Church attendance has been dropping throughout America for a long time. All church bodies – mainstream Protestants, Evangelicals, and Roman Catholics – are affected. People are quitting church, or they never join. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod has lost a quarter of its members since I was ordained. Why don’t people come to church? What can we do to get them to come?
As church attendance has declined, an industry has risen to meet the challenge. It is called the Church Growth Movement. The Church Growth Movement applies marketing strategies used in business to help churches grow. These strategies are given a religious sounding veneer and pawned off as spiritual principles. One such principle that a congregation must apply if it wants to grow is the “felt needs” principle. What are people looking for in a church? The church must provide it, whether it is quality child care, relevant messages, contemporary music, informal and casual atmosphere, or whatever. The church is market driven. It packages its product to attract the most customers.
The marketing experts told us that you will not grow if you emphasize doctrine and follow a traditional liturgical service. Churches sprouted up all over the country offering little solid theology. Instead of teaching the mysteries of God, the religious entrepreneurs taught how to succeed in finances, personal relationships, overcoming bad habits, or whatever. The historic liturgy of the church was discarded in favor of “praise” services that focused more on the religious feeling of the worshipper than on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The church should listen to her Lord instead of the self-appointed “experts” on church growth. The church grows by doing what Jesus says to do. Jesus grew up learning carpentry, not fishing. Simon Peter was a fisherman, and a good one. Peter knew where the fish were. He knew that there were no fish where Jesus told him to let down the nets. Nevertheless, when Jesus told him what to do, Peter replied by saying, “At your word, I will let down the net.”
“At your word,” he said. We do what Jesus says to do. We do it even when sound reasoning and our own life’s experience tell us that he is wrong. We do it because he says to do it. Peter speaks for all faithful Christians when he says, “At your word.”
Jesus told his church to go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe everything Jesus commanded them. He told them to preach the gospel to every creature. He told the ministers of his church to feed his sheep. It is by teaching the teaching Jesus teaches that the net is let down into the water. This is how you catch men. This is how sinners are saved. Do what Jesus said to do.
Today’s so-called Church Growth experts promote the problem and call it the cure. The problem is that people are ignorant of Christian doctrine. They don’t know the basics of the Christian faith. They haven’t received instruction. That’s why they are not interested in Christian doctrine. They don’t know Christian doctrine. They don’t know what they are missing. They don’t know what they need. They know what they want, but they don’t want what they need. The strategy of meeting the “felt needs” of people misses the point. Their “felt” needs aren’t their real needs.
What did Peter say when he discovered that he was in the presence of Almighty God Himself. He said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Jesus displayed his divine power and Peter was afraid. He knew he had no right to stand in the presence of his Creator. He was not worthy. Peter knew he needed mercy. He needed forgiveness. He needed a Savior. That was his felt need.
Most people don’t feel the need for forgiveness because they don’t reckon with their sin. That doesn’t change the church’s mission. It is Christ’s church and Christ is the Savior of sinners. Church is about Jesus the Savior, not Jesus the financial planner, Jesus the politician, Jesus the moral philosopher, or Jesus the advice columnist. Jesus is the Savior of sinners. If you don’t see that you’re a sinner, you won’t be interested in this. You won’t have a “felt” need for it. The reason people don’t go to church is because they aren’t looking for what the church has to give them: a Savior from their sin. They don’t feel their sin.
Oh, they feel their problems. Life is hard or unfair. I can’t do this or that. Money is tight and everyone else is getting the breaks. If only my wife or my brother or my boss or someone else would stop doing what they’re doing, why then I’d be able to get on with things. If I could overcome this or that or the other obstacle to success, my life would improve. Problems, problems, problems, people know that they have problems.
That’s not enough. You need to know your sin. You need to know that the difficulties of life, the lack of opportunity, or the wrongs you have suffered from others are not your real problems. Your real problem is that you have not loved the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and that you have not loved your neighbor as yourself. That makes you a sinner. You have no right to stand in the presence of your Creator. Until you know this, the heavenly doctrine won’t touch you. The message of Jesus’ suffering and death to take away your sin will give you no joy. The absolution won’t bring you peace. Receiving Christ’s body and blood with the sacramental bread and the wine won’t interest you. The truth about God and the wonder of his becoming flesh and blood for you, to bear your sin and to set you free from your load of guilt will leave you cold unless you are looking for a Savior from your sin.
The preacher is called to preach the gospel of the free forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. Jesus called Peter to this public preaching office when he said to him, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” First he tells him not to be afraid. God forgives him his sins. Then he tells him he will catch men. He will preach to others the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. Jesus forgave Peter. Then he called him to preach. Preaching the gospel of the forgiveness of sins is casting out the net that catches the fish.
The church doesn’t adopt the standards of the world to market her goods. She preaches Christ crucified for sinners. She preaches a law that condemns everybody and spares nobody, driving guilty sinners to cry out their sin to God in terror of his justice. The message of how to get God to meet your felt needs is a con. We don’t manipulate God by doing religious stuff. God’s in charge. He’s the One whose law condemns us. He’s the One whose gospel saves us.
The Christian Church is created, sustained, identified, and saved by the preaching of the cross. God became sin for us that we might become righteous. What a beautiful exchange! Every sin that drags us down to the grave and abandons us to eternal punishment is imputed to Jesus who in innocence bears it and takes it away. His goodness, purity, holiness, justice, and love – his obedience – is imputed to us. For his sake we are righteous, not with our own righteousness, but with Christ’s. It covers us as a beautiful robe of righteousness that makes us righteous before God. He became sin to give us his righteousness. He became the curse to give us his blessing. The preaching of the cross brings the fish into the net.
Sinners need this Savior, whether or not they feel their need. The church tells sinners that their real need is to be reconciled to God. Christ alone can do that. As the hymnist writes:
Christ alone is our salvation
Christ, the Rock on which we stand
Other than this sure foundation
Will be found but sinking sand
Christ, his cross and resurrection,
Is alone the sinner’s plea
At the throne of God’s perfection
Nothing else can set him free.
The preaching of Christ is Christ’s ministry among us. It is the ministry of reconciliation. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them. This ministry brings us into fellowship with God, at peace with our Maker. We have nothing to fear from God. We have seen God in Jesus and Jesus has taken away our guilt, our sin, our fear of death and punishment, and has given us his own righteousness in exchange. This gospel belongs to all Christians. The preachers preach it publicly. God calls every Christian to confess it to his neighbor in need. St. Peter wrote in today’s Epistle Lesson,
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.
This gospel is the most precious thing we have in this life. Nothing else compares. That’s why those fishermen left everything to follow Jesus.
The gospel does what the gospel does because it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. The gospel is its own power. You cannot make it work. It is God’s power; not ours. That’s what today’s Gospel Lesson teaches us. We don’t bait the hook. There is no bait and no hook. Peter fished with a net. We don’t lure people to church by claiming we can meet their felt needs. Who are we? We preach the truth. We confess the truth. We cast the net.
We talk about God. We talk about who he is and what he has done. We talk about our need for Jesus and we talk about Jesus. As we talk this God-talk God casts into the waters and brings souls into his kingdom. We never actually see it, because faith is invisible to our eyes. But we know that it is happening wherever and whenever God’s word is preached, taught, or confessed. God’s Church Growth method is that we who know the truth confess it, urge our pastors to preach it, and support this ministry in any way we can. Through it sinners receive what they really need, regardless of what their “felt” needs might be. Amen