we do?
6:11 - Crowd is hungry, has physical needs. Jesus meets needs, adding to the crowd’s number.
To properly reach people, you need to provide some value for them for that initial connection. Something that makes people want to follow you. In Jesus’ case, it was the healings that he was doing, meeting needs of the people. It’s important to notice here that, during these periods… you don’t see a lot of two-way conversation happening. It’s almost like the crowd is observing the show… caught up in the spectacle of the action. It’s clear later on in scripture the crowd didn’t understand the implications of following Jesus. The crowd, at this Reach level, is acting a bit selfish. “What can you do for us?” “How can you meet our need?” “How can we be entertained?”
Jesus isn’t preaching at this point to get people past the crowd level. That comes later. Today in 2020, how can we reach people? Our church services, both physically and digitally, are losing value. Maybe it’s time for a fresh playbook, a fresh approach to reach people today. In today’s Social Influencer crowd, what does it look like to reach in order to connect with someone digitally? What can we do for people? How can we meet their needs, digitally? How can we entertain others in order to connect?
6:26 - Crowd looks to Jesus to meet more physical needs. Jesus engages.
Here’s the problem with being popular. People want more of it. Jesus, through his signs and miracles, was excellent at meeting people’s physical needs. This just meant that people wanted to see more of their physical needs met! The motive of the crowd here I’m not sure of. Ego? Selfishness? The followers, the consumers, were looking for more to consume. Jesus, for the first time in this story, engages. (Remember, we’re defining engagement as a two way conversation.) Jesus is asking questions. Dialogues with the people. It’s important to notice here, the audience for the most part didn’t take talking with Jesus well.
The wisdom of Jesus in John 6 is astounding. He knows how long to keep people at this crowd/follower level, and at what point it’s necessary to turn the corner and take the crowd to the next level. Jesus, I believe, is very intentional in making the crowd wrestle with hard concepts that may or may not weed out the crowd of consumers and keep the true disciples around.
6:66 - Jesus’ engagement scares people away
“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” - John 6:66 NIV
Jesus didn’t water down his words. He came strong, and the people were taken aback. “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (6:60) was the response of many of those who were following Jesus. See, people were connecting to Jesus for what Jesus could do for them. Through engagement, through conversation, we start to see people leave as they realize that this relationship would cause them to need to do things for Jesus. I love Jesus’ line in 6:61: “Does this offend you?” - No apologies. Almost like a college weed-out Introductory Class, Jesus is filtering out the crowd, in order to keep those that were really capable of being a disciple-maker.
It’s interesting to me that Jesus doesn’t try to keep the crowd gathered and celebrate the mega-ness of the numbers. Instead we see that at the end of the conversation many of his disciples “turned back and no longer followed him” leaving Jesus a smaller group to work with.
Jesus’ Lessons for Church Online
Through Church Online our Reach numbers have been astronomical. March & April 2020 we’ve seen borderline ridiculous numbers across the country as people connected to our church services online. We were reaching people like never before!
The problem is, church, that we forgot to engage people. Challenge them. Disciple them. We celebrate the reach! But forgot that Jesus didn’t celebrate his reach… he took the opportunity to filter that reach down through his disciple making process in order to get the people capable of starting a movement.
As we talk about this idea of Church as Platform, what if we took a hard look at the people we’re reaching (physically & digitally). Through our engagements, are we creating disciple-makers as Jesus did? What would our churches look like if, coming out of this COVID season, we were more focused on the disciple-making approach than trying to celebrate how effective we were at reaching a digital crowd?