January 13, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — John 6:60, 66
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” . . . From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
When people approach church as consumers shopping for a product, it is tempting for Christians—especially church leaders—to respond with a similar mindset: to view church as a product that must please customers in order to sell. Jesus calls us to a different approach than a consumer model. Though it is often not a popular message, the Gospel should always point to Christ, and through Christ back to the Father.
Just over a week ago, many Christians celebrated Epiphany. In the church liturgical calendar, this marks the end of Christmastide, the twelve-day Christmas season. Although I did not grow up in a church tradition that made much of the liturgical calendar, I have come to appreciate the different foci of the different liturgical seasons. In the weeks between Christmastide and Lent, a common practice is to follow the life and ministry of Christ by reading through the Gospels. One important aspect of Jesus’ ministry on earth was teaching and preparing his followers—especially the Apostles—to be leaders of the new church.
John 6 recounts one of those teaching moments that has always struck me as a watershed. Although many religious leaders as well as the folks in Jesus’ home time of Nazareth are hostile toward Jesus from the start of his public ministry, early on Jesus is quite popular with the general populace. Crowds are flocking to him, and many are fed and healed of illnesses. In the Gospel of John, however, we read of a time when Jesus’ popularity takes a nosedive. His teaching has gotten hard: both difficult to understand and challenging to follow. It’s no longer just the religious leaders bothered by what he says now; many of his followers are also bothered, and they begin to desert him. His twelve closest disciples can’t miss this sudden grumbling and loss of popularity among the broader masses. Perhaps they are concerned. I know I would have been if I had been in their sandals. How will Jesus respond? What will they learn from that response that will help them lead the church in the years to come? This is an important moment in understanding what the Christian church ought to be doing.
In November of 2022, I wrote a pair of devotions (here and here) exploring how easy it is for Christians to be shaped by a culture of consumerism rather than transformed by the Holy Spirit’s renewing work in us. Constantly bombarded with myriad consumer choices in everything from cereal to cell phones, we are told both that buying stuff will make us happy and that we deserve to buy things—the best things, at the lowest prices. We are also told we deserve lots of choices, and that our choices and desires as consumers are always right.
Inundated with this message, it is easy to start applying consumer thinking to God, church, and worship. Church and worship become, for us, simply more consumer goods to pick and choose from, or to replace if we find a better product somewhere else. When consumerism shapes us, we approach worship as though its primary purpose were to satisfy us or make us feel good. I know I am often guilty of this consumerist thinking and I need to evaluate my own attitude in this area. But today I want to turn our attention to the other side of that consumerism coin, which is how the church responds to that consumerism. As one who wants to follow Christ and participate in his kingdom-building work, how do I respond to a culture of consumerism?
When current or potential attendees and members approach church and worship as consumers shopping for a product to buy, it is tempting for churches and their leaders to respond with a similar mindset: to view church as a product that must please customers in order to get sold. After all, if we don’t offer a pleasing product, folks might go elsewhere. This is especially tempting in a time when church attendance is shrinking, and when pastors are judged by the numbers of church members or attendees. Churches and church leaders can be shaped by a culture of consumerism every bit as much or more than the church attendees who come as consumers.
In tomorrow’s devotion, I’d like to explore some ways this can happen. But I want to end today with an invitation to meditate on Jesus’ response to a sudden decline in the numbers of his followers. What lesson might his twelve apostles—the future leaders of the Christian church—learn from this response? If you have time, I invite you to read all of John 6:41-70. Verses 41 and 43 both mention the grumbling, and then in verse 60 we get one of the explicit reasons. “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
If Jesus had been trying to sell a product by appealing to the whims of his potential customers, the thing for him to do would have been to back off this difficult teaching: to give instead a more popular message. He might, for example, have told the crowds how deserving they all were. Certainly that would have made them feel good. Or he could have told them that, if they all tried a little harder at keeping the Law by the strength of their own flesh, God would be pleased with them. Instead, however, he doubles down on his message. He reiterates their need for him, the living Bread of Life. It is not through their own effort, but through abiding in Jesus, and through the power of the Spirit, that eternal life is found.
I imagine this message would have been insulting to many, and overly challenging and uncomfortable for others who preferred to keep living their own lives in their own strength. Thus, we read in verse 66, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” They didn’t like this product that made them feel uncomfortable. They were going shopping for a new one.
And here is the key point. Jesus did not try to appeal to his followers (or potential followers) with a popular message. He didn’t follow a consumer model in which the customer was always right, and should always be made to feel good. He deeply loved the people he spoke to. He loved even those who opposed him. But that doesn’t make their desires and beliefs right. Jesus spoke the truth, even when it was uncomfortable and unpopular. And the truth that he spoke was the truth about himself. Jesus repeatedly pointed people back to his own identity, and back to the Father, and to the Spirit. It was not a popular message. Yet as Peter noted, it is a message of eternal life. And that was the teachable moment for his watching disciples who were to lead the church in years to come.
When you think of church, or of worship, what do you think about? Do you consider it a product that needs to satisfy you? Or is it something you give yourself to? How do you present the Gospel message to others?
Before your next church service, spend time preparing by asking God how he wants to be working in your life and what you can give to him in worship. You might also ask how you might serve others in church. Be aware of ways you bring a consumer attitude, viewing church or worship as a product whose purpose is to please you.
Father in Heaven, I confess that I have looked at church the way I shop for a cell phone or groceries, just looking for a product to please me. Please give me a heart of true worship. Help me also not to judge church by how many people are going, or how popular it is. Instead, Lord, I affirm with Peter that Jesus spoke the words of eternal life. Indeed, that Jesus is the very Word that brings life—the Holy One of God. Regardless of how popular or unpopular the Gospel is, there is nowhere else I can go for life. I affirm what Jesus preached, that he is the Bread of Life. Thank you that Jesus continues to call me and point me back to himself. Amen.
Banner image by Heidi Fin on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Feeding Time.
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Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include: Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort, and Fear and The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. He lives in Vermont with his wife, dog, and cat, not far from three married sons, and is an active member of Memorial Baptist Church. Matthew is also a professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont.