Fishing in the Aquarium

Last week’s Gospel reading was Jesus and Peter, some empty nets and a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11).  The net result, so to speak, was Peter’s recognition (undoubtedly he had a similar response at the wedding at Cana in John 2) that Jesus was something more than just an ordinary rabbi.  In response to Peter’s confession of sinfulness, Jesus conveys the equivalence of absolution in telling Peter to get up.  There are things to be done, and Jesus is the one who is going to make Peter capable of doing them.  And there in the boats in the hot mid-day sun on the Sea of Galilee, as the fish pulled up and weighing the boats down undoubtedly began to grow rather pungent, Jesus tells Peter that from now on he will be catching men.  People, not fish.

That fishing was going to be real fishing.  Not on the Sea of Galilee but throughout Judea.  It was real fishing because while they were casting nets and lines among God’s chosen people, they were bringing them into something new and different.  Not sacrifices and festivals but the presence of the Son of God, the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.  Everything was changing, and people needed to be brought from where they were and what they knew (or thought they knew) into the new reality unfolding around them so that it might unfold within them.

Our congregation had an outreach Sunday a few weeks ago.  Like many congregations, we watch our members grow older and our numbers begin to shrink.  In response, some of our leadership determined that we needed to be intentional about inviting people.  A date was set, a brunch was planned, and we had multiple visitors that day.  More than I expected, frankly.  It was great.  And now we’re in the midst of follow-up and hoping that they will return and become part of the community permanently.

I’ve felt guilty, as I’ve talked about with my wife, because I don’t believe that ultimately this sort of thing is the answer to our congregation’s long-term viability.  I would never say we shouldn’t.  In fact, we shouldn’t need to have outreach Sundays because people should always be thinking about inviting people to church!  Yet I don’t feel that this will solve the long-term challenges facing the vast majority of Christian congregations of all stripes around our country today.  Long-term challenges that are being encountered in very short-term timeframes.

Am I just a pessimist?  Many would say so.

But my wife pointed out that invite-a-friend Sundays are useful for inviting Christian friends, neighbors, and family to come to church with us..  People who might not have a church home at the moment, or maybe have been away from church for many years but still consider themselves a Christian.  They haven’t rejected Christ or the Bible or the Christian faith, but they’re out of the habit of Christian worship and might need a little nudge (or a big kick in the rear) to get them back where they should have been all along.  In other words, we’re reaching out primarily to people we already know and people who are very likely already Christian.

It’s like fishing in an aquarium.  Fishing among fish that have already been caught.

And the problem with that is that very quickly you deplete the aquarium.

Our culture is in the midst of a massive shift.  It has been for decades and now we’re really seeing it pick up steam, as what was once marginal issues for fringe elements of our culture has become front and center and mainstream.  That shift is driving people away from church.  It is convincing parents that they should not force their children to come to church but rather let them make up their own minds.  The result is predictable.  If faith is not a core matter to the parents, it isn’t going to be for the kids either, barring some sort of miracle.

And what is rapidly happening is that the number of fish in the outreach aquarium of pre-existing believers not already in a congregation is shrinking.  Ideally, congregations everywhere should be struggling to reach these people and draw them into Christian community where they can be nurtured and cared for and discipled in the faith.  Hopefully, there are a lot of nets and a lot of lines being cast out there.  Either those folks are going to be drawn into Christian communities (hopefully!) or they will refuse to be.  Either way, the pool of available fish in the aquarium will continue to rapidly shrink and there are going to be fewer and fewer fish to replace them.  If fewer and fewer people are going to church in the first place, there will be fewer and fewer people with a Christian background or upbringing or even just a familiarity with some Biblical or doctrinal basics that, for one reason or another, quit going to church and wind up in the aquarium, hopefully to be reeled back in at some point.

What the Church needs, in my opinion, is not to quit fishing in the aquarium, because by all means, those people need to be brought in and plugged in to Christian community.  But more and more the Church needs to retrain itself to fish out in the wild.  On the lakes, in the streams, out on the ocean.  Casting out nets and throwing out lines to draw in people who have very little or no Christian or church background or experience.  The Church needs to go back to what the apostles and the early Church had to do – preach the good news to people who didn’t know it already because they’d never heard it.

For that type of fishing, an outreach Sunday isn’t the right tackle.  Not the right sort of bait.  If someone knows nothing of the Bible or church, has never heard the Gospel, that the Son of God took on humanity in order to suffer and die and rise from the dead to reconcile us to God, then a Christian worship is not going to make any sense.  All the shorthand and lingo that Christians take for granted is going to go right over these other people’s heads, or going to hit them between the eyes in an offensive manner.  Worship is  an action appropriate for those who have come to faith and who are learning what that means for  their life.  It isn’t ideal for someone who has no clue.

Some congregations might be inclined to say that fishing in the wild doesn’t sound very appealing.  They don’t have the gear for that.  They’ve not worked with that kind of bait before and don’t know what sort of weights to use or the right time of day for that kind of fishing.  But the reality is it doesn’t matter if you think you’re equipped.  You’re going to have to learn how to do it because the aquarium will be depleted at some point, and either you’re learning how to fish in the wild, or you starve and die.

Most congregations and Christians, in my opinion, prefer to take their chances.  We’ll just be the best aquarium fishers out there, and we’ll get all those fish, and we’ll keep going longer than the others!  I can’t say it’s not a reasonable strategy, but  I’ve rarely seen a congregation go all in on that, follow up their preference with action in a meaningful, sustained way.

But I’ve really never seen a congregation that wholeheartedly decided it was time to put their emphasis into fishing in the wild.

Locally, in their own community and city or neighborhood.  I’ve never seen a congregation that realized that missionaries are now appropriate for their city, not just for some distant group of people living in the forest somewhere and speaking a different language.  But that’s the kind of fishing Jesus called Peter and the other apostles to.  Wild fishing, but local fishing.  There wasn’t an aquarium at that point.  They had to learn how to preach and teach the Gospel.  They had to learn how to trust the Holy Spirit to be at work preparing their hearers ahead of time and working in their hearts and minds during and after their preaching and teaching.  They had to learn to see the people they had grown up with and worked next to and even worshiped next to as people who needed a missionary, fish needing to be brought in to the Good News.

Fishing in the wild is hard and frightening.  It takes  getting used to.  But it’s part of being faithful, and I believe that congregations will need to recognize it and begin adapting themselves to it.  And quickly.  Because as rapidly as you see our culture shifting and changing before our very eyes? As rapidly as you see people deny truth and embrace death as victory, that’s how quick the aquarium is being depleted.

That’s how quickly you’re going to need to start fishing in the wild, locally.


One Response to “Fishing in the Aquarium”

  1. Two Cultures | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] members of one denomination or another.  Their concept of evangelism basically boils down to fishing in an aquarium.  This isn’t bad, but it needs to be […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s