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Bishop Croft encourages Anglicans to ‘let down your nets’

See photos on the Diocese’s Facebook page

By Stuart Mann

Bishop Steven Croft says Anglicans who lack the motivation to communicate the gospel and grow the church may be feeling a little like Simon Peter when Jesus told him to “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5).

Tired and dejected, Simon Peter replies, “Master, we have worked all night and have caught nothing.”

Bishop Croft, who was speaking at the Vital Church Planting Conference in Toronto May 31 to June 2, says Simon Peter’s response is understandable — and many Christians today can relate to it. “It may be that you will have a similar response to the idea of letting down the nets again in deep water. ‘Well, we tried that and it didn’t work.’”

But, adds Bishop Croft, Simon Peter also said, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When he did, his nets were bursting with fish.

Bishop Croft, who is the bishop of the Diocese of Sheffield, says Simon Peter’s growing regard for Jesus overcame his sense of failure and experience. That is what the church needs today to bring the gospel to those who have never heard it.

“The challenge of motivating the church again to a fresh vision for mission and evangelism and growing new communities is a matter of catching again a fresh vision of Jesus Christ,” he says. “The heart must be challenged. People need to encounter again themselves the wonder of the living Christ. We need ourselves to be re-evangelized, and then we will be ready to hear God’s call (and to respond) ‘If you say so, I will let down the nets.’”

He says this started happening in the Church of England several years ago. “For generations, the gap between where the church was and where our society was had been growing further and further apart. The flow of people from the wider society into the life of the church became less and less year by year. But then something else began to happen. Christians within the existing churches began to hear from Jesus his call to go into deep waters and let down the nets. So they began to cross the divide into the surrounding culture.”

At first these new missionaries, or “pioneers,” went with a view to drawing people back into the existing church, he says. But then they discerned that they were not being called to go and draw people back. “They were called to go and stay and sit and listen and form new communities for that culture and that group and that place which would themselves be fully church.”

These fresh expressions of church, as they came to be called, spread rapidly, and today there are more than 1,000 across the British Isles. (A fresh expression of church is a form of church established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. They can be held wherever people gather – in churches, pubs, cafes, offices and outdoors.)

He says society in England has changed to such a degree that while older generations are still drawn to the church and its way of life, younger generations are moving away from it. “We have had to face the question as a church: what shall we do in this situation? What is Jesus Christ saying to us?”

It is tempting for churches to want to minister only to those who enter its doors and programs, he says, but as that segment of the population becomes smaller, churches will be pushed further to the margins of society. It is also impossible to read the gospels “and reconcile that approach with the truth of the incarnation and the pattern of the ministry of Jesus. God does not wait for us to come to him — he sends his Son. His Son says to his disciples: as the Father sent me, so I send you. Jesus prioritizes in his ministry the lost and those who are far from grace.

“So we are called to engage in God’s mission to the whole of society. Some will come to us, but many will not, so we must go to them. We must put out into deep water and let down the nets. We must depend on the grace of God in unknown ways. We must grow new wisdom. We must go out of our comfort zone. We must take some risks, not so that the church will survive, but that lost people might encounter Jesus Christ.”

This can and should be done alongside existing churches, he says. In this “mixed economy church,” different kinds of churches are needed to reach different parts of society. “One kind of church can’t do everything in a shifting social context. We need to affirm and bless traditional or inherited forms of church. We need them. God needs them. And we need to affirm and bless fresh expressions of church alongside them. The two can work together.”

He says this is happening in his own diocese and in the Church of England in general. Over the last decade, for example, midweek attendance at Church of England services has grown by about 40 per cent. “We are now in contact with as many children and young people through explicitly Christian midweek services and events as we are on Sundays. Most of those are established on the fresh expressions principles and as part of the mixed economy parish and deanery. The both-and approach has enabled us to argue and I think win the case that this movement is not just for a few parishes but, in time, for every parish, and is a key way forward.”

Returning to Luke 5, he said Simon Peter’s faith in Jesus, and the faith of the new missionaries today, be it clergy or lay people, was bolstered by one other thing. “There is a virtue I have found to be vital for this work: Christian hope. In England, we had almost forgotten about Christian hope as a virtue, and we had swallowed the lie from the culture around us that hope is some kind of mood. But in the Christian tradition, hope is not a mood but a virtue. ‘Meanwhile, these three remain, faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.’ We have forgotten, I think, that we are meant to practice hope each day in the same way as we are meant to practice faith and love. It is that attitude of hope which enables us to see what God is doing both in society around us and in the church.”

This year’s Vital Church Planting Conference, held at St. Paul, Bloor Street, was attended by 133 people from across Canada and one person from Barbados. It included several workshops and two addresses each by Bishop Croft and Pastor Beth Fellinger of Destination Church in St. Thomas, Ont. The conference was sponsored by the Diocese of Toronto and Wycliffe College’s Institute of Evangelism.