How do you measure the growth of a church?
This is the subject of a recent article from our friends at the Center for Healthy Churches. (1) Church consultants point to a range of data when trying to quantify growth, but more often than not when determining the size, the scope, the health, or the growth of a church, attendance is a primary factor. It can be hard to measure with shifting Sunday attendance patterns – some say a church whose overall size has remained stable might average as much as 25% fewer people in the pews week to week than they did 10 years ago. Still, attendance tells us something.
I see some of you on Sundays with your heads nodding and lips moving. You’re not affirming the sermon or the music or the prayer. You’re counting heads! Others of you no doubt notice our ushers filing out into the aisles at the start of the service, eyeing you. It’s not a security exercise. No one is suspicious. They’re just making the official count. And most Sundays end the same way for me. After the last hand is shaken or hug is exchanged… after the last Sherouse child is wrangled and on his or her way out the door, I generally head up the aisle to the entry, open the chest of drawers, pull out the file folder that holds the ushers’ attendance records and open it to see the day’s count. How many people? How many children? Was anyone in the balcony? Did they count the choir? And wait, how tall were the ushers today…were they able to see everybody?
We’re aware of numbers. And not only attendance. We’re aware of the number of babies that are lining up behind Shep Hayes, just dedicated into the life of this church today. We’re eyeing the number of people joining our church, and the gifts they bring. I have a personal metric with which you might not be as familiar, that is, the status of the candy bowl in the pastor’s office. When families with younger children have joined in recent months, my kids have taken their peers upstairs – while parents are in the receiving line – to visit my office and empty out the candy bowl. I guess we can be encouraged by the recent disappearance of Kit-Kats and jelly beans.
Of course all forms of bean-counting reflect something much deeper: the need to find something measurable that can help us know something far more ideal. Does the life of our church look like the life of Christ?
In our passage this morning the count is 7. It’s a quick and easy headcount right at the start of the chapter: “Gathered there together,” John says, “were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.“ 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. It’s hardly an overwhelming number. Yet in those 7, there would turn out to be enough passion and commitment to reach you and me and all of us with the good news of the risen Christ, all these years later.
If nothing else, it was certainly crowd enough to run a fishing boat. That’s what they’re doing in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection. They’ve heard the news. He’s appeared to them all. But still, they struggle to know how to reorient their lives. It’s not enough that they’ve seen him and heard “peace be with you.” It’s not enough that Thomas the twin, and perhaps some of the others, have felt his wounds and seen his scars.
Because they all have their scars, don’t they? They all live with their regrets. Their shame. Their past and recent mistakes. Their denial and doubt. And amidst such distress they do what so many of us would do – they go back to what they know. Familiar motions like casting the net. Familiar places like the water and shores of the sea of Galilee.
“I’m going fishing,” Peter says at the start of John 21, with resignation in his voice. You remember Peter. The one with all the fire and zeal, throwing elbows in order to get the prime seat right next to Jesus. The one so in love with the ideal of ministry and mission. So ready to give all of himself for the cause of Christ. “I will never deny you, Lord… these others might, but not me.” Zealous, enthusiastic, competitive, rock solid Peter.
You remember Peter. The one who ended up so paralyzed by fear, so bound to self-preservation, that he ultimately denied even knowing who Jesus was, not once but three times. Regretful, mournful, hiding his face in shame, shifting with the sand, never counted on the cross Peter.
He had his scars. They all did. Peter had denied. Thomas had doubted. Others had crouched in the corner behind locked doors. Others were off hiding when Jesus needed them most. So as they load their nets into the boat, they also lift the burdens of their recent mistakes. The weight of frustration. The tangled web of embarrassment. We all carry these into the water from time to time. And as they set out into the water, they must have been struck by how much had changed. In fact, these men once trained and skilled on this lake don’t catch a thing all night. You can’t step in the same river twice. You can’t fish in the same lake twice.
Until finally, they hear that voice from the lakeshore. It sounds a little like the voice that first called them, earlier in the gospel – the voice of the one always calling to us in the midst of our labor. But something is different now. And this time the voice urges them to drop their nets into the water one more time. It’s one of two miraculous catches in the gospels, and this time the catch is so great it nearly tears the net. As John describes, “Jesus said, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ And Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them.”
The disciples were counters, too. You see them there nodding their heads. Any fisherman would want to know the total haul – especially with such a miraculous catch. I guess they needed something measurable for this immeasurable thing that had just happened to them. How do you quantify an encounter with the risen Lord? They counted. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7… all the way to 153.
The writer of John is a master of symbolism and not one to waste a word or a detail… or a number. Early interpreters like Chrysostom and Augustine to many today have wondered why it matters that the disciples caught precisely 153 fish. St. Jerome, a 4th century Catholic theologian, gives one clue. He suggests that in Jesus’ day it was generally accepted as fact that there were 153 species of fish in the sea. (2) Sure, we know that’s not true today, but then it was the whole of the ocean. The disciples caught 153. In other words, the net held one of every kind.
That theory makes sense to me. Because that was always the nature of Jesus’ ministry. When I read the gospels, I see a man who on every page finds his way to the people that need him most. A woman at the well, and a Samaritan at that. A man born blind from birth – everyone thought he must have sinned, or at least his parents. A temple leader under the cover of darkness. A leper here, a tax collector there, a woman caught in the act of adultery. “This man eats with sinners,” they had said of Jesus. And all the while, he’s keeping count. One of every kind. And at every turn he seems to find another. He connects his life to the people that find their existence on the edges of his world. He was building a kingdom, one scholar has said famously, of “nuisances and nobodies.” (3) To these people he said, “The Kingdom of God is near to you.” You don’t have to go someplace else to find God. You don’t have to clean up your life for God to dwell with you. God is near you. Right here where you are, God is with you.
That’s good news for any of us who have felt we’re on the edges of God’s meaningful work in the world. And it’s ultimately the message that saves Peter. Peter finds that, in the presence of the risen Christ, that number – 153 – includes him, as it includes so many like him, who have denied, given in to fear, been so much less than they intended to be. 153 includes so many whom Jesus still asks, right in the midst of their failures, “Do you love me?” He asks Peter not once, but three times – a direct mirror to his denial. If Peter hears a rooster crow that morning, it’s signaling the grace of a new day and the possibility of beginning once more.
And the good news of the gospel of Christ is that if there’s space for Peter, then there’s space for all of us.
My friend Heidi Neumark is a Lutheran pastor, serving Trinity Church about a block from where we lived in New York. Prior to that she was pastor of a tiny church in the poorest section of the Bronx. She wrote an autobiography of her time there, called Breathing Space, and tells of this congregation composed of all kinds of people: undocumented workers, drug addicts, women who had shaken loose from prostitution. And those were just the church officers, she says.
One Easter season they were trying to figure out how they could show their joy in the resurrection to the neighborhood. And they decided that on Palm Sunday, they would reenact the Easter story in front of the neighborhood. Someone knew a farmer that loaned them a donkey. A member played the part of Jesus. Rode in the neighborhood around the block followed by the congregation. Branches waving. Shouts of Hosanna. Neighbors coming out of their buildings and began to follow.
And the plan was to go around the block and back into the church where they would reenact the rest of the story of Jesus’ final week, death, and resurrection. As they came around the final turn they encountered a protest march in the street. Neighbors were organizing against local government. Suddenly the Palm Sunday procession and the political protest mingled together and everyone ended up in the church.
And there they saw an innocent man tried on trumped up charges. “Yeah, that’s they way it is” someone said. He was put to death. “That’s the way it is.” Then he was taken to the tomb. And then on the third day three women went out to the tomb. And the script called for them to come back and say to the congregation, “He is alive. I know he is alive. He is alive in me.” Each would say it, and then a hymn would be sung and the service concluded. So they said it. An uncodumented worker: “He is alive.” A recovering addict: “I know he is alive.” A former prostitute, “He is alive in me.” And as the third woman spoke, someone unscripted stood up and said, “And I know he’s alive. He’s alive in me.” Then a protester stood up, “He’s alive in me.” Then a police officer charged with accompanying the protest, “I know he is alive. He’s alive in me.” And then a mother from the neighborhood, “He is alive, I know he’s alive. He’s alive in me.” Another. And another. And Heidi says they hardly stopped praising God that Easter. (4)
See if the news of the new life in Christ is not for all of us, it’s not for any of us.
Maybe it’s a good thing the disciples took the time to count those fish. Because as they sat there nodding their heads, it reminded them that the space created by the resurrection of Christ was wide enough for 153, and wide enough for each of them. So many times before they had misunderstood the message. They had fumbled their words. They had stumbled on the path, and struggled to grasp it. We watched them do it for years. They had tried to privatize the message. They had reflexively walled it off. They had stopped short of giving their lives to this call of Christ, instead sleeping in the garden, or fleeing from the scene, or hiding in the corners, or denying in the courtyard, or cowering in shame. And they could have done that again. They could have experienced this renewal and made a special claim on it, as though the new life of Christ was for the 7 of them.
But this time they seem to understand. This is the commissioning where they finally seem to grasp what he has been saying to them all along. They understand it so well, that they give their lives to it, and some of them go on to give their lives for it. They start a movement founded on what they experience on that lakeshore. And we know this because all these years later it comes to include us, right in the midst of our denial and fear and failures. With all of our woundedness and our own scars, still we hear the voice of Jesus calling out to us, “Do you love me? Then come and follow.” And all because the disciples came to understand that if Jesus rose for them, then he rose for us all.
Sometimes we take that on in our lives, and in the life of our church. Maybe some of you experienced it yesterday in our Day of Service, volunteering wit our friends at Bessemer Elementary, or packaging food for the Stop Hunger initiative, or visiting homebound members, or working at Peacehaven Farm, or planting seedlings in our own community garden. I was on the way back from Florida yesterday, but I spent some time in the garden last Saturday. It was about 20 mins into the work shift that we were joined by a gregarious man from our neighborhood with kind eyes and long grey hair. A self-described “old hippy,” he arrived carrying a shovel. “I thought I’d get out this morning and give you folks a hand,” he said. “My name’s Mark.”
Mark worked hard and as we worked alongside he shared some of his story. He described how he had left a career in business. His wife had been diagnosed with cancer and encouraged him to pursue his dream of being an artist. So he’d been taking classes at UNC-G. They’d downsized and rented a house in Westerwood, where he could walk to campus. But he told us that’s on hold for now as his wife’s health has declined further and Hospice has been called in. This is all right here, just across the street from our church. Mark’s not much of churchgoer himself these days, but he did say, “God is still working on me” as he shoveled soil alongside deacons and ministers from our church, members of our missions committee, teenagers from the youth group, and even a 5yr old in his dungarees, all with our own stories.
As we spoke he caught me noticing a gash on his forehead. He explained he’d bumped into the closet in the middle of the night, while trying not to disturb his wife. And our new friend said to me, “I guess we all have our scars, don’t we?”
We’re working hard to be growing church. We’ve been analyzing some of the data recently. I’m happy to be able to tell you that it seems the trends look pretty good for First Baptist. Attendance is up. We’ve had more children in our church than recent memory and recent records show. We are on track this year for our largest number of new members in quite some time. And I want us to fill that balcony and have to expand the nursery and continue to work in vital ministries where all kinds of things are growing from the work of the Spirit in this place. We’re working hard for that.
But that’s not how we’ll know we’re a growing church. We’ll know that the Sunday I shake the last hand and give the last hug. And I’ll walk to the back, open the drawer, pull out the folder and open it up to find the day’s count, “Look at that… today we had 153.”
- David Hull, “By the Numbers.”
- Robert M. Grant, “One Hundred Fifty-Three Large Fish (John 21:11)” in Harvard Theological Review (October 1949). With thanks to Chris George of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Atlanta, whose recent sermon “Goin’ Fishin'” included this insight on “153.”
- John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus.
- Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.