No one took an official head count of how many people came to our outreach last night, but we blew through 300 hot dogs easily, so it must have been in the 300-400 range. Whatever the exact figure, it is safe to say that we had a crowd. As I thought of this crowd and their presence on our church property, I kept praying, “God, what do we do next? These are neighbors you have called us to minister to; how do we do that faithfully?”
I do not have an explicit answer to those questions yet, but thankfully Jesus has already modeled the starting points in his ministry. The words “crowd” and “crowds” occur 126 times in the gospels, giving us a paradigm for thinking about the crowd that we encountered last night. Here are the four most prominent responses Jesus displayed toward the crowds in his day:
1. Jesus felt compassion
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The compassion Jesus experienced was a wrenching in his gut over the situation of the crowds. His visceral empathy moved him to many action points: healing their sick (14:14), feeding them (15:32), and calling his disciples to pray (Matthew 9:38, see next point).
As we think about last night’s crowd, our first call is to feel compassion for them. This preserves us from the cynicism or condescension that are more natural but less Christlike. It reminds us that Jesus’ posture toward humanity is one of redemptive invitation. He came to serve and sacrifice so that lost sheep would again have a shepherd and would return to God’s flock.
2. Jesus commanded his disciples to pray
“Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest'” (Matthew 9:38).
Jesus wanted his disciples to feel overwhelmed at the magnitude of the work to be done when they saw the crowds, yet he did not want them to despair. Rather, he wanted them to cry out to God to raise up laborers. As we look at the crowds in our context, it should shape our prayers. We should pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers to our Spanish-speaking neighbors. We should pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers to serve those caught in cycles of poverty. We should pray to the Lord of the harvest to send those who will be intentionally involved in the daily lives of our neighbors. And we should be prepared for him to send us.
3. Jesus preached truth
Though Jesus constantly had crowds following him, not one word he spoke or deed he did could be construed as crowd-pleasing. His faithfulness was to his Father, not the crowds. So Jesus made pointed demands, like “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34–35). When crowds followed him around hoping for more miraculously multiplied food, Jesus told them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). He told the crowds point blank that they were an evil generation (Luke 11:29).
As we think about serving, loving, and being in relationship with our neighbors, we must never blunt the sharp edges of the cost of discipleship. We can speak with grace and diplomacy, but we must not shrink back from talking about heaven and hell, the exclusivity of trust in Jesus for salvation, God’s standards for sexuality, and other less popular topics. We must follow Jesus’ own example of faithfulness to the Father in our teaching.
4. Jesus withdrew from the crowds
“And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23). In order to best serve the crowds, Jesus had to withdraw from the crowds. He consistently spent a significant amount of time in communion with his Father, setting an example for us. If we want to love the crowds God has called us to serve, we must make time to draw near to God and receive from him the grace and truth we will share with others.
As we continue to pursue creative ways to reach out to the crowds in our neighborhood, may we learn from our Savior and serve faithfully!