Friday, January 13, 2006

Fishing for People

The essential thing about being a Christian is not praying to Jesus or worshipping him, nor is it a question of believing the right things about him. The essential thing is following Jesus, even getting alongside him, and sharing in his mission.
Jesus doesn't work alone. His mission involves team work. He's clearly the team leader, boldly going where no one has gone before, even to death on a cross for the sake of God's plan, but he expects his followers to carry their own crosses, too.
Taking his cue from the occupations of his first disciples [1], Jesus describes the task of his new team as 'fishing for people'. It's an interesting image to use because, from the fish's perspective, it's not entirely positive, is it? It suggests being hooked or snared. There's a hint that the people Jesus aims to catch will not realise what's going on until they're well and truly caught. Using their skills, Jesus and his team will entice them into believing.
I guess Jesus may not have thought of it from the fish's point of view. He was probably just thinking of fishing as a good, honest day's work. The disciples' new job will be every bit as important and valuable as their old one. But opponents of Christianity have certainly latched onto those negative aspects of fishing. They've sometimes accused Christian missionaries of using cunning stratagems to win new converts, much as advertisers come up with seductive jingles and images to win new customers.
I've been involved in marketing myself, and it's certainly true that modern Christianity has much to learn. If we approached the job of persuading people to become Christians as diligently as commercial enterprises set out to attract market share, there would be a lot more people in church!
I'm ashamed to say that it wasn't until we wanted to attract more children to our childcare businesses, that we seriously thought of hanging brightly coloured banners outside our churches advertising what was going on inside! Where are the banners advertising our Sunday worship and our other spiritual activities? Perhaps we haven't taken seriously enough the challenge to be fishers of people!
Seeking inspiration, I went to visit an anglers' website and it was just chock full of pictures of people holding up huge fish – including one or two where the fish were so large that the proud angler could scarcely stand upright under the weight! And, of course, commercial fishermen and women, too, are notorious for concentrating on the size of their catch – not so much, of course, on the size of the individual fish, though they have to be careful not to catch fish that are too small, but on the number of tonnes of fish which they are allowed to land.
Does this mean that we are supposed to be in the numbers game? If so, of course, the Twenty-First Century Methodist Church has got a lot to learn about making disciples in the United Kingdom. Elsewhere, the Methodist Church is growing, even in America, but here we're not hooking enough people. More people leave or die than join, and the Church has been shrinking steadily year by year.
It's fashionable to say that numbers don't matter. 'Never mind the quantity of disciples, concentrate on their quality!' people sometimes say, as if a small number of highly committed people is automatically better and somehow more effective than a large number.
When – in the book of Judges [2] – Gideon is told to keep only 300 out of the original 22,000 volunteers in his army, God tells him to keep only the men who are foolhardy and reckless rather than the most alert and capable soldiers. The only merit in this tiny remnant is that, because they're so totally ineffective, the victory they're going to win will clearly be seen as God's achievement, not theirs. And, if Gideon is selective, at least he has a lot of people to choose from in the first place. Small can be beautiful, but there is no merit in smallness for its own sake. God undoubtedly has special work for a carefully selected team of people to do – for a small group like the disciples, for instance – but God's purpose is that the whole world might come to believe and that's a project whose scale is simply huge.
As it happens, while the institutional Church – like many other organisations in modern society – may be weak in numbers at the moment, there is nonetheless a growing interest in religion and spirituality. The Church is being consulted by planners and service providers, eager to know what we believe and how we can help make society stronger and more caring. Hospitals value the work of chaplains more than they have done for many decades, because spirituality and faith have been shown to have real healing potential. The number of people studying religion at school and university is growing fast.
How can we exploit this new interest in faith? How can we become 'fishers of people'? I fear we shall not succeed in tapping into this new interest and energy if we take the attitude of one elderly church member who told me, 'I can't abide clapping in chapel!' I'm not particularly keen on it either, but I believe it's only by exploring new ways of reaching people, 'fresh expressions' [3] of church if you like, that we shall be able to reverse the decline in the Church's fortunes. Clapping may not be the key to growth, but openness to new things and new ways of being and worshipping is certainly crucial.
The new Church which emerges from this process will not be a revitalised version of the old one. It will, I think, be something much more Twenty-First Century, which is where Zebedee comes into the picture. Andrew and Peter, James and John were not impoverished or disadvantaged. They were not eking out a living on the margins of their community . Like Jesus they were traders, small businessmen. Zebedee, the father of James and John, had other hired workers who could continue helping him to mend the nets and catch fish while his sons did something different. That's surely part of the reason why James and John could feel confident enough to leave everything behind.
The new kind of church will need help from the old way of being church if it is to get established. This will mean that the old church establishment will have to give sacrificially to support what is new. In other words, it will have to invest its own resources in new ways of being church without sharing directly in the benefits or growth, and so it will have to reconcile itself to gradually being eclipsed as new forms of discipleship attract more followers. But, of course, the only alternative to supporting the new, is for the old to gradually wither and perish without giving rise to anything in its place.
To encourage the new is the way of Christ. To turn our back on fresh expressions of church is to turn our back on him. To die so that something new may live is to travel the way of the cross and to come, beyond it, to Easter Day.
[1] Mark 1.14-20
[2] Judges 7.2-8a
[3] http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk

2 comments:

Flossie said...

nice blog-very interesting to read.
~a friend from America

Flossie said...

nice blog-very interesting!I really liked the "Jesus doesn't work alone"
~a friend from America