Attracting Fish Or Catching Fish?

Fishing is a slightly awkward image for Christian mission because being caught is generally not good for the fish but coming to know Jesus is. Nevertheless, Jesus used it as an image that fishermen would relate to. Probably He didn’t intend us to push the analogy too far.

I am no fisherman but I do remember sitting on a wharf when I was young, or in a boat, throwing bread into the water. Often, that led to fish arriving to feed on the bread. Of course the bait is also design to attract, but on a different level. Whereas the bread is design to draw fish to the fisherman, the bait is designed to entice the fish to bite the hook, or swim into a trap or whatever.

Attracting fish and catching fish are two very different things. The objective is to catch them. The bread attracts the crowd; the bait entices some fish the take the next step.

Attracting fish is not the objective.

Many churches are content to simply attract people. They turn on the best worship services they can. They organise events for families or other groups. And if they do it well; if people enjoy it or feel that their needs are being met, they may come. And then, of course, the church feels very content. It can rejoice in the numbers and feel it is doing its job.

However, attracting people is not the objective. Catching them is. For Christians that means making disciples of them – bringing them to faith in Jesus and then to maturity in Jesus. Do the people who are coming to our events know Jesus? Are they growing in their relationship with Jesus? Are they demonstrating Christ-likeness? Are they engaging in the mission of Jesus?

Attracting people is not wrong. Attracting the fish is part of the process. Attracting the fish makes it easier to then catch them.

People flocked from all over the region to see Jesus and to hear Him teach. Attracting huge crowds was clearly part of Jesus’ strategy. However, when the crowds were large, Jesus several times then challenged them with the reality and the cost of discipleship. When challenged most of the people went back home and the crowds shrank. (See John 6:60-66 c.f. the large crowds and their motivation, mentioned in vv.2, 5, 15, 24, 26; Luke 14:25-35) Large crowds are not interested in costly discipleship. They come primarily to see the spectacle and in the hope of getting something out of it. Jesus experienced the “consumerism” that also dogs the modern church – the tendency for people to pick and choose what suits them without being willing to make a commitment. By challenging the crowds Jesus filtered out those who were serious.

The point of attracting the many was to discover the few. Once they have been identified we can work more intensively with them, focusing on discipling them.

Attracting people is part of the process but only a first step. Attracting fish but not then catching them is actually failure. Entertaining people and even meeting their needs (good though that it is) without making disciples of them is to have stopped prematurely.

Churches should not congratulate themselves on merely attracting people. Getting good numbers to events is of no value unless we move beyond that, identifying those who want to go further with Jesus and intentionally mentoring them to faith and to maturity.

In fact, few fishing methods (I think) rely on attracting fish. Generally fishermen locate the fish.  Some fishermen enjoy the challenge of “stalking” the fish. In other words, most fishing is achieved by the fisherman going where the fish are rather than attracting the fish to the fisherman.

In many ways, attracting people is the easy bit, although even that is not easy in our culture where there is a general disinterest in, or antipathy towards, Christianity. Many churches are doing their best to be attractive but are disappointed that people still don’t show up.

Consider the barriers for people:

  • How do they even know what the church has to offer if they are not there?
  • There is a cultural gulf between the church and the community. People do not understand what the church is about or why it acts in the strange ways that it does.
  • Attending church is not the cultural norm. A person has to be willing to be “different” to even turn up.
  • Is the church actually so attractive that people will put it ahead of their other interests? What would attract a person to suddenly go to church? Is it really that good?

When church members talk positively about their church to friends it carries weight but notice that this is an example of the fishermen going to the fish.

Jesus was hugely attractive. He told interesting and revealing stories. He healed and delivered. He fed crowds and did other miracles. People loved Him. But He put huge emphasis on going to the people. He stalked the fish! Matthew 9:1 says that Jesus went through all the town and villages. His method was to go to the fish. Even when He was experiencing huge popularity and success, He moved on so as to preach in the nearby villages. “That is why I have come” (Mark 1:38 c.f. Luke 4:43-44).

Jesus was committed to going to the people. He was certainly attractive but that was a means to an end. Attracting a self-interested crowd wasn’t the objective.  Jesus was looking for those who would follow Him.

Today, many churches focus on attracting people to church. We talk as if getting people to come to church was the goal. It is not. The goal is making disciples and that might be achieved better by going to where people are than by trying to attract them to the church.

Perhaps churches should periodically ask, “Are we merely attracting fish or are we catching fish?”

Peter Cheyne

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