Saturday, June 21, 2008

The “Church Growth” Sermon

I have prepared this sermon to preach tomorrow at my little LCMS church in St. Louis. The text is Luke 5:1-11.
Now it came about that while the multitude were pressing around Him and listening to the word of God, He was standing by the lake of Gennesaret; and He saw two boats lying at the edge of the lake; but the fishermen had gotten out of them, and were washing their nets. And He got into one of the boats, which was Simon's, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And He sat down and began teaching the multitudes from the boat. And when He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." And Simon answered and said, "Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but at Your bidding I will let down the nets." And when they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish; and their nets began to break; and they signaled to their partners in the other boat, for them to come and help them. And they came, and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus' feet, saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, "Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men." And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him.
Many preachers would borrow any excuse to preach a sermon on the popular topic of “church growth.” As for me, the Scripture lessons of the day compel me to preach a “church growth” sermon whether I want to or not.

Likewise, every congregation has its own expectations when someone gets up before them to talk about “church growth.” Big, bustling, vibrant congregations—churches that fulfill this world’s definition of success—churches that “worship” a thousand, fifteen hundred, or even two or three thousand people a week—might expect to hear a sermon about what we are doing to make the church grow. Congregations poised on the edge of becoming such powerhouses might expect to hear about the plans we are making, or the changes we are considering, to get this kind of “church growth.”

And then, perhaps, there are small congregations where the growth has stalled, or attendance is shrinking. Churches where there are more empty spaces than people in the pews. Churches where the splendor of past years has faded to a gloomy, unpromising present. Places where the culture of “church growth” talk has made folks so ashamed to belong to a church that isn’t numerically growing that they look around with disgust and guilt and believe that their congregation is going to die—or even that it should die. And perhaps they expect a “church growth” sermon to tell them whether or not it’s too late to change things so their church can grow again.

Is there any need to ask which category we belong to? But the “church growth” sermon I am here to preach may not be what you expect. Not your typical “church growth” sermon, the message I bring you today is a message of encouragement and hope from the Word of God, and even from the lips of Jesus Himself. I am here not to talk about the people-driven programs, plans, and changes that have brought an illusion of growth to some churches. I am here to talk about the true “church growth” which Christ accomplishes when, where, and by the means He chooses.

Let’s start with the story of the catch of fish and Jesus calling His first disciples. Is this story a miracle or a parable? When you and I were young, we probably had a little trouble remembering which was which. Sort of like the child who thought epistles were wives of the apostles. Let’s look at what happens in this story. These fisherman, who included at least three of Jesus’ earliest disciples, fished all night and caught nothing. The moment Jesus told them to let their nets down in the deep water, they caught so many fish that their nets began to break, their boats began to sink. That’s a miracle, right? But then again, perhaps it’s a parable. Because Jesus takes what has just happened and makes a point of it. He says: “Do not fear; from now on you will be catching men.” What He means is: “Look at what just happened here. Follow me, and the same kind of thing will happen, only with people instead of fish.” The parable seems to have hit its mark. The fishermen left everything and followed him.

As a miracle, it’s just a story about how great Jesus is, or how He got His disciples to follow Him. But as a parable, today’s lesson from Luke is a “church growth” message that applies to us, here, today. What happened with the fish is what happens with men. When the Gospel of Christ is preached, it does to people what the net did to those fish. And the reason it does so—the power that makes it work—is the same.

Peter, James, and John dragged their nets through the sea all night and caught nothing. Their bait had no effect. Their plans, their techniques, their maneuvers made no difference. Whether they did the same thing all night, or changed their strategy hour by hour, made no difference. By themselves, in and of themselves, they caught nothing. Not one fish! If I myself hadn’t gone out in a fishing boat and come back, hours later, empty handed, I would think these empty nets were a sign from God. But that’s nature. Sometimes you catch fish, sometimes you don’t, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Unless you’re Jesus, that is. Jesus said the word; Peter and his men, who had nothing to lose, let down their nets; and suddenly, where there had been no fish all night long, they caught more fish than they could pull aboard. Of themselves they could do nothing; but by the power of Jesus, by the Word of Jesus, they hauled in a tremendous catch.

“Church growth” stands on the same footing. We could change ever so many things and still see no growth. We could drift along forever and, based on our own efforts and gimmicks and angles, we might score a few new members . . . or we might not. Whether we as a congregation grow or not really isn’t in our hands. The power belongs to Christ. His power is located in His Word. When He decides that the church will grow, it will grow; and it will grow only by the power of His Word.

While it remains in His Word, the church grows. This church is growing, I say, whether or not that growth is apparent to our senses. For not all forms of “church growth” can be measured in numbers of weekly attendance or voting membership. When Peter threw himself at the feet of Jesus and cried, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” that was church growth. In that groveling, terrified figure you behold one of the Christian church’s greatest and earliest leaders. Jesus was reeling him in right then and there.

Thus a fisherman became a disciple: not because of a seeker-friendly worshp service, not because of a top-quality praise band, not because of a jumping and shouting preacher—if Jesus had done that, He would have upset the boat He preached from—and not because of a big, expensive church with overtones of a shopping mall. Peter fell down before Christ because the Word Jesus had preached from his boat, and the sign Jesus had shown him, convicted Peter of his sin. He fell down in repentance; he rose up forgiven, encouraged by Jesus’ words: "Fear not."

Your “church growth” is, likewise, powered by Jesus alone. He powers it with His Word and signs. Peter’s “church growth” began with Jesus proclaiming His Word on the water; likewise, your “church growth” begins with a washing of water and the word: the new birth of Baptism. Peter’s “church growth” continued with Jesus performing a miracle, conjuring an overabundance of fish out of an empty net; likewise, your “church growth” continues with the miracle of Jesus’ body and blood taking the place of mere bread and wine: one body sufficient to feed an endless multitude from the cross to the end of time; one sacrifice whose blood is sufficient to cover all mankind’s sins. With Word and sign, Jesus brought Peter to repentance, and with gracious promises He assured Peter of forgiveness. Likewise, by Word and Sacrament, by Law and Gospel, Jesus brings you to repentance and gives you forgiveness, so that by the “pure milk of the Word . . . you may grow in respect to salvation.”

The “church growth” powered by Jesus continues in each of you as you continue in His Word and Sacrament. But it also grows beyond you as He uses you, and all His Word-and-Sacrament-filled church, to catch more people and fill His nets. This does not take anything away from His Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). When He tells us to make disciples of all nations, He explains how this is done: by baptizing them and by teaching them all that He has instructed us. And He adds the promise, “Behold, I am with you even to the end of the age,” as an extra-special encouragement as if to say, “You will soon realize that you cannot do this without me. Fear not; I am with you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you (John 14:18). I will be wherever you gather in my name (Matthew 18:20). I will continually make you my disciples by my Word, for ‘If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (John 8:31-32). And by the same Word, I will make disciples through you. Fear not, for from now on you will be catching men.”

This is not to say you can sit back and be satisfied with hearing the Word, as if that is all that “church growth” entails. But it is a necessary starting place. In and of ourselves, we are helpless to make the church grow. No program, no technique, no method can enable us to catch men, or to make disciples. This is entirely the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament. We can be His instruments as He carries out that work; we have only to trust in His Word and use it.

Paul writes in today’s Epistle: “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For since . . . the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” This is Paul saying very plainly what Jesus spoke in a parable: human words appealing to current philosophy will fail; human signs, works, healings, tongues, and spiritual gifts will fail; but the word of the cross, the message preached, is God’s power to save. “For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

What you see in today’s “church growth” culture is a widespread loss of faith in the saving power of God’s Word. Oh, how their faith is tested—oh, how our faith is tested by the foolishness of the gospel! How easily we begin to doubt that the simple, clear proclamation of Christ’s teaching will accomplish everything! How quickly we begin trying to add other things, as if simply remaining faithful to His Word and Sacrament cannot make disciples or keep disciples in a living and growing church! How readily we rely on statistics, market studies, and surveys to find out what the unchurched want from us, while ignoring or dismissing the statistics that show the church stopped growing when it began chasing these numbers. What the unchurched really want from us is to know what to expect when they choose to grace us with their presence. And if they can expect to hear the message of what God expects from them—and what Jesus has done for them—this Law-Gospel “message preached” will make disciples. That is Christ’s promise; that is Christ’s power at work; that is what I ask you to trust and believe, both for your personal “church growth,” and so that your church may grow.

What became of the fish, the boats? Peter, James, and John left them behind, as Elisha left behind the field he was plowing. Perhaps we can read the Elijah-Elisha story from our first lesson into this situtation. Perhaps we can conclude that the fishermen-turned-disciples left those valuable boats, and that lucrative catch of fish, in the hands of servants or business agents who forwarded the sale price to them. Perhaps we can draw the conclusion that, like Elisha sacrificing his twelve oxen before following Elijah, Peter and the sons of Zebedee sacrificed their earnings from that miraculous catch to Jesus. We do hear that the disciples had a money box, though unfortunately their treasurer was Judas Iscariot. Things like that can happen in even the best-regulated church.

The simple fact is, Luke doesn’t tell us what became of the goods those disciples left behind. It doesn’t really matter. Your sacrifices to the common money box, your offerings to the general fund, aren’t what make disciples. But being disciples, you make these sacrifices because the thrill of following a master like Jesus is worth it; because the salvation He gives you is more valuable than all; and because everything you give can be used to promote the “message preached,” which is God’s power to save. I do not say to you, “Give so that the church may grow.” I say instead: “Grow in the Word of Christ, grow in His Sacrament, and you will give because Christ has saved you.” I do not say, “Let us do whatever it takes to bring in more people so they can save the church.” Rather, I say: “Let us follow Christ so that, through His Word, He may save us and others.”

Listen to Christ calling you to be His disciple. Abide in His Word; trust in His promises; leave behind, or even sacrifice, anything that stands in the way of following Him. As surely as Jesus has sworn to make you fishers of men, He will preach the message of His cross through you. Perhaps not as an individual, but certainly as one body in Christ, He will use you to catch people and save them.

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