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Fly Fishers of Men

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"Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19

It’s a late November evening, clear and cold and beautiful, as I stand waist-deep at the edge of Lilly Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park with a fly rod in my hand. I look across the lake at the autumn sky with colors just starting to wash over the few clouds, captivated by the peaceful beauty. My son is across the lake, casting from his drift boat, with the silhouette of the Never Summer mountain range in view on the horizon. We are stalking greenback cutthroat trout, and having no luck.

As I stood there, taking in the sweeping view, resigning myself to not getting the first strike, I began to ponder the essence of fly fishing. My best friend, David Meszaros, got me into the sport several years ago. I learned painfully why they call it "fishing" and not "catching." In the last few years, with the help of a guide, I have begun to master the sport of small-stream fishing in the high mountain waters of the Indian Peaks wilderness, a few miles from my cabin in Colorado. Why, between us, my son and I had a 100-fish day up in the park late last summer.

But now, I was on unfamiliar water, trying to learn how to catch trout in a lake. As I ruminated on our lack of success, I thought about the similarities of trying to catch elusive native trout, and our churches’ struggle to reach the unchurched people around us.

Fishing with Dog

See Who You’re Trying to Catch

For the first few years, as I attempted to learn, I could not bring myself to pay the extra hundred dollars for polarized sunglasses. Without them, I had no clue what was going on under the glare of the water's surface. I did not realize how important it was to see the fish. I would cast around, hoping there was a fish nearby. Mostly, I just flailed the water and scared away the fish.

As I read the Gospels, I am struck at how many times Jesus says, "For those who have eyes to see, let them see." As one who joined the Lutheran church through adult baptism, I have spent the last 25 years amazed at how few Lutherans "have the eyes to see" the unchurched in our communities. We know they are out there, but often our focus is turned inward, on our own needs and our church community.

Once I popped for the polarized prescription sunglasses, a new world opened up. I could see the stream bottom, see the shadows of fish moving for cover when I spooked them, as I often did. Even with the glasses, it takes great concentration to see the fish in mountain streams.

To see who the unchurched are in our communities, we now have wonderful tools like Percept psychographic data. This tool lets us learn in great detail about those who inhabit our community. When we received Percept data for the three miles around our church during our Call process, there was a great big yawn from our members. Many seemed to wonder, "Why do we need that?" Well, until you begin to focus on the needs of the unchurched, you don't. Invisible people with invisible needs don't seem to trouble many of our denominational churches, particularly those on plateau or decline (80+ percent).

Understand Their Environment

The next thing I learned about fly-fishing is the need to understand the environment where the fish lie. Trout, like many of us, don’t like to work any harder than necessary. They will lie facing upstream, at the seam of the current. The fast water is like a food conveyor, bringing all sorts of insects downstream. The fish like to be right at the edge of the fast water, often behind a rock or under a log, able to dart into the fast current for a bite, but otherwise to conserve energy in the slow water. They are wary and like to hide in shadows and deep water.

Because they face upstream, they are best approached from downstream. Otherwise they'll see you coming and hide. Nothing annoys a fly fisher more than to see someone with a spinning rod tromping downstream, ruining the fishing for a long stretch of river.

The unchurched also like to be unobtrusive. They are skittish about church and scare off easily. Harsh, judgmental Christians who point fingers and tell everyone how they should live have turned many off to church. They can't see Christ for the Christians, and many will never just walk into our churches on Sunday morning. If we are to encounter them at all, it will be on their ground. Recent studies have shown that the best way to reach the unchurched is off campus through service to the community. Many unchurched people feel a need to give back to their communities and will engage with us in service projects, given the chance. Yet we continue to sit in church, waiting for new members to show up.

Find Them Where They Live

Once you learn to see the fish and understand the environment, it soon becomes obvious that they will not come to us. We must go to them. My favorite fishing spots are small streams in the wilderness, tumbling over boulders and waterfalls, cascading down from the mountains. I use a short rod and cast a very short line. Last summer, as I worked my way up Boulder Creek, I caught 15 fish out of the same pool at the bottom of a waterfall.

If I had not worked my way a mile or so upstream, I would never have found this wonderful spot. As I patiently worked all the hiding places in this pool, I pulled one fish after another out, carefully releasing each one downstream so as not to disturb the pool.

Bill Easum tells the story of spending every Friday night for several years at a local bar near his church, meeting and befriending the unchurched. Not the standard approach for a pastor, mind you, but Bill helped me see that we must go where the unchurched are hanging out if we want to reach them. Mike Foss talks about how many people he has befriended at the local Starbucks near his church. Those with vibrant small group ministry often meet at St. Arbucks, trying to reach more people for Christ.

Wade Fishing

Know What Feeds ‘Em

We are lucky here in the Front Range of Colorado; you can fish with dry flies most of the season. I have become a purist, and I love fishing with dries on the surface of the stream. Fish consume 90 percent of their meals underwater, and most fly fishing is done with nymphs and wet flies, which drift below the surface. There is nothing like watching the trout break the surface to take a dry fly.

To interest a trout, you must use a lure that closely resembles the insects they are consuming that day. You watch the bugs hatching on the water and try to replicate that with a lure from the fly box. You can do everything else right, but if you have the wrong fly, you won’t get a strike. Fish need a constant supply of insects to help them survive the rough winters, when the streams are mostly frozen over. When we present a fly that looks natural, we can have great success catching trout.

The unchurched have great needs too. Often we pursue our wants, and go unfulfilled. Jesus offers us the bread of life and taught us to meet needs, not wants. We have little success, however, until we approach the unchurched at their point of need. We often assume we understand their needs. Too often, church conversations about programs to attract the unchurched are data-free discussions. One church made great preparations to meet the needs of single mothers only to find out that demographic was a very minor percentage of their immediate community.

One of the eight keys to a healthy church in the Natural Church Development process is Need-Based Evangelism. The key to church growth is for the local congregation to focus its evangelistic efforts on the questions and needs of non-Christians. We must understand the needs as they perceive them.

Present an Offer That Doesn’t Scare ‘Em Off

Now that we have learned how to see the fish, where they lie, and what they eat, we have only one more step to catch them. We must cast the fly and let it drift in front of the fish in a way that looks totally natural. The fly must drift with the current and not make any unnatural movements. It must appear authentic.  We must not scare the fish by whipping the water with our line, or splashing around in the stream. Not a simple task. Why, even our shadow will spook the fish. Casting and mending the line correctly can take years to master.

I was at Yellowstone, fishing the Henry's Fork with a guide last June. It was about 9 p.m., and we had been out since early morning. A thunderstorm had just passed, and I was wet and cold. But we were stalking trophy trout, over 20 inches long. The guides call it trout hunting. First, we would spot a big fish and watch it feeding. We would then slowly move upstream towards it. Taking one step every few minutes, it took 15 minutes to get within 20 feet without spooking him. Matching the fly, I set to cast. I would only have one chance. In the still, shallow water, the least disturbance would scare him off. I was wound tight as a drum.

I cast, and the fly dropped into the water a foot ahead of him. I heard the guide call "strike" as the fish took the fly. I jerked up on the rod like a coiled spring, bringing the fish out of the water and breaking the line. "Easy," said the guide, "you can never jerk a big fish out of the water without snapping the line." The fish was gone, and we started over. Two more tries, and I finally landed one, cold, exhausted, and ready to go home.

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Authenticity Is Key

To the unchurched, in this post-modern world, authenticity is the key. The one question the unchurched want us to answer (another bit of wisdom from Easum) is, "What is it about your relationship with Jesus Christ that I can’t live without?" In other words, don't tell me about Jesus, but, do you know him, can you introduce me? They are looking for an experience of God, not a theological diatribe.

Are We Truly Modeling Discipleship in Our Walk?

Are we being the hands and feet of Christ in the world? That's what I mean by authenticity. For the post-moderns, spirituality is a journey, not a place. It is not something that happens for an hour in a sanctuary on Sunday morning. It is something that impacts our whole lives, work and play, home and church. Christ does not need an attorney arguing His case; He needs a witness. Until I opened an ongoing connection to the Spirit, I did not have much to witness about. I could tell you about church and a little about Jesus, but I could not tell about how God was working in my life.

Opening up that pipeline will help us see how God is working all around us. Connecting with our gifts, we can discern a calling that only we can fulfill. That makes an authentic witness. Then, we are prepared to go fishing. Wade in a little deeper, and you'll have the time of your life!

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