A vast crowd was there as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he taught them many things. — Mark 6:34
At the beginning of the 20th century, a serious issue split the American church. Some of the “liberal” ministers, who had been influenced by German theologians, preached that the church’s mission was to deal with society’s ills and thus to usher in God’s kingdom. On the other hand, more traditional, or “conservative,” Christians believed that the church’s task was not so much to change man’s lot on earth but rather to make man fit for heaven. The latter, conservative approach was called “pie in the sky when you die” by those who opposed it, while the former, liberal approach was called “the social gospel” by its detractors.
The attempts to usher in God’s kingdom by social engineering in the name of Christ fell on hard times during the great World Wars of the 20 century—particularly as atrocities perpetrated by so-called Christian nations became known. So, as the century ran its course, the liberal churches, which had espoused the social gospel, went into serious decline, while conservative churches, which preached the gospel of salvation from sin and the hope of eternal life, flourished.
However, toward the end of the 20th century, many of the same churches that had reacted negatively to the social gospel of the liberals began to rethink their understanding of the church’s mission. They read passages such as the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” and could not overlook the fact that Jesus dealt with physical as well as spiritual needs.
When Jesus saw the “vast crowd... he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he taught them many things” (Mark 6:34). Jesus addressed people’s spiritual needs by proclaiming the truth of God’s kingdom to them. But it soon became apparent that the people were hungry. So, to the surprise of his disciples, Jesus said, “You feed them” (6:37).
The disciples doubted whether the hungry throng was their responsibility, but Jesus had no doubts! So he sent his men scurrying around, and they pitifully mustered inadequate resources. Yet Jesus gladly accepted and wonderfully blessed what was gathered, and the people were fed—physically!
There is now general agreement that the church’s mission involves concern for both the physical and the spiritual needs of the crowds, but there the consensus ends. Some say we should feed the crowds to get them to listen to the gospel. Others say we should feed them because they’re hungry, whether they listen or not. And still others say we only need to feed those who respond to the gospel.
Every person who eats should remember those who starve. And each who rejoices in the gospel should have compassion for those who have never heard it once. Jesus did!
For further study: Mark 6:30-44
Content taken from The One Year Book of Devotions for Men by Stuart Briscoe. Copyright ©2000. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.