And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers; Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." ~ Matthew 4:18-19
Serving as a professor of evangelism and North American church planting involves considerable travel. And my students are not surprised to see me arriving in their town with fly rod in hand. People may think that I love to fish; actually I am doing research. In a previous article I explained how I had learned many truths about sin from fishing, but fishing contains more lessons than just those on sin. After all, everything I need to know about evangelism I learned fishing. Here are several theological insights from my field research.
You have to know what you want to catch and where they are.
I have caught everything from trout the size of minnows to halibut over 200 pounds on rod and reel. I am preparing for a trip to Venezuela to visit my brother. We will be in Los Roques, one of the premier bone fishing areas in the world. The fly fishing for bones, tarpons, and permit is phenomenal, but I would not go there to catch a rainbow trout.
Recently, the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health examined approximately 30 percent of all Southern Baptist congregations which are considered "growing" churches. The research found that 1,409 churches in the "growing" category reported no baptisms in 2003. In reality, they are "growing" by transferring membership instead of evangelism.
I have a livewell on my boat. When I catch a fish and put it in the livewell I do not spend the rest of my day dropping lures into the livewell to catch it again. The research reveals that many churches have not decided who they want to catch — dissatisfied church attenders or the lost — and therefore, churches are not going where the lost may be found.
What I want to catch determines the equipment and techniques to use.
For years I fished either commercially or to stock the freezer. A lot has changed. Now, I fish for pleasure. I don't mind casting a fly all day and releasing the catch. One thing has not changed — I fish to catch fish. I am not about to show up on a trout stream with a halibut pole or on a halibut boat with a fly rod. I am sure that many of the 1,409 "growing" churches are puzzled by their lack of baptisms. They are doing something to grow. They intend to grow. They just are not reaching the lost. They are using fly rods for halibut.
There have been tremendous debates concerning the most effective church model for evangelism. Purpose Driven, Program, House, Seeker Driven, and Cell church models all have their proponents. In reality, there are only two types of churches: The "Come and See" and the "Go, Show, and Tell." As long as our evangelism rests on getting people into our buildings, all we are doing is moving fish from one livewell to another. The "Come and See" church depends on music, presentations, programs, and the weekly production often called "worship." The majority of what is done for "evangelism" in those churches fails to attract the lost, which explains why 92 percent of our baptisms are "biological," children within the church.
The "Go, Show, and Tell" church understands that Sundays are for edifying the body of believers and preparing them to go back into a lost and dying world to show the love of Christ in random and intentional acts of service and love while looking for opportunities to share their faith as the Holy Spirit leads. Instead of spending our time crafting another "relevant" message or figuring out how to get another live camel on stage in our Christmas pageant, we need to start mobilizing our people to do as the Great Commission commands and "GO." No one would call the pet store owner a fisherman even though he nets fish all day long, and we should not call attracting churched people evangelism. We need to go where the lost gather and use the methods Jesus used. We need to love and serve the lost.
You don't catch a fish on every cast.
Berner's Bay in October is fishermen's heaven. The water levels drop in the Gilkey and Antler rivers creating oxbow lakes of crystal clear water two to three feet deep. You can walk the gravel bars sight casting to prowling silver salmon and dense schools of Dolly Varden trout. The silvers are typically fifteen pounds and hit like Jaws. There were days when I caught a fish on every cast. But that is Alaska; fishing reality is more like the Smith River in January. On a recent trip, the air and water temperatures hovered in the high thirties, and I spent all day looking for fish. The last cast of the day I hooked one. As they say, "That's why it is called 'fishing' instead of 'catching.'" A good fisherman knows his fish's habitat, foods, patterns, and the appropriate gear, but even then he will often cast hundreds of times to catch one fish. I think Jesus called fishermen as disciples because fishermen don't quit. That day on the Smith River, I focused on each cast, working to gently place the fly, mending the line to have the perfect drift, and watching for any indication of interest. I constantly changed flies looking for something that would provoke a strike. Fishing is work which requires an attitude of anticipation. There is always an expectation the fish will bite, if not today then tomorrow.
One of the toughest witnessing methods has to be door-to-door. I take seminary students on mission trips several times a year and do door-to-door. Some places are tougher than others; New England and Las Vegas are different than North Carolina and parts of Florida. However, over the years the statistics remain fairly constant. If you talk to one hundred people, one will accept Christ. I try to put it in perspective during the trip orientation by asking, "Are you willing to knock on one hundred doors to lead one person to Christ? Or knock on two hundred so another team can lead two to the Lord?" Jesus said the good shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one who is lost. You don't lead someone to Christ at every home, but that's fishing for men. We have had much higher success ratios with servanthood evangelism projects like car washes and yard work, but even then it is still fishing.
A good fisherman has a variety of lures.
Successful commercial salmon fishing requires a multitude of lures and baits. I preferred hoochies (rubber squid shaped lures) and herring. Some friends preferred spoons, some plugs. No matter what our favored lure was, we had all the other types in case they were the hot gear that day. I usually start out fly fishing with the pattern that has been the best producer in the past but have gone through a whole fly box before finding the one that fish were hitting. That's fishing.
I like door-to-door as the cheapest means to contact every home in a community, but it is not the only lure in the box, neither is FAITH, NET, Seeker Sensitive services, or even Servanthood Evangelism. As fishers of men, we need to spend enough time with the fish that we are able to determine which lure to use to catch their souls. The more lures at our disposal, the better equipped we are to meet the lost at their point of need and be able to present Christ in a cogent, compelling manner. Unlike fishing, our catch will be blessed for eternity instead of being fried.
The hard work begins after the landing the fish, but God isn't into catch and release.
I am a fisherman that doesn't like to eat fish. There are a few types of fish I enjoy, very few. Therefore, I have no problem with catch and release. I have cleaned enough fish for a lifetime. Once I spent eighteen hours cleaning several thousand pounds of halibut after a commercial opening. The crew had already worked thirty-six hours with only two or three hours of sleep, but we could not rest until the catch was processed. Fishing for men involves hard work, most of which begins at conversion. Sadly, most of our institutional focus is on conversion. We have succeeded when the person "asks Jesus into my heart," or "walks the aisle." Church records reflect the sad truth that Southern Baptist churches cannot locate half of their members. Commercial salmon trollers take care of their catch. Since the fish are sold whole for top-dollar, buyers deduct for every cut or gaff mark that is out of place. You have to take care of your catch. Jesus has called each of us to be fishers of men requiring us to be as concerned about discipleship as evangelism. The world is teeming with lost souls needing to be caught and taught by the transforming message of Christ. Get fishing!
William E. Brown, Ph.D., is associate professor of Evangelism and Church Planting and Nehemiah Project director at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.