Jesus said, “Follow me and I will have you fishing for people.”
A stranger in a small town happens upon a little boy fishing at a local pond. “Any good fishin’ ‘round here?” the stranger askes. “Some,” the boy replies. “What do you catch?” the stranger askes. “Nothing,” answers the boy. “But I thought you said there was some good fishing around here,” says the puzzled stranger. The boy looks up at him and says, “Mister, there’s a big difference between fishin’ and ‘ketchin’!”
I grew up in an era when everybody went to church. Our church was so full it had two different Sunday School hours, each with a class for every individual age and grade. Our youth group teemed with young people – it was nothing to have 50 kids or more at any particular meeting. If you wanted to attend the 11:00 service on Christmas Eve you needed to be there by 10:00. I can’t say the church of my childhood did a lot of ‘ketchin’ because it did not do much ‘fishin’. Back in the day it just seemed the fish jumped into the boat. Like I said, everybody went to church.
That began to change toward the end of the 1970’s, at least in the church where I grew up. Attendance at youth group meetings was half of what it had been. The early Sunday School hour was nixed. Empty spaces in the pews began to appear at holiday services.
The numbers for the Episcopal Church are not pretty. We had nearly 3 million members when I was ordained in 1987. Our denomination was already in decline at that time, having lost some 400,000 members from our peak years in the mid-sixties. Membership in the Episcopal Church today stands at 1.7 million, a 44% drop. People argue about the reasons for this – liberal policies, cultural changes, my preaching. The truth is, when you decline by nearly half all these reasons and more contribute.
I hope you have taken the opportunity to look at the Bishop’s Search Profile on our diocesan website. It is very well done and informative on many different levels. Here is one thing I learned from it: parishes in our diocese can be grouped into three areas – those that are growing, those maintaining, and those declining. 16 parishes report they are growing, while 15 state they are maintaining. 72 parishes in our diocese report they are in decline. That is a staggering number!
For the record, we at St. Paul’s are one of the fifteen holding our own. Our average Sunday attendance in 2007, the year you called me to be your rector was 92.6. It rose to 102.3 the next year, which is the high level mark during my time with you. The low level came in 2017 when our average attendance was 79.2. While my health had its ups and downs last year, at least our attendance was up – 86.6 people on a typical Sunday.
Fishin’ and ketchin’
It is not that the Episcopal Church is broken while all the others are thriving. The hopeful(?) truth is we are losing members at a rate significantly less than most other denominations. Our society as a whole is turning away from regular participation in organized religion. Only 20% report they attend a church service at least once a month. Just 6% of all churches are growing. Every year 1,000 new churches are launched, which may seem like a lot, but 38,000 are needed just to keep pace our country’s population growth. Every year 4,000 churches close their doors.
Yes, there are a few “bigger is better” churches that attract hundreds and even thousands of people to their services. The reasons for their success are as varied as the reasons for the decline of other churches, but the jury on their sustainability is still out. One of my sisters attends what used to be the largest church in the Akron area. While it has successfully planted sister congregations in growing suburbs, its original inner-city location is in significant decline. The average age of its membership is older than ours and its future is anything but assured.
John and Wanda Rector and I spent the last two days in Williamsburg attending our annual diocesan council. Our featured speakers told us about a British church movement called “Fresh Expressions”, which are new and diverse efforts to reach “dones” and “nones” – those who have been a part of a church, but left and those who have never been a part of a church. We were told 50-60% of today’s population may never set foot inside a church, not even once.
I listened intently and took copious notes, hoping to find the answer for parishes like ours. As an aside, in the two evenings we were in Williamsburg, the Rectors and I enjoyed filling in crossword puzzles. Of the two – figuring out the future of the church and figuring out the answer to obscure clues, crosswords turned out to be the easier puzzle by far!
Actually, the good news is this effort making headway, breathing new life into near-dormant English churches, is not all that much different from what we do here at St. Paul’s. Fresh Expressions encourages people to pursue their dream while inviting others to join them. It may or may not be held within the walls of a church building. Its focus may be personal growth, service to others, spiritual enrichment, or just about anything. Fresh Expressions looks a lot like a quilters’ group, reading sessions with therapy dogs, summer meal programs, a small group bible study, a hiking club, and a host of other initiatives we have right here in our parish. Not all Fresh Expressions last forever. But each is a way for people to come together and at some level sense God is in their midst.
When Jesus asked a small group of fishermen to head back out on the waters to cast their nets, he was talking to a group of grizzled veterans adept at what they did. They had been fishing all night, but had nothing to show for it. The ‘ketchin’ had eluded them. Still, at Jesus’ behest, they were willing to give it another try. I like how in the other miraculous catch story Jesus calls from the shore and encourages the same frustrated fishermen to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Somehow, doing the same thing they had always done, but doing it in a new way, allowed them to accomplish what they had been unsuccessful in doing. It is a potent image for the church and for our parish in this time. It reminds us ultimately Jesus is the one who finds the fish. We must be willing to keep doing what we do well, but perhaps do it in a new way.
Fishin’ and ‘ketchin’.
By my count, over the course of the last seven days nearly 500 people came into our building. For every person who attended Sunday worship six people came here for another reason. By any measure, this means we are doing a lot of fishin’. Some day, some of these people may become regular worshippers and financial contributors. Many may not. But we have set our sights on something much bigger than membership stats and operating budgets. In and through this place we want folks to know and experience God’s love for all people made known in Jesus Christ. We want them to know this so deeply that they are strengthened to make God’s love known in and through them.
I am not discouraged by the church’s present nor by the prospects of its future. Our future may not look like what we see around us today and it most certainly will not look like the church of my childhood, at least not any time soon. But bigger does not always mean better and bigger does not necessarily imply more faithful. I dare say more people at St. Paul’s are involved each week in a hands-on effort to express God’s love than ever were at the much larger church I grew up in. And I don’t know that 500 people ever came through its doors on a typical week because it saw itself as more of a Sunday country club than a missionary outpost.
The image of the church as fishing for people is still a good one, but if it was the only one all we used in order to determine if we are doing our job all we would need to do is count the people and tally the money. Using these metrics alone, we would fall on our knees and confess our ineptitude. The truth is we are casting our nets, perhaps more so than ever. Another image Jesus uses for the church is light. “You are the light of the world.” Jesus said, “You don’t hide a light. You put it on a stand so it can give light to the whole house.” Does St. Paul’s radiate with God’s love for the world? Absolutely. Do we shine this light only behind our closed doors once the worship service has started? Absolutely not! Will our light draw more fish into our boat? Only time will tell. Will God’s mission in this world be thwarted? Never. Will St. Paul’s have a place in God’s mission? As long as we to be a part of it.