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Casting the Net on the Other Side: Post-COVID Church Renewal

By Jonathan Turtle

The Diocese of Toronto took its theme for synod this year from the Gospel According to St. John: “Cast the net” (21:6). It is a wonderful passage of Scripture to reflect on as a diocese. It’s a promising passage filled with hope for God’s church emerging from COVID.

After the crucifixion, Simon Peter has resumed fishing and some of the other disciples have joined him. They are together, but they are now faced with the painful absence of their friend and teacher, Jesus. They had been fishing all night to no avail. The new day’s dawn was breaking and they were surely exhausted.

After the last three years of collective trauma and strife, who among us does not feel exhausted? After the last few decades of statistical decline by just about every metric, who among us does not feel like packing it in? It feels like we have been fishing all night, to no avail. We may, perhaps, sense that a new day is coming, but we are tired.

“Just as the day was breaking,” John tells us, “Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus” (21:4). Their lack of fish having been established, the risen Jesus (not yet recognized as such) invites them: “Cast the net on the right side of the boat” (21:6). The resulting catch was so plenteous they were unable to haul it in.

“What does it mean for us to cast the net on the other side of the boat?” This is the question we considered as a diocese over the course of a few days together online, and it’s one the Diocese of Toronto will consider during the next year as part of diocesan visioning.

It’s a good question, but there is a risk in answering it. In a discussion group I participated in, much of the conversation centered on particular initiatives: this church was getting more young people involved in the liturgy, that church was running a food bank, another church had built a labyrinth, and so on. Meanwhile, the Church of England is pitching “football-themed nativity plays” to coincide with the World Cup.

I’m generally in favor of trying things and evaluating as we go. The risk, however, is that we can begin to see and understand the health and vitality of the Church through data and technique. If we gather enough information and do the right things in the right way, then perhaps we too will be met with a catch that far exceeds the capacity of our nets.

In A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman argues that a focus on data and technique is a symptom of a chronically anxious society/organization/family, and can undercut the ability of leaders to lead. In my experience, that’s true and it can lead to the feeling that you are on a treadmill, doing a lot but not going very far. Particularly in a time of congregational decline, the pressure on clergy to “get it right” is immense.

I remember sitting in an interview for my first cure — an energetic, optimistic, naive (!) 33-year-old — and being asked, “So, what are you going to do to get young families to come to church?” And goodness, we’d better get young families to come to church, because we’ve seen the line graphs and the next decade doesn’t look so hot. So we busy ourselves reading all the right books, going to all the right conferences, engaging in all the right ministry initiatives.

Part of Friedman’s argument is that this is all wrong. “Leadership in America,” he says, “is stuck in the rut of trying harder and harder without obtaining significantly new results” (p. 3). That sounds nothing at all like leadership in the Church.

So what’s the solution for a chronically anxious organization (or family, or nation)? It’s never simply a matter of data and technique, but of presence, particularly the presence of the leader. Leaders ought to “focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than [on] techniques for manipulating or motivating others” (p. 13).

Think about Holy Orders for a moment (though the point could apply to any Christian). Clergy are those whose presence is predicated on another presence, whose ministry is predicated on another ministry — the presence and ministry of the risen and living Jesus Christ. Therefore, the health and vitality of the Church in whatever context depends solely on the presence of the crucified and risen Lord and our attentiveness to him.

Before we can ask, “What does it mean to cast the net on the other side?” we must first ask, “Why did the disciples cast the net on the other side to begin with?” Not because of their skill or ingenuity. Not because they had gathered more data or mastered some new fishing technique. Despite being out on the water all night, they had caught nothing, remember. There is only one reason: they were sensitive and obedient to the voice of the risen Jesus. This is the only thing that truly matters, and therefore where Church leaders, and parishes, should focus their attention.

This is good news. It means the past, present, and future of the Church is not a matter of technique or resources. It doesn’t matter if you’re a church of 15 or of 500, a rich church or a poor church, an urban church or a rural church, an aging church or a younger church, ultimately it comes down to one thing: listening to the voice of the risen Lord. Any leader, and therefore any church, can do this. The key question for ordained leaders, then, is not “How much do you know?” (data) or “What new things are you trying?” (technique) but rather “How are you being attentive to the presence and voice of the risen Jesus?”

How does this happen for the disciples in John 21? Jesus “revealed himself” (21:1 x2), “stood” (21:4), “said” (21:5, 6), and finally “took” the bread and “gave” it to them (21:13). There are clear parallels here to Luke’s post-resurrection account, wherein the disciples on the road to Emmaus are unable to recognize the risen Jesus until he reveals himself by coming among them, opening the Scriptures, and breaking bread.

If you want to hear the voice of the risen Jesus, read the Bible with the faith that he meets us just there. Don’t just read it, but pray with it: think about what you read and pray. Let it roll around in your mind and seep down deep into your soul, study it, memorize it, fall in love with it, talk about it, and — not least — obey it, lest you deceive yourself (James 1:22).

The obedience part is what Martin Thornton refers to as “ascetical discipline”: the embrace of a Rule (not “rules”) and capital-p Prayer (the awareness that all of life is lived in relation to God).

Only when we have clergy and parishes that are so formed will we discover what it means to truly “cast the net on the other side,” because only then are we attuned to the presence and voice of the risen and living Jesus. Apart from this, no degree of creative ministry or sanctified busywork can begin to turn the ship.

One feature of our recent synod was the presentation of a diocesan survey, asking people to rank a number of subjects in order of importance. The top three results were spiritual formation, personal spiritual development, and involving young people. I was encouraged by these results, and take them to mean that the seeds of genuine religion remain, alive, if perhaps ungerminated.

Yet I observed a major disconnect between these survey results and the stated priorities of diocesan leadership for this next season. In his charge to synod (which was generally very good) the bishop highlighted three priorities for the diocese: renewing our commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, responding to the climate-change emergency, and committing ourselves to the work of anti-bias and anti-racism (ABAR).

Those are noble enough goals, but what is interesting is where these subjects ranked in the diocesan survey. Out of 25 subjects, renewing our commitment to reconciliation was ranked 6th, climate change was ranked 19th, and ABAR was ranked 10th.

The disconnect could not be more apparent. The people are crying out for Prayer (genuine religious experience before God), but what they are being given is moralism. They want a Rule, but instead they are being given rules. They want ascetical discipline, but instead they are being given moral discipline. They want a true and living faith, but instead they are being given what Thornton calls a “‘this worldly’ religion of philanthropy, naturalism, and the social gospel … a quasi-Pelagianism which we do not hesitate to call materialistic” (p. 106).

What does it mean to cast the net on the other side? This is a vital question for us to ask as we emerge from COVID and as we live in a society that is so post-Christian it’s pre-Christian (a phrase I learned from my friend Jonathan Thompson, pastor of Sanctus Church in Ajax, Ontario). But whatever the answer to that question may be, it involves at the very least the ability and willingness to hear the voice of the risen Jesus Christ — and not only to hear but to listen, to obey.

What clergy and parishes need today is not more data or better technique, thanks be to God, but rather a Rule (a common life marked by discipline and holiness) that will help us live our whole life in, with, and through Jesus Christ. Happily, any parish can begin to turn toward this with greater intention and vigor. We must, so let us.


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