When I started going to my church almost six years ago, I was lost. I didn’t have any clear idea of where I was headed. I had received a call to ministry, but I didn’t know what that would look like or how to go about it. I had also gone through some hard things that left me skeptical and bitter toward the church.
What I found was a community that came around me and cared for me. They talked to me about my story, about what I longed for, and what God was doing. They invited me to their homes, drew me in to small groups and walked me in to new ways to offer music and creativity. I had not realized the depths to which I had become angry with God for not coming through for me, but they saw it quickly and helped me work through it. I found out later that the community mission was “healing the city one person at a time.” That doesn’t mean I was the only person the community was caring for at the time, but it did mean that the community saw me and invested in me.
Discipleship is the backbone of the church. Walking with people as they learn about Jesus and His sacrifice is what the church is called to do, and that takes many different forms. From one-on-one reading of the Bible and mentorship, to sermons and singing together on Sundays, we learn and grow together toward a more intimate relationship with God.
Still there is one aspect of discipleship that we often neglect, and yet it was one of the biggest parts of Jesus’ ministry on earth. It is the call to “the least of these.” In Matthew 25, Jesus lays out a vision for His followers. He references the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned, and He says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
We often view this call, rather ironically, as secondary to teaching people about Jesus. Or we view it as a means to an end. I went to one church where every week they operated a food pantry, and over 300 people showed up to receive from the church. However, the goal did not seem to be caring for the community around the church, but rather to get as many people as possible in to preach at them. It was a good ministry, but it missed the mark. Jesus didn’t feed the 4,000 so that they would listen to him. He fed them because He had compassion on them (Mark 8:2–3).
I have heard it said that caring for people is teaching them about Jesus so they might be saved from hell. I think the idea comes from James 5:20, but that verse does not then dismiss the example of Jesus and the disciples, let alone the prophets in the Old Testament, who called God’s people to care for and defend the cause of the fatherless and the widow.
In our churches, we talk a lot about discipleship. We have tracks for new believers and ways to identify leaders. We develop models, small groups, and new Bible studies geared toward spiritual growth, but we need to think again about what it means to care for “the least of these.” The early church realized it was biased in how food was distributed, and they changed the model. They did not neglect teaching, but they made sure that people were being cared for equally. It’s important to note that the first martyr in the church was not one of the teachers, but rather one of the men they put in charge of the distribution of food (Acts 6–7).
The community of Christ is not just about Sunday. It is about life together. All our models and discipleship will be for naught if we do not care for each other. The ministry of Jesus and the disciples gave us the example to follow.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:37–40).
Mark Crawford is the assistant editor of Light + Life. He resides in Tucson, Arizona.