Dr. Anne M. Cameron
January 25, 2009
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him.
When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
In his novella, "The River Runs Through It", Norman MacLean begins, "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fisherman and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."
Even though fishing is a perennially favorite pastime, and fly-fishing has in recent years attained some real cachet, I am not so sure fishing is the best image for the church today. Fishing almost always involves bait. Have you heard of the large congregations that offer door prizes to visitors? Chances to win rather pricey items like iPods, iPhones, even cars? No, I am not going to tell you where these churches are! Even though we Presbyterians may unintentionally bait people with good food, and wonderful cookies and such, we don't honestly think God wants us to get into the business of baiting.
Fishing is a power struggle between fisherman (or woman) and fish. One wins, and the fish get eaten. Or, if they are lucky, the fish get thrown back with maybe just a tear in their gills. The fish wins, and the fisherman (or woman ) leaves disappointed, or disgruntled, or maybe hungry. Then there is the violence of fishing, especially as it is practiced today in commercial fishing, where vast quantities of fish are captured and killed, along with many other less desirable creatures of the sea.
Maybe 'fishing for people' isn't the best analogy for the church today. There is the trickery, the power struggle, and then there is the time involved. Fishing is very time-consuming. Not for the instant gratification crowd. Certain kinds of personalities do not like to fish. People who tend to be impatient do not always make the best fishermen. Even the most avid fisherman knows there are those who say, "Fishing is boring. I don't get it." And well, truth be told, there are many who say "Religion is boring. Church is boring. I don't get it."
This text lines out images of fishing and fishermen, on the lake of Galilee. This text echoes the voice of Jesus and his command to four fishermen to follow him. In the following, they are going to be changed. They will become fishers of people. It is an issue of who they become. Their identity changes. We know this, because we know the end of the story. Andrew and Simon, James and John were fishing for fish. Eventually they will become evangelists, delivering good news to people, because that's what the word evangel means, good news.
As I was casting about for an application of the gospel this week, Peyton handed me a book called The unChristian. It is subtitled, "What a new generation really thinks about Christianity. . .And Why It Matters." With little idea it would matter for the sermon, I picked it up on Tuesday evening and by Wednesday morning I had read half of it. Every once in a while these ideas come to preachers straight from other sources, like the Holy Spirit, and then the words for the sermon come fast and furious, and easy, like shooting fish in a barrel.
You may well be hearing more about this book later on this spring, but for now I feel compelled to touch on it with you because it wrestles with some serious problems we as a church face today, and it speaks directly to the issues of discipleship and evangelism raised here in the first chapter of Mark.
This book is different than many which address questions of why the church is not capturing and holding young people as disciples. This book takes a research approach to the questions of what young people think about Christianity and the good news.
The main group studied in the book is what the authors call "outsiders," those looking at the Christian faith from the outside. This group includes atheists, agnostics, those affiliated with other non-Christian faiths , and other unchurched adults . You may want to look at the back of your bulletin where I have these numbers listed.
There are about twenty-four million outsiders in this country between the ages of sixteen to twenty-nine. These "outsiders" are becoming less and less a "fringe" segment of American society. Each generation contains more than the last, which helps explain their growing influence. Outsiders make up about one-quarter of Baby Boomers and Elders .
The unChristian summarizes the results of many random sampling studies conducted via telephone, internet, and in person. Most of the conclusions drawn were from an in-depth study of 440 randomly selected "outsiders" ages 16-29.
What the researchers found was very unsettling, and may be somewhat unbelievable to you. There are a few reasons for this. First, many of us have very little contact with people ages 16-29, and if we do, it is a very select sample of people, usually our own children/grandchildren and the children/grandchildren of friends. Second, we are living in the Bible Belt. No more need be said. Third, many of us may have little contact with anyone outside the church, let alone young people outside the church. It's a whole different world out there. Think for a moment. Most people you know are probably church-going Christians. We tend to swim in schools with similar kinds of fish.
What the researchers found was that young people outside the church have VERY negative views of Christianity. Here is what they found: the three most common perceptions of present-day Christianity among young "outsiders" are:
- The Church is antihomosexual (91%)
- The Church is judgmental (87%)
- The Church is hypocritical (85 %)
Ouch. This is painful. This is how young people outside the church view us. Clearly, the church has an image problem, but this river of opinion may actually run deeper than just our image. It may reflect how we have actually been treating people. It may reflect what we have been communicating by our actions, or by our lack of action. We all need to consider there may be some truth in these perceptions, and we need to dive deeper.
This study also explored the source of young people's impressions. And believe it or not, it wasn't the media. It was, by and large, personal experiences young people had had. These young people's impressions have been forged through a wide range of inputs: experiences at churches and relationships with Christians were the most common ways their views about the Christian faith are shaped, followed by the input they receive from other religions, and what their parents have told them about Christianity .
These are the views of the ones who are getting away, the ones who don't really want to have much to do with us. And the views of many young people inside the church are not hugely different, but that's another story for another day.
It's easy to dismiss this. It is easy to say, we're not like that; that's not the way we are here at LHPC. But even if none of us are hypocritical, even if all of us are completely accepting and free of judgment, when young people drive by our building and see a church, they are going to think these things. We all suffer the sins of the entire body, even if we personally haven't committed them. And I doubt there is a single person here who could honestly say they are 100% free of hypocrisy, exclusiveness, or judging others. I know I can't.
Maybe fishing isn't the best analogy for evangelism these days. Or maybe we've been going about it the wrong way. Sometimes we have just focused on the size of "the catch", and not paid enough attention to our own faults, to our methods, to our message. Maybe, just maybe, we haven't been paying enough attention to the One who wants us to fish in the first place. Fishing involves more than just casting nets and pulling in the haul. There is a lot of preparation and planning, mending nets, repairing tools and equipment that is bound to be damaged, worn, or outdated. There is the knowledge of the ever changing environment.
There is the knowledge of the ever changing fish. And there is the knowledge of how p
change as we play out the fish.
We may need to think about entirely different sorts of nets. We may have to abandon nets entirely. We may have to stop fishing and start looking at ourselves and who we are, deep down, underneath the layers of sunglasses, hats, visors, and fishing vests, underneath the waders and the boots, without the bass boat or the depth finder. We may just have to strip ourselves bare, let go of those things we use to shore ourselves up, keep ourselves afloat, reassure ourselves we are pretty good fishermen. We ARE good enough fishermen, aren't we? Aren't we?
"Outsiders" (People outside Christian churches)
40% of total
27% of total
23% of total
Negative Views of the Church by Young "Outsiders"
Source of Young People's Impressions:
Experiences at churches (59%)
Relationships with Christians (50%)
Input from other religions (48%)
Parental information about Christianity (40%)
Source: The unChristian by D. Kinnaman and G. Lyons, 2007