Posted by: smstrouse | February 10, 2019

Mystic Fishing: Church in the 21st Century

3518252658_dcda301c80_bSermon for Epiphany 5

Sigh. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that what was good news in the 1stcentury has turned into a source of angst for the 21st.  “Don’t be afraid. From now on you’ll be catching people.” Well, as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that workin’ for you?”

I remember discussing this text with a group of pastors in western New York back in the early 1990s. Those of us who were in city churches were of the opinion that the fish being caught by the churches experiencing growth were in reality being scooped out of our congregations and transferred to aquariums out in the suburbs. It was a pretty depressing conversation.

But then we discovered the Church Growth Movement. We attended workshops and seminars, bought books and videos, followed church growth gurus who promised to teach us how to reach out (mainly) to younger members of our community. Back then it was Generation X, those born after the Baby Boomers. These experts told us that if we followed their instructions to the letter, our churches would grow. We had one such expert visit my church in Buffalo and promise that our little congregation – in a Northeast rustbelt city – would go from 50 people on Sunday to 500. I overheard one of our older members mutter, “But I don’t want 500 people.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favor of doing outreach to those searching for a way to explore their spirituality and to those with no church home. However, as a veteran of the church growth movement of the 90s, I know the pitfalls of easy characterizations and easy solutions. We actually bought a program called Blueprint for Church Growth. We received a big binder of step-by-step instructions – and a church growth consultant!

Looking back, the idea was ludicrous. We were a mainline church in a city itself in decline. But even more ludicrous was the advice of our “expert” consultant. He took one look at our building, sitting on the corner in the middle of two lovely lawns with large shade trees, and declared that we needed to rip out the trees and the lawns and put in parking lots. Rule #1 of church growth: you have to have a parking lot.

Needless to say, we did not tear up the lawns. They provided play space for our pre-Positively_no_trees,_Leesport_PAschool and summer program. They were places of hospitality for neighborhood gatherings, such as the annual National Night Out. The trees provided shade and beauty, as well as nesting places for birds. We were a green space in a city neighbor-hood. Should we really have “paved Paradise and put up a parking lot?”

I’m happy to report that the congregation is still there, some 25 years after our venture into church growth. It’s still small, but they’ve partnered with a suburban congregation and are doing vibrant, creative ministry together. When I returned for their 90th anniversary celebration in 2013, one of the things I enjoyed most was the picnic held out on the back lawn under that big beautiful tree.

Despite my obvious feelings about the experience, I learned an important lesson: there are no one-size-fits-all answers to the questions of how to catch fish for Jesus.  So when I see articles, books, videos, seminars, etc. with titles like “How to Effectively Reach Millennials” and “Simple Ways Your Church Can Reach and Keep Millennials,” I don’t take the bait. But it doesn’t mean I don’t care.

1549523927422You may or may not have heard of a relatively new ministry in our synod called Middle Circle. It was started by Pastor Anders Peterson as a way to reach people (mostly millennials, his own age group) who were not likely to connect to an existing church. It’s a ministry partially funded by my previous congregation, First United, San Francisco. First United was interested in reaching out to people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious,’ in hopes of attracting them to a progressive form of Christianity that would appeal to them more than a more traditional church.

We learned a lot in the process. One: “spiritual but not religious” is not a homogeneous population. They’re all over the map. Some don’t even like the word ‘spiritual,’ although they do all want a community where they can explore life’s meaning and values. So it’s definitely not a one-size-fits all operation. But I will say that Pastor Anders has been catching a lot of fish in his Middle Circle net. It doesn’t look at all like a traditional church, but maybe that’s a clue for us as we navigate the waters of the 21stcentury church.

Another thing we learned (to our dismay) is that, for most of that group, even the uber-progressive, outside-the-the-box congregation we considered ourselves to be is too traditional. Let me tell you, attracting people to the church these days is hard. As if you didn’t know. As if any mainline church doesn’t know, even the bigger ones.

A lot of the ways we learned to fish in the past just don’t work any longer. So the story of Simon and the other fishermen working all night and catching nothing is more like our experience than letting down the nets and catching so many fish that our nets – or our buildings – can’t hold them all.

Now, I am aware that I’m supposed to be bringing you good news – and all I’ve probably done so far is make you depressed about the future of the church. So it’s time to get to the good news. Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor and blogger wrote a surprisingly positive post about this week’s readings. Although it shouldn’t be surprising; it is the season of Epiphany after all. He wrote:
Get ready for a wild ride! Strap on your seat belts and put on your helmet! We’re entering the amazing realm of the Twilight Zone, Narnia, and Hogwarts, an enchanted world, wild and wonderful, with mysticism and miracle, signs and wonders, where God shows up and turns our world upside down. Where God asks, and then empowers us to be more than we can imagine!

 Wow! Is he reading the same story? But knowing Epperly’s writing, I’d expect him to find a deeper spirituality here and not simply a how-to manual of church growth.  Listen to what he says about Isaiah:


Dome of Hagia Sophia

Isaiah’s mystical experience in the Temple awakens us to the possibility that there may be “thin places” everywhere, as the Celtic Christians say. Places where the veil between heaven and earth is pierced and we see life as it is – Infinite. Where God’s grandeur abounds and angels guide our paths. Out of nowhere, God shows up – a theophany that rocks Isaiah’s world. The doors of his perception open and he experiences the majesty and wildness of the world – the mysterious, fascinating, and tremendous. Isaiah receives God’s transforming and healing touch and a blessing beyond belief. He is anointed by fire, and then given a task.

Then he asks:When we hear these words, “Whom shall I send” what will our response be? Surely God calls us each moment of the day with nudges, intuitions, insights, and encounters.

Then he goes on to I Corinthians, saying:
Like Isaiah, Paul’s mystical encounter with the Living Christ turned his world upside down and gave him the vocation of ministry with the Gentiles. This passage gives us confidence in God’s power in the world and invites us to consider our own calling. No one is bereft of God’s grace or power to embody God’s vision and be God’s represent-atives in the word.

And then to the gospel:
Not expecting anything, and disappointed over an unsuccessful night’s fishing, Peter is welcomed into a world of wonders. Jesus calls him to go further and despite his doubts, Peter follows Jesus’ advice and receives “more than he can ask or imagine.”

Peter’s experience mirrors the experience of many pastors and congregations. We have Unknownworked hard and sought to be faithful and yet our congregation shrinks in size, budgets are tight, and the demographics are against us. We have tried all the latest church growth programs and the downward trend continues. And yet, God offers one more thing – launch out into the deep, go toward the horizon, awaken to new possibilities. Don’t give up, be faithful and join your imagination with faithful action that goes beyond church survival to healing the world.

Now we see that – as we’ve known all along – God is in charge here. And there are epiphanies still to come. The possibility is always there for you, for me to have God show up and rock our world – and our church.

And while an epiphany can happen any time and quite unexpectedly, it certainly does not hurt for us to open up space in our souls, to develop our spiritual muscles, to be ready for when a ‘thin place’ opens up and gives us a glimpse into Infinity. 

And this isn’t just about a personal encounter with Divine Presence. This is also about re-creating, re-forming the Church with Holy Imagination and Creativity. It’s about launching out into the deep, awakening to new possibilities. No store-bought, cookie-cutter program will do it. It will take creativity and imagination, along with faithful action that will lead us out of despair or survival mode to renewing the Church and healing the world.

Remember how impossible Peter thought another fishing expedition would be that night: “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing.”
Yet he knew something was up; he knew enough about Jesus to say, “OK, if you say so, I’ll lower the nets.” Maybe he didn’t have any expectations; maybe he couldn’t even imagine what might happen. But he did it; he lowered the nets. Like Isaiah, he said, in effect, “Here am I. Send me!”

So, if anybody tells you they have all the answers to the mystery of being the Church in the 21st century, for only $19.95, I think we would do well to remember this prayer from Evening Prayer:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Christ our Savior.



Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year of the death of Uzziah, ruler of Judah, I saw YHWH sitting on a high and lofty judgment seat, in a robe whose train filled the temple.Seraphs were stationed above, each of them had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.

They would cry out to one another, “Holy! Holy! Holy! is YHWH Omnipotent! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”The doorposts and thresholds quaked at the sound of their shouting, and the Temple kept filling with smoke.

Then I said: “Woe is me, I am doomed! I have unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips! And my eyes have seen the Ruler, YHWH Omnipotent!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding an ember, which it had taken with tongs from the altar.The seraph touched my mouth with the ember. “See,” it said, “now that this has touched your lips, your corruption is removed and your sin is pardoned.”

Then I heard the voice of the Holy One saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”

“Here I am,” I said, send me!”

1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Sisters, brothers, siblings: I want to remind you of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received and in which you stand firm. You are being saved at this very moment by it, if you hold fast to it as I preached it to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain.

I handed on to you, first of all, what I myself received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried, and in accordance with the scriptures, rose on the third day; that he was seen by Peter, then by the Twelve.After that, he was seen by more than five hundred sisters, brothers, siblings at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.Next he was seen by James, then by all the apostles.Last of all, he was seen by me, as one yanked from the womb.

I am the least of the apostles; in fact, because I persecuted the church of God, I do not even deserve the name. But by God‘s favor I am what I am. This favor that God has given to me has not proven fruitless. Indeed, I have worked harder than all the others, not on my own, but through the grace of God.In any case, whether it be I or they, this is what we preach and this is what you believed.

Luke 5:1-11
One day, Jesus was standing by Lake Gennesaret, and the crowd pressed in on him to hear the word of God. He saw two boats moored by the side of the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.Jesus stepped into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a short distance from the shore; then, remaining seated, he continued to teach the crowds from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Pull out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Rabbi, we’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing. But if you say so, I will lower the nets.”

Upon doing so, they caught such a great number of fish that their nets were at the breaking point.They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and together they filled the two boats until they both nearly sank.

After Simon saw what happened, he was filled with awe and fell down before Jesus, saying, “Leave me, Rabbi, for I am a sinner!”For Simon and his shipmates were astonished at the size of the catch they had made, as were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s partners.

Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you’ll fish among humankind.”And when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

*** Translation is from The Inclusive Bible, Sheed & Ward (March 16, 2009).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: