This time of year United Methodist pastors are thinking about the growth of the church as we fill out our yearly statistical reports. The reports for New England are due next Sunday. Each year we count the numbers of baptisms, confirmations, new professing members, deaths transfers and withdrawals from the church. We report the average worship attendance, the numbers of children in Christian Education, the numbers of adults in short term and long term small groups. This is the time when we think about the growth, or decline, of our congregations.
This is also the time of year when the season of Lent begins. Ash Wednesday is this week. Lent leads to the celebration of Easter on March 27 and the season of Easter extends through to Pentecost on May 15.
The season of Lent was developed as a period of intense learning and prayer in preparation for joining the church through baptism. The purpose of Easter was not originally to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus – Christians did that every week in the celebration of Holy Communion. Easter was a time for new followers of Jesus who had begun to unite their lives to him in spirit and in truth to mark that covenant through baptism. In baptism they died to their sins, to their old self, and put on Christ – becoming like him.
The catechumens had to learn a lot, and exhibit real life changes that come when we unite our lives to Christ. But becoming like Christ is an ongoing process – it doesn’t happen in one ceremony. The wisdom of the early church was that some things could only be taught once the new members had actually experienced the sacraments. So the learning continued through the season of Easter.
Lent and Easter are seasons of growth. Both a time for the growth of the church, taking in new members by baptism, and growth of the individual members - intentional spiritual growth. This is our response to Jesus’ invitation to “follow me.” When we focus on the spiritual disciplines we can help all Christian disciples draw closer to our Master. It’s in our DNA as followers of Jesus – when Lent and Easter come around it’s time to think about the growth of the church.
Today’s gospel lesson from Luke makes a good introduction to these seasons of Lent and Easter. The Gospel writers use the metaphor of fishing to describe church growth. Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen. Jesus chose them Simon and James and John in the inner circle – the other nine guys and the women like Mary and Martha and Mary Magdalene. Jesus worked on developing a deeper relationship with them even as he continued ministering to the crowds.
In today’s story we see how Jesus caught these fishermen. According to Luke, Jesus borrowed their boat to use as a kind of pulpit as he preached to the crowds. First he taught them all, then he pulled Simon aside and gave him instruction on how to fish. Simon objected at first. After all, what can the son of a carpenter tell fishermen about fishing? But there was something about Jesus that moved Simon to obey. He went out into deeper water and then caught so many fish the nets began to break, and the boats began to sink. Simon then felt unworthy for such a blessing. But Jesus used the moment to commission Simon Peter and to invite him to start learning how to catch people. As they left their boats on the shoreline behind them and started to follow Jesus, they indeed learned how to fish for people – upon Peter, the rock, Jesus built the church. As I read this story today, at the edge of the season of Lent, as I reflect on the growth patterns of our church I hear Jesus telling us. It’s time to go fishing.
When the Kingdom Kids met on Monday and heard this story of Jesus inviting fishermen to fish for people I shared some statistics with them. In 1990 there were about 207 official members of SWUMC. Today we have 182. But official membership doesn’t say much these days because there are many official members of churches all over this country who rarely participate in the week to week life of the church. It’s a much smaller number who actually support the church by their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. So a more accurate number is the average worship attendance. In 1990 that number was 90 people – from babies to elders. We dropped to a low of 36 in 2010 and we’re slowly increasing. For the first time since I’ve been here average broke 40; in 2015 it was 42. In 1990 11 people were baptized – none of them have been active in the life of our church for at least the past 5 years. In 2010 four people were baptized, one is active in this church, another one lives away and her family is active in a church there. Today we have over 100 baptized children and youth under 18 on our roles. Eleven of them are actively participating. Can you picture Jesus standing beside us as we look at these numbers? Do you hear his invitation? “Time to go fishing.”
I was visiting with Lowell the other day. One of the things I love about the elders in any church is their perspective. They’ve lived through so many ups and downs that they become calm and reflective taking change in stride. As our discussion turned to church membership and participation Lowell said, it’s a sine curve – that diagram some of us might remember from trigonometry. Lowell has seen the church go through periods of ups and downs.
My dissertation focused on a period of rapid growth of the Methodist church here in New England. In 1822, shortly after this congregation was started there were 76 charges, 7 districts in 1 conference. There were about 20,000 Methodists.
A charge was typically a circuit of congregations – we were part of the Mansfield Circuit which had over ten places where Methodists were gathering to worship, pray and grow in faith. During the years this congregation was part of a circuit the number of members ranged from 401 to 192 – but the decrease of a charge didn’t always mean a decrease of total members – because when any Methodist body grew too big, the leaders divided it – one charge became two, one district became two – they even divided New England into multiple Annual Conferences.
The growth over 40 years was remarkable. In 1863 there were ten times as many 745. Methodist grew to have 70 districts and 6 conferences. In total the number of Methodists more than quadrupled to 86,000 Methodists. Our Methodist forebears knew how to fish!
This is all the more interesting to me now, when we are about to enter 50 years of steady decline in our church. We still have about 600 congregations, but many are part time again. We are back down to eight districts, and only one Annual Conference for all of New England. And many congregations are struggling to pay their bills. Every year Annual Conference goes through the pain of disbanding congregations that are unable to go on. Jesus stands beside us, calling us as he called Simon Peter, “Time to go fishing.”
Cast net on the other side – try something different
So, how exactly do we do it? How do we become churches who fish for people – bringing them into the ship of the church? I here Jesus giving two complimentary instructions. The first comes from a very similar story of Jesus and the fishermen told in the gospel of John. In chapter 21 Jesus tells the fishermen to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. That is, if you keep doing the same thing over and over in the same way and you keep getting the same negative results – it’s time to try something different.
So today Jesus is calling the people of this church to reflect on what we are doing. How do we spend our time and talents? Are we willing to change our activities in order to get a bigger yield?
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research released a report last month called Faith Communities Today. It finds that congregations with fewer than 100 in weekend attendance — the most vulnerable to collapse — rose to 58 percent in 2015, up from 49 percent five years ago. This is just logical. “More people in the pews, more energy for programs, more funds to maintain the roof — these are all keys to survival for such small congregations.”
Sociologist, David Roozen, who wrote the report, found that congregations willing to “change to meet new challenges” fell to 62 percent in 2015, down from 74 percent a decade ago. “It comes down to being all you can be in a religious setting,” he said. “These congregations feel they are energetically living out their understanding of their call.” Hope thrives where change is welcome, Roozen said. “Thriving congregations are nearly 10 times more likely to have changed themselves than are struggling congregations.”
“That’s critical,” says my professor, Nancy Ammerman, “She observes that those aging congregations slipping toward insolvency “can take a long time to die because a handful of really determined folks will keep it going. That works — if they are willing to revolutionize themselves. “People haven’t lost the urge to congregate together spiritually. But how they do it is being expressed differently and the churches that do well are reshaping constantly,” she said.
This is a question for every one of us – at every activity – whether a committee meeting or the Bible Study. For the children and for those planning the next church fair. How can we do things differently so that the result is an increase in active disciples in the church?
In the Gospel of Luke we here different instructions from Jesus. Just as Jesus told Simon Peter to go deeper he invites us to go deeper in our faith too. Psalm 42 says “Deep calls to deep.” The communion of Saints can be our guides – for over the centuries they have developed several spiritual Disciplines all designed to help followers of Jesus go deeper in our faith. In the 1970s Richard Foster gathered 12 of these disciplines together in a book called Celebration of Discipline. One by one he introduces them, helps us understand them, and most importantly gives us practical guidance about doing them.
Foster introduces the disciplines this way, “Perhaps somewhere in the subterranean chambers of your life you have heard the call to deeper, fuller living. You have become weary of frothy experiences and shallow teaching. Every now and then you have caught glimpses, hints of something more than you have known. Inwardly you long to launch out into the deep.”
Foster insists that these disciplines are for all of us. “We must not be led to believe that the Disciplines are only for spiritual giants and hence beyond our reach, or only for contemplatives who devote all their time to prayer and meditation…God intends the Disciplines of the spiritual life to be for ordinary human beings: people who have jobs, who care for children, who wash dishes and mow lawns. In fact, the Disciplines are best exercised in the midst of our relationships with our husband or wife, our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors.” (p. 1)
It is also the wisdom of the church that disciplines, like any new habits, are easier to adopt when we do it together. So for the seasons of Lent and Easter this will be our program in worship, and at home. The blue insert includes a schedule of which discipline we will focus on each Sunday during worship. I will draw from Foster and the study guides to offer some practical things for each of us to try each week. And I encourage you to find a partner or two, and agree to meet once a week – or every other week – to help one another. The book is easily available. I’ve gone ahead and ordered 10 sets which should be here by Wednesday and it’s available as an e-book or through Audible. Like last year with Bible Buddies, I’m encouraging you to join us in committing to walk this path to spiritual growth which will in turn lead to the growth of our beloved congregation.