Many things pass for “evangelism” and “preaching the Gospel” which look very much unlike anything seen in the New Testament. Apparently, the time-tested means of the New Testament have not proven satisfactory to many, and so all kinds of other appeals are made than simply “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Apparently, in our modern society, it’s not good enough to have “merely” a spiritual message. If you don’t have the “stuff” that people are looking for, you won’t get “converts”. And so it is that well-meaning people seek to provide “inducements” for people to learn of Jesus: potlucks, gymnasiums, concerts, and all other kind of social and entertainment events, all done in the name of evangelism! Does any of this conform to what we see in the New Testament?
“But these things are popular, and how can they be wrong?”, many will argue. “After all, Jesus fed people.” Well, yes, He did. Let’s look at what occurred.
Jesus therefore took the loaves; and having given thanks, he distributed to them that were set down; likewise also of the fishes as much as they would. And when they were filled, he saith unto his disciples,
“Gather up the broken pieces which remain over, that nothing be lost.”
So they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with broken pieces from the five barley loaves, which remained over unto them that had eaten.
When therefore the people saw the sign which he did, they said, “This is of a truth the prophet that cometh into the world” (John 6:11-14).
Wow! Jesus fed the people and they recognized Him as a prophet! But Jesus departs lest the people make Him into a King (John 6:15)! When the people track Him down the next day, and they ask why He departed, He responds:
Jesus answered them and said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw signs, but because ye ate of the loaves, and were filled. Work not for the food which perisheth, but for the food which abideth unto eternal life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him the Father, even God, hath sealed” (John 6:26-27).
Jesus then exhorts them to not labor for the bread that perishes, but the bread of eternal life: Himself. He then teaches them “difficult things,” the need to eat His body and drink His blood, and yet also the suffering and sacrifice He would endure. And what was the result of this preaching?
Upon this many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.
Jesus said therefore unto the twelve, “Would ye also go away?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:66-68).
Jesus fed five thousand people, taught a spiritual message, and left with fewer followers than before He began! Only the original Twelve, not induced with food, remained. The people were more than willing to accept Jesus as the prophet when He gave them physical bread; when it came time to hear the message of truth, one that causes unease on account of the need for sacrifice and suffering, they fled.
It is a truth, then, that when you preach with food, you get converts to food. This applies to any physical enticement; after all, as it is written:
While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).
It is exceedingly difficult to convert people to eternal life when you offer them but temporal things. When evangelism is reduced to food drives, hospital care, childcare, and other “social services”, people equate “churches” or “Christians” with such things, and not the matters of the Spirit.
We have been commanded, individually, to assist others. The judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46 is presented in terms of whether one has assisted those in need or not. On the other hand, helping those in need is a way by which you reflect Christ’s light in you (Matthew 5:13-16), leading people to the spiritual message. Thus, feeding and caring for people is well and good, and might well provide an opportunity to preach the Gospel, but feeding people is not the preaching of the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and on its own is not our ultimate goal. When social services are substitutes for the Gospel, people may be physically helped, but are not saved; the great has been sacrificed for the good.
How, then, should the Gospel be preached? Look at how the message was delivered in the first century! Yes, the Apostles did work signs and wonders, but that was not preaching the Gospel: that was demonstrating the fact that God had given them authority. People were brought to the Gospel because of the message. They heard the message and desired to respond. People were to accept or reject the actual Gospel message: Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Son of God, who died on the cross, raised on the third day, ascended to heaven, rules as Lord, and will return one day. The Apostles did not need to stage a potluck. They did not have to set up a concert to get people to come. They simply went out and presented the message to whomever would hear.
We have the same charge to this day (Matthew 28:18-20). We do well to go out, embody Jesus, and proclaim His message. We do well to not expect the preaching of the Gospel to be done by social systems, collective, collaborative projects, or merely by evangelist, but take up our burden and tell people how to get out of sin and death. People are no less in sin today than they were 2,000 years ago. The antidote to sin is also still the same. May we proclaim Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and prove fruitful in the Lord’s vineyard!
Ethan R. Longhenry