Feeding the Five Thousand
15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
I went back to the house my family lived in during my junior high and high school years. My grandfather developed macular degeneration, lost his wife, and he and our family decided to live together. We added to his existing home and shared some wonderful years together. Since then, my parents have divorced, my family is a little more scattered and is living farther apart, and my grandfather has moved to live with other members of our family.
I went back to retrieve a bed with the help of my mother and her new husband. I arrived before they did and I no longer have a key to the house, so I began to wander. The grass had grown up. The water garden, with its koi pond and waterfall, was silent. The waterfall had since stopped running and the fish were gone. It felt different coming back to such a familiar place in with such an unfamiliar familial milieu.
I walked past the house, past the water garden, and along a fence toward the road. The grasshoppers were fleeing from my path with each step. As I reached the road, I came upon a peach tree that was planted when we moved to the house years ago. For many years in a row, the fruit has been ravaged by beetles. This was what I was expecting to see. However, there – where no one lives anymore, where the waterfall no longer runs, where we no longer eat Thanksgiving turkeys or check our stockings at the fireplace on Christmas morning – peaches were ripening.
You can always tell when an organization begins to stagnate and decline. There is lethargy, fear, mistrust, and resignation. The proverbial waterfall stops circulating into the pond and the waters of baptism – the entryway into the Church – become stagnant. The fish die or are carried away by the herons. Many of our United Methodist congregations in the United States that are one hundred years old or older are what all of the research statistics, spreadsheets, and Cabinets call “declining” congregations.
John Flowers and Karen Vannoy have a great article about the unspoken “incentives” to church decline at Ministry Matters:
Church-growth consultants and revitalization coaches tell you to update your facilities, paint your fellowship hall, tile your women’s restroom, and paint baby giraffes and elephants on the walls of your new jungle-themed toddler area. They tell you to add a new worship service with LED lights and a band. They ask you to invest in glossy postcards and a new website with e-giving and an image-driven format. They ask you to corral the elderly into a commitment group that will leave their estates to your permanent endowment. All of these things are great, but without the energy and the commitment of clergy and laity to work together in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, none of that really matters. Buying a paint job for a car without an engine is a waste of time and money. This isn’t what gets the grass mowed, the waterfall flowing, and a family gathered at the fireplace.
I pastored a church with an aging membership and slow, if not steady, growth in attendance and annual giving. At my last charge conference there, I asked two challenging questions:
1) Do you want to be the graduating class?
2) How many of you will be gone fifteen to twenty years from now?
The first question is essential to answer, and many churches are in this phase. Does the congregation want to seek out a group to pass the baton to, or serve as the last leg of the race? The second question, while uncomfortable to discuss, is important to consider in long-range planning for a church. From dust we came, and to dust we shall return.
In the passage from Matthew at the beginning of the post, we find Jesus and the disciples in a place that many churches find themselves.
The place is deserted. The hour is late. Send them away so that they may buy food for themselves.
However, it is Jesus who says
They need not go away. You give them something to eat.
Loaves and fish were the standard fare for a peasant in 1st Century Palestine. Some scholars say the miracle performed here was symbolic in nature. Perhaps by the disciples giving up food from their “private stores” it encouraged everyone else to reveal their hidden food and everyone got to eat. Others link it inextricably to the Eucharist, to the point that they believe everyone simply received a tiny piece of bread and fish and the meal was more about inclusion and community than becoming full after being hungry. With 5,000 men listed as being present, there could have actually been as many as 20,000, so I’m not so sure I believe that.
This is the only miracle recorded in all four canonized Gospels, so I see it as an extremely important event. It is also one of the only miracles intentionally repeated by Jesus on two separate occasions. God provides enough that there are twelve baskets left over. This isn’t a great deal of leftovers for a group numbering in the thousands. This tells us that God provides just enough and a little left over, not an overabundance. If anyone becomes greedy or wasteful, there ends up not being enough. If we fall into the incentives of decline or buckle under the perceived enormity of the problem of decline, the miraculous of the Divine seems miraculously less so to clergy and laity. And this can be sensed by the crowd, I assure you. It was nothing short of trusting in and committing to the words of Christ and acting them out with faith in the community that turned the deserted place and the late hour into the Lord’s Table.
Updated facilities are important; websites must be friendly and inviting; children’s areas must be clean and safe and fun. Endowments allow for the long-range planning of ministries. However, if any of these elements are elevated above or are pursued more than (or instead of) the Good News of Jesus Christ that makes disciples that transform the world, the mark has been missed.
The church I pastored decided not to be the graduating class. They strengthened and improved their ministry to the poor of the community, and are now the highest-functioning and serving food bank in their county. They only have forty-five people present on Sunday mornings. The disciples decided not to send the crowds away, and with the guidance of Christ discovered the abundance of faith.
One savior, a few disciples, some baskets left over, a ripening peach tree in a deserted place…reminders all of the fruit that comes when we commit to the life and teachings of Christ in the local church. These small groups and individuals helped reach out in 1st Century Palestine in powerful ways that have reverberated into 2013 and will reach beyond our lives to those who come after us. It was Margaret Mead who said:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
May it be so for the local church.