July 12, 2020
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the Church Growth Movement engulfed the Christian Church in America. The Church Growth Movement seeks to grow the church by using sociological and behavioral science, which means, they use marketing tactics, which focus on potential church members as consumers. Countless books were written and programs were employed that promised congregational growth and success in the mission field by focusing on people: what they want; what they feel like they need. Ironically, as churches around the country employed these Church Growth measures, Christians throughout the church practiced measures to restrict growth of their own families (largely in pursuit of material gain), which of course meant Christians were bringing fewer children to church. As the church sought to satisfy the desires of the people, the people sought to satisfy their own desires, whether that involved church attendance or not. And now, after well over half a century of concerted effort by the Church Growth Movement, the Christian Church in America has shrunk dramatically. Far fewer people attend a Christian service on a regular basis. Yes, some congregations experienced isolated and sporadic growth, and megachurches have become a regular site around the country. But the number of practicing Christians has dwindled in our land steadily over the past two generations. The Church Growth Movement failed.
Yet, that does not mean the Church Growth Movement died or that churches stopped trying to morph themselves to match the changing desires of the fickle masses. Churches continue to find ways to get people to attend apart from preaching the pure Gospel that all people need. People know better than God much like children know better than their parents. If we can turn evangelism into a science, we’ll worship our science instead of believe the clear words of Jesus. We will make idols of our own intelligence instead of listening and believing what Jesus says.
Simon Peter was an experienced fisherman. He made his living on Lake Gennesaret. He’d toiled all night trying to catch fish, and he got skunked. He had nothing to show for his labor. When Jesus came to preach from his boat, he was cleaning his nets for storage. He’d given up working for the day. Yet, after Jesus finished preaching God’s word to the people, Jesus tells Peter to push out into the deep and drop the nets down for a catch. Peter knows that this won’t work. It’s the wrong place and the wrong time. He even explains to Jesus that they had already labored all night when one could expect to catch fish. Yet, Peter shows remarkable faith. He says, “At your word, I will let down the nets.” And as we just heard, they caught such a large catch of fish that their nets began to break and both of their boats began to sink! And this illustrates to us how God’s Word is superior to our intellect.
The word of God is foolishness to those who think they are wise. And the greatest word of God, which is the power of salvation to all who believe, is that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the whole world. Jesus’ crucifixion earns for us eternal life! This is folly to the Greeks. This is a stumbling block to the Jews. But to those who believe (both Jews and Greeks), this is the righteousness of God! God chose what is foolish to shame the wise and what is weak to shame the strong. It is the word of the cross of Christ which saves, despite what our intellect and life experience tells us.
We are a proud people. We boast of great achievements in science and technology. We’ve split the atom. We’ve landed men on the moon! We’ve sequenced the genome of the coronavirus so to pursue treatments at a rapid pace. How can we believe in a God, who created the world in six days by the power of his word? How can we believe that God became man and that his death on the cross could make atonement for our sins? How can we believe that water poured on the head of a baby while the pastor says a few words could do anything, but get the kid’s hair wet? How can we believe that bread and wine could be the body and blood of a man who lives in heaven? These are not things that scientific people believe! These statements go against our experience and reason! Yet, Peter was an experienced man. He knew what he was doing. And he believed Jesus’ word over his own experience. And in so doing, he experienced the power of God.
As we use our reason and our experiences, we must remember that it is God who gave us our reason and our senses. We may have split the atom, but God created the atom and engineered the entire universe. We may have landed some people on the moon, but God created the moon and set it on its orbit around the earth, so that our planet could sustain life with perfectly orchestrated seasons. We may be able to dissect genomes, but God is the one who designed life in all its forms. He is our Father, who created us. His word is more trustworthy than our reason.
Sometimes God humbles us in order for us to learn to trust in him. Farmers are smart people. They need to be biologists, mechanics, economists, and accountants all in the same day. They learn these skills through experience. Yet, no matter how much experience the farmer has or how much he labors, it is God who provides the growth. And whatever your source of income is, this is an important lesson to learn. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. … It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Psalm 127:1-2)
Peter labored all night trying to catch fish, but he got nothing. Why? Was he a bad fisherman? No. Everyone who labors knows that your labor does not necessarily result in success. And God withholds success from us at times, so that we remember that it is not actually our labor that feeds us, but God himself. God opens his hands and satisfies the desires of every living thing. He is the one who feeds your children and provides for their needs. Jesus tells us to look at the birds of the air, who neither toil, nor spin, nor gather into barns, and yet our heavenly Father feeds them all. How much more valuable are we than some birds! Yes, God commands that we must work. We must eat our bread by the sweat of our brow. But it is God who provides for our needs. And while learning this lesson can be painful and worrisome as you try to crunch the numbers to see how you’ll make ends meet, this message is comforting to those who wait. When times were good, it was not your labor that accomplished this, but God’s most gracious hand. And God is no less gracious now. Trust in him. He will provide for you.
And this message is all the more important when we consider our spiritual needs. It is a blessing when you’ve got your act together; when you’ve resisted those temptations that bring you shame and guilt, when you’ve come to church and feel like a real Christian. You feel comfortable to be with God. That seems rational. Yet, when you’ve broken God’s commandments and ignored his word; when you’ve done what you know is wrong and feel ashamed, it seems rational to hide from God. It makes sense to try to make up some spiritual ground before you can come before God. Yet, that is not what God’s word teaches us. Rather, God bids us to flee to him when we are ashamed! When your conscience strikes you with guilt, go to Him who alone can take your guilt away! Simon Peter, when he realizes who it is who is standing in his boat cries, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Yet, Jesus tells him not to be afraid. Jesus forgives his sins!
Jesus tells Peter, the sinful man, that from now on he will catch men alive. Jesus calls sinners to catch sinners and bring them into his Church. They do this by preaching God’s Word. Our church confesses in the Augsburg Confession Article V, “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given [John 20:22]. He works faith, when and where it pleases God [John 3:8], in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake. This happens not through our own merits, but for Christ’s sake.”
Jesus called Peter, the sinner, to preach the Gospel, so that people would be gathered into his Church. And as Scripture records, Peter did not stop being a sinner. He continued to struggle with sin even as he proclaimed the Gospel to sinners. Well, how can this be that sinners can be used to save sinners? Well, it’s because it is not the sinful men who are adding these people to the Church, but God. As St. Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6)
The Holy Spirit works through the word of God spoken by the ministers of the Gospel to create and sustain faith. The word of God is the net, which catches men alive. We see this in our Gospel lesson as the crowd is pressing in on Jesus in order to hear the word of God from him, so much so, that Jesus needs to get into a boat and push off into the water.
Yet, just as sometimes the fisherman casts his net all through the night and does not catch any fish, so sometimes the word of God is preached and no one comes to hear. Moses, Elijah, the apostles, even Jesus himself were rejected at times and the word of God from their mouths was ignored. Did that mean that the word of God was lacking? Does that mean that sinful men must add something to God’s word or take something away from it to make it more effective? No. Just as the farmer must wait on the Lord to cause the growth and the fisherman must trust in the Lord to bring the shoal of fish into the net, so must the preacher trust in the Gospel to create faith in the hearts of sinners.
Every congregation wants its numbers to grow. Yet, getting warm bodies into a building is not our end goal. It is bringing sinners to salvation, which can only be done through faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this to be done, the Gospel must be preached. Everyone is a sinner. Everyone needs to be saved from sin and hell. All people share the same need. Only the Gospel that God forgives sinners for Christ’s sake can save. Only the Gospel can create faith.
The greatest fear I have as a Christian parent is that my children would reject the faith. I want them to trust in Jesus. I want them to be in heaven with me. Yet, there is no power in me that can make them trust in Jesus. Only the power of the Gospel, which we all have. Do you want your children to go to heaven? Teach them about Jesus! Confess that he forgives sins and saves. Bring them to church. Do we want our church to grow? The better question is, “Do we want sinners to be saved?”. Then we should confess Christ. Then the Gospel that God saves sinners by grace for the sake of Jesus’ death and resurrection must be preached here every week. We cast the net Jesus gives us. God provides the success. And he promises, just as he provides for the needs of our bodies, even more so will he fill his Church by means of the Gospel. May we be among those saved for Christ’s sake. Amen.