Fishing for people

Give fish the bait they like, not the bait you like! Take another look at the fishing methods Jesus and the disciples used in the first century. Hence “Fishing 101.”

Maxwell N. Ferguson, DMin, pastors the Shiloh Adventist Church, Petersburg, Virginia, United States.

It is a sad and disturbing truth that most professed Christians have never led one person to Christ. This reality is a clear dereliction of duty and directly contributes to the precipitous decline of the church. In Jesus’ nocturnal conversation with His disciples, just prior to His sacrifice on Calvary, He told them, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5, NIV). One aspect of fruit bearing is directly related to successfully engaging in personal evangelism.

The failure to fish

Several years ago, I met a fisherman who fished using an aircraft. He did what is called “spot fishing.” He located the fish from his aircraft, then directed the captain of the fishing trawler to that location. He was as much a fisherman as those in the fishing trawler.

There are many reasons why most Christians refuse to or fail to fish for people; here are a few. False premise: fishing has been left to, or at times been seen as, the exclusive domain of pastors, Bible workers, and other “professional fishermen.” Faulty technique: the church has made the task of soul winning too complicated and nonbiblical. The church seems to be more interested in making members than making disciples. Failed responsibility: many of us as pastors have neglected our responsibility, highlighted in Ephesians 4, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (v. 12).1 The primary role of the pastor is to teach, train, and assign disciples for service. If we return to the biblical models Jesus gave us for doing evangelism, we would be much more successful at fulfilling the Great Commission.

In declaring that He would make those who follow Him fishers of people, Jesus was uplifting fishing as a major metaphor for understanding and undertaking evangelism. In his Gospel, Luke recorded an incident that occurred on Lake Gennesaret (Luke 5:1–11). This incident is pregnant with insights for disciples into how to catch people. In order to realize the goal of transforming church members into disciples who will fish for people, there are three tracks that ought to be pursued by individual disciples and the local church.

Fishing 101

First, in addition to consciously and consistently building relationships with secular people, each disciple of Christ must be ready to share his or her personal testimony. God never asked all of us to give Bible studies; He has, however, asked us to share our personal testimony. Note John’s statement in 1 John 1:1–3. No one can argue with you about your personal testimony.

This is what Daniel and Norma did. Both were lifelong members who had never led someone to the Lord. Daniel invited his friend Sam, who also attended our monthly meet and greet for guests, where Sam was befriended by other young adults. After developing a sense of belonging, he joined my Bible class and was baptized. Today he is an active member of the congregation. He traces his commitment to Daniel, the other young adults, and ultimately to the work of the Holy Spirit on his heart.

Norma reached out to one of our Sabbath guests, Sharon, and they initially communicated via text messages. Norma also invited Sharon to Sabbath dinner, prayed with her, and shared her personal testimony as well. This friendship led to Sharon’s desire to become a disciple of Christ, and today she’s a baptized member of the body of Christ. Neither Daniel or Norma gave Bible studies, but both were instrumental in facilitating Sam and Sharon’s surrendering to the Lordship of Christ.

Every born-again believer will have a testimony of their life before Christ, how they found Christ, and the difference He makes in their lives. In today’s environment, your testimony can be initially more effective than merely quoting Scripture.

Jesus declared in Luke 10 that the problem with evangelism is not that no one wants to receive Christ and the gift of salvation. On the contrary, “the harvest is plentiful.” But, He says, “the laborers are few” (v. 2). In that same verse, He makes it clear that the answer to the problem begins with prayer. Therefore, the first task in changing the evangelism dynamic in the church is prayer. Pray for opportunities—and courage—to share your testimony. God will send more laborers into His vineyard in response to the earnest prayers of believers who are passionate about realizing the fulfillment of the gospel commission.

Go where the fish are

Second, the local church must get to know the community in which it exists. Eleven years ago my family and I moved into a new community. I suggested to the neighbors that we plan a block party and include those whose homes were still being built. This event occurred on a Sabbath afternoon in the summer. My family and I attended the party, met our neighbors, and friendships were formed. I eventually served as president of the home owners association and was able to minister to my community. A few months ago a resident indicated that she would love for me to become her pastor. Gloria attributed her desire to the relationship we had developed and her observation of my lifestyle and character, as well as my service to the community.

Jesus’ instructions to Peter make it clear that in order to become successful fishers, we must go where the fish are. For too long it has become common practice for Christians to abandon their non-Christian friends. This philosophy is espoused out of the fear of “contamination.” Many Adventists, for example, would prefer to live in an “Adventist ghetto,” so as to remain uncontaminated from the world. This is dangerous and counterproductive. Having only Christian friends essentially destroys one’s ability to experience Jesus’ promise to make him or her a fisher of people. The fish in the aquarium are already caught.

Pastors and church leaders must consistently challenge and encourage modern disciples to consciously and systematically develop friendships with non-Christians. Get to know the people in the neighborhood in which you live; get to know your coworkers on the job; join the civic association; volunteer in your community; and most certainly get to know the people in the community in which your congregation exists.2 Get to know them by name, and they should know you by name. Frequent the same places of business and get to know your local bank teller, gas station attendant, dry cleaner, and so on. All of these friendships can develop into opportunities for fishing. Friends listen to friends. If you want to catch fish, you have to go where the fish are.

Assign members to specific blocks so that neighbors can get to know individuals and build relationships. Appoint someone as your church’s community liaison and (a) have a yearly block party, (b) partner with other churches to do ministry, (c) open your church for community events such as police-community dialogue and relations, and (d) partner with community organizations that serve youth and seniors. Discover the needs in your community and use this needs-based ministry to build relationships.

An environment of grace

Thirdly, in addition to what individual disciples do, the local church must do everything possible to create a united, loving, and grace-filled congregation. If we sincerely believe that God’s kingdom will be made up of people from every nation, tribe, language, and people, this will mean two things: (1) we must expand our fishing techniques in order to enhance our ability to catch a variety of fish; and (2) our aquarium (church) must be able to accommodate and be willing to tolerate this variety of fish. Let us briefly explore these two points.

Regarding the first point, I remember living in South America and catching fish in shallow water—by hand. It reminded me of the time that Jesus, on the occasion of securing the money to pay the temple tax, instructed Peter to “go to the sea and cast a hook” (Matt. 17:27). On another occasion, however, upon getting into deep water, Jesus instructed Peter to let down his nets for a catch. It appears that some fish are best caught using a net; while others may require a hook, line, and bait. The principle being taught here has been ignored to our peril: the fish you are aiming to catch determine the technique you are attempting to utilize.

All fish cannot be caught using the same methodology. Every successful fisher knows the same tactic cannot be used to catch marlins, whales, bass, trout, or salmon. So why are we attempting to use one primary method to do evangelism? Fishers use nets, bait, tackle, and other techniques based upon the fish they are trying to catch. The type of fish will also determine the size of the fishing rod and the technique to be used. Unless we are prepared to expand our fishing techniques, we will fish all day and all night and have nothing to show for it.

Regarding the second point, we must be prepared not only to catch but to embrace a variety of fish. Jesus called us to be fishers of people, not cleaners of fish. Nevertheless, many Christians— especially those who are not engaged in personal evangelism—seem eager and ready to embrace a task not given to them, namely, cleaning the fish. In this role of fish cleaning, they make every effort to bring the new believer into alignment with all the teachings of the church (as they see them) as soon as possible. The role of judge and corrector of heretics is assumed, and new believers are required, in the shortest possible time, to act like members of long standing.

The idea that people mature at their own rate is totally foreign to these fish cleaners. They assume that they are doing the church and God a service by ensuring that new believers conform to the church’s standards immediately. People need answers to hard questions. They also need cultural relevance, so we must be culturally relevant. People also need time, so we cannot expect that, after a two-week meeting, everyone will be ready to make a full commitment.

People want to experience community, a commodity that God’s church was uniquely designed to facilitate. Therefore, eliminate all cliques in the body of Christ and avoid clichés in your communication. Put an end to any hint of nationalism or cultural biases. Develop a relevant guest-relation program that may include a monthly meet and greet for guests and leaders. Teach parishioners to make individual contact with guests beyond the official welcome. Invite guests for fellowship lunch and be particularly mindful of repeat visitors, turning them into friends. Invite and allow guests to participate (test-drive the faith) before they commit. Have a strong team of Bible instructors and a strong discipleship program.

As you get to know the fish in your section of the sea, you will discover what can be utilized to attract them and to prepare them to receive the gospel of Christ. This type of fishing would also require that we allow people the opportunity to test-drive the faith long before they request membership. Historically, we have demanded that a person behave a certain way before they belong. Consider all the things we ask baptismal candidates to do before we consider them eligible for baptism. However, we may need to allow people to experience a sense of belonging before we expect them to behave as we want. Churches will need to have conversations about what they are comfortable allowing nonmembers to participate in. The failure to initiate such a dialogue can be catastrophic.

It is not by accident that Scripture calls new believers “infants.” Just as we allow and make extensive preparations when we expect a newborn in our homes, the same must be true in our churches. Too many newborn Christians have been driven from the church because unkind and insensitive members were expecting and demanding too much too soon. Transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit, and it is a lifelong process. Our responsibility is to provide a loving, grace-filled environment that includes accountability so that sinners can progressively be transformed, under the auspices of the Holy Spirit, from sinners into saints. We know this process as “sanctification.” Those who engage in fishing for people will allow the Holy Spirit to clean the fish.

A new approach

Jesus said, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass” (Matt. 4:19, The Message). If we want to win the world for Christ, we must change. We need to change because God cares about lost people; they matter to Him, and so they must matter to us.

Notice what happened when Peter followed Jesus’ counterintuitive instructions: “And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking” (Luke 5:6). Yes, Jesus, the Master Carpenter, knows how to be a great fisherman. Therefore, if we are ever tempted to doubt His directions and instructions regarding evangelism, we need to keep in mind the results that His methods achieved.

Upon calling the very first disciples, Jesus not only issued a call to follow Him, but He also made a promise: “Jesus said to them, ‘Come with me, and I will teach you to catch people’ ” (Matt. 4:19, GNT). The call to discipleship also comes with a responsibility. Jesus is the original Promise Keeper, and all of His promises are true. Therefore, if you are following Christ, you will be fishing. The inverse must also be true: if you are not fishing, it may well be that your assertion of discipleship can be called into question.

Evangelism cannot be an event; it must become a lifestyle. Peter thought that successful fishing could occur only as a nocturnal activity. Similarly, we are tempted to think that fishing for people is counterproductive in light of the post-Christian world in which we now live. We must, however, be willing to do counterintuitive fishing when all signs suggest otherwise.

When all is implemented, evangelism will no longer be event-based, but lifestyle-oriented. Imagine what could happen if each year each disciple of Christ leads one person to Christ. If we do not change our approach, churches will continue in the death spiral that many are already in.

1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

2 “Wherever a church is established, all the members should engage actively in a missionary work. They should visit every family in the neighborhood and know their spiritual condition. If professed Christians had engaged in this work from the time when their names were first placed on the church books, there would not now be such widespread unbelief, such depths of iniquity, such unparalleled wickedness, as is seen in the world at the present time.” Ellen G. White, Welfare Ministry (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1952), 71, 72.

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Maxwell N. Ferguson, DMin, pastors the Shiloh Adventist Church, Petersburg, Virginia, United States.

August 2017

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