The analogy of fishing for evangelism and making disciples of Christ is a good one. I know this because Jesus is the one who made the analogy! When Jesus called his first disciples, who were fishermen, he said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Matthew 4:19 (ESV). So, for nearly two millennia Christians have thought of bringing lost people into the Kingdom of God in terms of fishing.
Fishing was not really part of my growing up experience. My knowledge of fishing was basically to put a worm on a hook and cast it in the water and hope for the best. I don’t remember ever catching anything. As a teenager I one time threw a cast net into a canal and caught a bunch of mullet. So that worked. I went deep sea fishing once for sea bass which was an entirely different experience. The boat owner knew the exact time and location to go and had the right bait and technique. I caught a bunch of fish that day! With that limited experience and a little study I learned that there are a lot of different ways to fish. The kind of fish you are trying to catch determines the kind of fishing you do: what line or bait or net or boat or whatever to use. You should first determine what kind of fish you are fishing for and then fish for them specifically.
For many local churches that want to grow and make new disciples of Jesus, their knowledge of fishing for men is about the same as mine of real fishing. They utilize the “put a worm on a hook and throw it out there” method and just hope someone comes to faith or joins the church. They do one program and when no one “bites” and no new people come to church they give up. When someone new joins the leadership, or gets on vestry and says, “We should do evangelism, we need to grow,” someone whose been around awhile says, “We tried that already and it didn’t work.” Everyone mumbles agreement then moves on to complain about how the church needs to grow and needs more money but doesn’t have a good plan for what to do.
Here’s the thing: Just as there are many different kinds of fish that eat different food at different depths at different times, there are different kinds of people with different needs and different resistance levels to coming to Christ. The big idea here is to first determine who are the people around your church that don’t know Jesus. What are they like? What are their needs? What is their faith like? Once you’ve learned what kind of people are in your “fishing pond,” then you can more effectively “fish” for them. Instead of a one size fits all program for evangelism, you can find a strategy that will actually get them to “nibble” on believing in Jesus and some will actually “bite” and become Christians and join your church! Consider this two-part plan:
Learn about the “Fish” in your pond: Simply draw a five mile circle around your church. That’s your pond. Then analyze the unchurched people in your area. This can be done by just general observation, or google searches on demographics of the area, to even paid studies that can break down the people in great detail. If you live in that area, you probably already have a pretty good idea about what the unchurched people are like.
Love the “Fish” in your pond: Once you’ve determined what the unchurched people are like, develop a plan that meets them where they are. Find how to show them love in practical ways that will cause them to ask you questions like, “why are you doing this?” That will lead to conversations about Jesus’ love for them and opportunities to share the Gospel and invite them to church. I recently heard about a successful outreach/evangelism movement that began in Central Florida called 40 Days of Love. You can check it out at www.40daysoflove.net as an example of what this idea looks like. It’s a simple model of Prayer, Care, and Share. Even if you don’t participate in something like this specific program, your church can identify your “fish”, pray for them, care for them in practical ways that meets their needs, and share Christ with them! The AAC’s recent survey of churches showed that the age of many of our congregations is a concern. Let me just say, that if you’re still alive God has a purpose for you. Part of that purpose is to grow His Kingdom. If you’re older, you can love people, pray for people, care for people and earn the right to share with people! You can do this!
This is the approach my church took in Jacksonville, Fl. We found that “fish” in our “pond” were mostly lower income people, many of whom were struggling with addictions of various kinds. Being in the South, most knew something about church and had some knowledge of Jesus. However, the common belief was that they knew they were sinners and needed help but the last place they would go to was a church because they expected to be judged by the people and punished by God. We learned that no matter how attractive our church was with greeters and signs and excellent worship, our “fish” just wouldn’t come to church. So we continually sought ways to connect with them where they were to show Jesus’ love for them in practical ways and earn the right to share. Many attempts failed but many have worked amazingly. To my knowledge, six people made first time commitments to Christ so far in 2017 prior to my leaving at the end of July. We added new members to the church in our membership class the Sunday before I left! Unchurched people consistently came into the church because they knew they were loved and belonged and could find the help they needed. Becoming expert fishers of men works!
So how can your congregation become expert fishers of men in your specific community? For more information on how to do this, consider participating in the AAC’s REVIVE Workshop with follow up coaching. This and much more on how to grow your church is addressed. You can reach me at MEldredge@AmericanAnglican.org.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching for the American Anglican Council.