“Net Growth” (Mark 1:14-20)
Where are the fish? Where have all the fish gone? This is the question on the mind of most every church in America these days. And no, I’m not talking about trout and catfish. I’m talking about people. Where are the fish, where are all the people? Why aren’t we seeing them in the church like we used to? Whose fault is it? Whom can we blame? Our numbers are down. Attendance, offerings–that’s what we’re fishing for, isn’t it? Maybe we need to try a different net. Why aren’t we seeing any (if you’ll pardon the pun) “Net Growth”?
These are the questions raised in our minds when we think about our text for today, the Holy Gospel from Mark 1. There Jesus himself uses the people-as-fish metaphor when he calls some fishermen to be his disciples: “Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
So here are some of the questions that we want to address: Who are the fishermen? Where do we fit in, you and I? What happened to all the fish? Do we need a different net? What is our net? Is the church seeing any net growth? Here we go.
First, who are the fishermen? In our text, they were Simon Peter and Andrew his brother, then James and John, the sons of Zebedee. All four were commercial fisherman operating on the Sea of Galilee. But all four had met Jesus, and now Jesus calls them to follow him as his disciples. And Jesus is going to give them a new livelihood, with a new set of fish to catch: “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.”
But now, Peter and Andrew, James and John–in what capacity will they become fishers of men? For they would be not only disciples, like all of us Christians who follow Jesus, these men in particular would also be apostles, the unique and unrepeatable apostles of Christ, foundational to the New Testament church. And then again, the apostles also would be the first pastors, the first men to hold the Office of the Holy Ministry, the first preachers of the church. So in which of these capacities are they being called to be fishers of men?
In all of them, really, whether directly or indirectly, as we work our way out from the narrowest sense to the broadest sense. As the apostles of Christ, Peter, Andrew, James, and John do set the foundation for how all the future fishing should be conducted. As the first pastors of the church, Peter and Andrew and the rest show what all pastors are called to do, and that is, to be fishers of men through their ministry. But in the broadest sense, this calling to be fishers of men applies to the whole church, pastors and laypeople alike, since we all are involved, in one way or another, in the church’s mission. On this day, in our church, for instance, we think of how all the elected officers of our congregation and our auxiliaries work together to support the church’s work. And besides that, every one of us, in our own personal life and witness–in our “network” of friends, relatives, associates, and neighbors–every one of us can be a part of bringing people into the church’s net.
So that’s how we fit in as fishers of men. But even before we are fishermen, we are first fish. Yes, you and I are the fish who have been caught in the church’s net. And thank God we have been! Our being brought into Christ’s church isn’t based on how much work we will do. No, it’s all by grace, a gift freely given, that we have been made a part of the church. The main thing is not our work for God, but rather God’s work, Christ’s work, in saving us.
This is what Christ has done, entirely apart from any efforts on our part. He did it all, taking our burden of sin and carrying it to the cross for us. His work, not ours, gets the job done. Forgiveness for our sins is won solely by the blood of Christ, shed on our behalf. Only the Son of God could win our forgiveness, and he has. In so doing, he has conquered death for us, winning the victory at Easter and sharing it with us through Holy Baptism. And it is through that water that we become the little fishes brought into the life-saving net of the church. Again, all God’s doing, not ours. First we must be fish who are caught before we can become fishermen who do any catching.
“Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” OK, Jesus, so where are all the fish? Why aren’t they here? Why aren’t we seeing them? That’s what’s perplexing us these days. I suppose it’s the existential crisis of what will happen to our congregation if the numbers are down and even the fish that we have are aging, the results of fishing expeditions from long ago. What happened to all the fish? Why aren’t they coming into the net like they used to?
While not minimizing our concern–this is something to be concerned about, and we all need to examine how the church, and each one of us in the church, could be more diligent in our fishing–at the same time, we need to remind ourselves that the results are not up to us. “The wind blows where it wishes,” Jesus says in John 3, “and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” In other words, you can’t predict who will be converted or where. And you can’t make anyone become a Christian. That’s up to the Spirit. Our Augsburg Confession picks up on this and states: “Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given. He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.”
So there is a tide in the affairs of men–there are seasons when the fishing seems to be going really good in our neck of the lake, and then there are other times when the lake seems to be dead and there are no fish to be found. We seem to be in one of those latter stretches right now in America. Not many are coming to faith. Numbers are down, all across our country.
So do we need a different net? Maybe the one we’ve been using isn’t doing the job anymore. Maybe we should switch and use different bait to lure the fish in. Programs. Fun and games. Peppy music, light and frothy. None of this sin-and-grace business anymore. That’s not what people want to hear. You’ve got to appeal to their desires, give them what they want, keep the customers satisfied. So get rid of the crosses, get rid of the Christ-crucified talk, get rid of the Sacraments, and go for the saccharine! That’ll bring the people in!
Well, maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but it won’t be the church you will be growing. It won’t be Christians you will be gaining if you switch the net. You’ll just be affirming people in their sin and lostness, making them feel like everything is alright, when it isn’t.
No, if we’re going to be fishers of men, let’s use the net that Jesus gave us to use and nothing else in its place. And what is that net? It is the gospel. It is the preaching of Law and Gospel, just as Jesus himself preached: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” There is our net. There is our message. Repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name. Nothing else will get the job done as Jesus would have it be done. The problem is not in the net. It will catch the fish that are meant to be caught. So let’s make sure that that is the net we are using: The Word of God, the gospel in its truth and purity, Word and Sacrament, the very tools that Jesus would have us to use.
Let’s use that net, really use it, and then leave the results up to God. He’ll catch all the fish he wants to be caught. None will be lost. But the ones that are caught will be caught in the right way, through repentance and faith.
So is there, will there be, any net growth? Oh, yes, there is and there will be. The church is growing, believe it or not. Maybe not so much here, now. But even here and now, there are still some being saved and coming into the church. We see it in our own congregation, with a few new members coming in. Maybe not in large numbers, but for those people coming in, God is doing a precious work, a life-saving work. The gospel is having its effect in hearts and lives. We need to remind ourselves of that–I need to remind myself of that, as a pastor. We can become so easily discouraged, when all we look at is numbers. But God is saving people, and keeping us in our salvation, even here in and through our congregation.
Like I say, numbers are down, in churches all across America. Luther and Walther would talk about the blessings of the gospel in a land as being like a passing rain shower–a “fahrender Platzregen,” to use the German. There is a season of a great outpouring of God’s grace upon a land, with many people coming to faith. And then, when the people begin to take the Word of God for granted and to despise it, the rain shower passes on to another place. That seems to be what has happened to America and to Europe lately. We’re in a drought right now. The rain shower is falling elsewhere. And indeed, in Africa and in Asia right now, there are showers of gospel blessing in abundance! Thousands, millions, of people are being converted, in places like Kenya, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Often in places of great persecution, often in places of great poverty, the church is growing by leaps and bounds. The nets are full, and more are coming in. This is exciting. We should rejoice for this net growth, as God is bringing more and more people into the church and giving them the gift of eternal salvation.
And let us pray that a rain front would once again pass through our own land and our own community. We don’t deserve it. We have been very negligent and ungrateful for having the Word of God in our midst. But God is gracious. A season of blessing may come our way again.
In any case, this is a time to cast our net into the sea. It is the gospel net, the message of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ. It is his voice that will call the fish in: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” And it is his voice that continues to call his church to her mission and gives it success: “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” It is his net, and he will give the growth. The gospel net caught us, and it will continue to catch others, here and around the world.