Each week another survey is published that speaks of the demise of the local Church. The survey and its pending doom always come from a different perspective but is always based on the same calculation, butts in the seats. The number of people who come to Church is the only real way to quantify success or failure in ministry if your definition of success is how many people come through the door.
What these surveys do not capture is what is essential in ministry. Are we changing lives? Are people leaving feeling different than when they came? Are we living up to the command to “make disciples?” Filling seats is easy; doing the hard work of making disciples is not.
Today’s Gospel from St. John followed along from last week when Jesus fed the 5,000 people who had come out to hear him. The task had been completed, and so Jesus and those with him left to go to a different place. When the crowd realized Jesus was gone, they went looking for him and found him “on the other side.”
The people that followed were not satisfied that Jesus had just fed them from almost nothing; they wanted more. Some of these folx had been following Jesus for some time and witnessed everything that he had done, and yet, they wanted more. They wanted another miracle. They wanted Jesus to prove to them who he really was.
A 20th Century survey would consider Jesus’ ministry that day a success; he had 5,000 plus butts in the seats. But, from a spiritual standpoint, was it a success? Based on the story today, I might think that it was not, but it really is hard to tell. It is really all about perspective.
The people came for more, but more what?
The people followed Jesus “to the other side” for the show; they wanted to see more of his miracles. They were hungry for material possessions, and that is not what Jesus was giving them. They wanted bread, and Jesus told them, “I am the bread of life.” But they did not understand. They wanted proof. They reminded him that Moses had given them the Manna, and Jesus reminded them that it was not Moses that provided the Manna; it was God.
The pandemic has been, or at least it should be, a wake-up call to the Church. For far too long, the Church has been focused on material things and far less time on the spiritual. People have built impressive buildings that now do not fit the mission of the Church, yet we struggle to keep these relics of the past open. Large portions of annual budgets are spent on the day-to-day maintenance of buildings that seat hundreds and now only have a few.
But the results of the pandemic have permitted us to view Church differently. The brick-and-mortar Church building will never go away; there will just be less of them. Church can happen anywhere, including virtually. What Jesus is telling us today is that we have cast our eyes on the material things for far too long; it is now time to fix our eyes on the spiritual.
It’s time to get back to the basics of feeding people’s souls. It’s time to get back to the true mission of the Church, “to make disciples.” Sure, it’s nice to come to a beautiful building, and I have been in my share, but we can no longer afford to keep these shrines to the past if they prevent the future and the mission of the Church.
The great Phyllis Tickle writes about the 500-year rummage sale in the Church. Tickle writes that every 500 years in the Church, a reformation of a sort takes place. The old is discarded to make way for the new. The problem is, we never really know where we are in the process. I believe that we are embarking on another 500-year reformation.
In the 49th Chapter of the Prophet Isiah, we read, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” Thus, we, as Church, have an opportunity to remake ourselves. We have permission to throw off the old ways and embark on a new and exciting adventure.
Jesus told the crowd to stop working for the food that perishes and start working for the food that endures. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”