Luke 5: 1-11


The July/August worship theme, Former Glory, Future Promise, is, from my perspective, a primer on the successful church in the 21st century.  When your new pastor is selected, I plan to send him the sermons in this series so he will know what he has to do.  I’m teasing.  Your new pastor will have his own ideas about how to move forward in the days ahead.

The next two messages in the series are focused specifically on the task of disciple-making.  The watch-word in the church today is “growth.”  How do we grow the church in the 21st century?

My answer is…it’s simple.  It’s not easy but it’s simple. All we have to do is change the way we think.

So…today – “Thinking Like a Fish”.

And next week – “Thinking Like a Fisherman.”  

Thinking Like a Fish

In one of my fishing magazines there is a full-page ad for a fishing lure. The background is a deep blue depiction of water. In the center of the page is a picture of the bait being advertised.  And underneath the picture of the lure is a simple caption: “Think Like a Fish”.

Now, we could, of course, get into a great debate about whether or not a fish actually thinks. But let’s go with the ad for a moment and consider the point being made.  If you think like a fish you will see how attractive this lure will be.  If you think like a fish you will purchase this particular bait.  I’m sure they sold a boat load of these lures.

To catch fish with any consistency, one needs to know what the fish are thinking; what they are doing, how they see things. Environmental factors such as water temperature, water clarity, surface winds, and ph level are important. It is helpful to know the current stage of the reproductive cycle of the species you are trying to catch.  It is essential to know the kinds of baitfish that are in the water. It even helps to know the phase of the moon.

Knowing as much as possible about what’s going on with the fish is the key to a successful fishing trip.  In other words, you have to think like a fish.

The context for our scripture lesson today is an unsuccessful fishing trip followed by a great fishing trip.

Luke 5:1-11

Jesus was at the lake. A great crowd was pressing in on him to  hear the  word of God. For purposes of crowd control Jesus got into one of the boats that was not being used and put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds.

When he had finished his lesson, he suggested a fishing trip. Peter hesitated, but to humor Jesus, or perhaps to obey him, Peter agreed.

Jesus told Peter to go out into the deep water and let down their nets and to Peter’s surprise, they caught fish.

The story ends with one of Jesus’ most famous statements.

“From now on you will be catchers of people”.

It is important to note that this fishing trip does not fit the usual pattern of these men who earned their living catching fish.

Peter and the other fishermen had fished all night.  They fished at night because that was the way it was done because fish are generally more active at night.  This is their primary feeding time. So, the fishermen fished at night. Now they were on the shore, cleaning their nets and storing their gear. They would wait out the day and return to their boats at night fall.

But Jesus has another idea. He wants them to go back out and try again. Peter protests. But Jesus insists, so Peter agrees to go back out.

And not only does Jesus want to go back out in the daytime, he tells them to go out into the deep water.  One has to wonder why Jesus specified the deep water.  There is every reason to believe that the traditional fishing method was to fish the shallows.  Fish are easier caught in shallow water.

But it is in the deep water, that they catch fish – so many fish that, according to Luke, their nets were filled to breaking.

From Miracle to Metaphor

This story is often seen as a miracle story.  As I prepared the message for today, I read a sermon on this text that took this perspective.  The preacher made 3 points:

  1. Jesus connected with his followers at the point of their need. They needed to catch fish.
  2. Jesus connects with us at the point of our need.
  3. Jesus responds to the first disciples and to us with a miraculous intervention that will meet our needs and change our lives.

Well, this is true, but it’s not the point of the story.

As is so often the case with Jesus, the miracle is not the message. The point here is not that Jesus performed a miracle in response to their need to catch fish. His purpose was not to redeem Peter’s bad night of fishing.

We know this because when the fish are caught Jesus immediately leaves the scene and the disciples go with him and they leave the great catch behind.  So, obviously, the fish aren’t important. And Jesus offers no interpretation or lesson that could have been illustrated by a miraculous catch of fish.

His purpose is to set up his call to the disciples:

“From now on you will be catchers of people”

Clearly this fishing expedition is a metaphor for the church, a metaphor for catching people, a metaphor for making disciples.

A Metaphor for the Church

As a metaphor describing the task of the church and the challenges that task presents, we should note:

  1. The fishermen weren’t catching anything.

The story is told of a man who was driving through the country and saw a fella fishing in the stream that ran by the road. He stopped and asked: “Are you catching anything?

“Nope,” replied the man, “Just fishing”.

There’s a difference between fishing and catching.

The parallel to the church should be obvious. We’re not catching anything either. We’re fishing, but we’re not catching.

Leonard Sweet says most churches are like the swimming coach at the awards banquet after a disastrous year. “We didn’t win a single meet,” the coach admitted, “but we had a good time and nobody drowned.”

  1. They weren’t catching.

The second thing to note about this metaphor for making disciples is that Jesus suggests to the fishermen who weren’t catching anything, that they should try something else; that they should use a different strategy. He wants them to fish during the day, and out in the deep water.

Again, the parallel to the church should be obvious. Fishing in different water at a different time are symbols of the church’s need to go beyond what we’ve always done and employ new techniques and new approaches in our efforts to become “catchers of people”.

Fishing the Deep Water

The fishermen weren’t catching any fish in the shallow water. So, Jesus says, “Go out into the deep water and let down your nets”.

Shallow water fishing is what we do in the church. Shallow water fish are those people who are looking for a church and stop by uninvited. They are a good catch so we set the hook and reel them in.

Now, there was a day when this kind of fishing, this kind of disciple making, worked. In the 5O’s, 60’s, and somewhat in the 70’s, people were flocking to the churches. We didn’t have to do anything to attract them.  They came. But not now! Today, the fish are not in the shallows – they are in the deep water. The deep water of indifference. The deep water of busy schedules. The deep water of hard to please. The deep water of “I’m from Missouri, you have to show me.”

Today, the church has to develop a new strategies. Today, the church has to do more than fish the shallows at the appointed hour, on the appropriate day. Today, the churches that are growing are the churches that are fishing the deep water.

Every fisherman knows that fishing the deep water requires different information and different expertise.

This is where you really have to think like a fish.Now you have to add to your knowledge of the fish such things as the effects of deep water structure,   the location of drop offs and pivot points, the edge effect, the weed line and the thermocline.

If you don’t know what’s going on with the fish, you’ll never catch them in the deep water.

It is the same for the church as we try to reach the un-churched.  If we don’t know who they are, what they are thinking, what their interests and needs are, and what is important to them, then, we will never be able to reach them with the message of Jesus Christ.

Who Are the Un-churched?

So, what do we know about the un-churched? There’s been a lot of research in this area and here are some of the things we know:

  • For the most part they are not atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists. For the most part, they are people on a spiritual quest.
  • They are searching for meaning and direction in life.
  • They are open to the Christian message.
  • 66% of un-churched Americans say they believe in God and faith is important to them. But – they do not seek out the church.  They do not go church shopping.
  • They are looking for a spiritual experience – but they are not looking for a church.
  • They often do not know anything about the church.
  • And, if they do come to church – they don’t understand what we are talking about. They are tripped up by the vocabulary. Apostle’s Creed, Holy Ghost, Doxology, Tithe? Beadle?
  • They are confused by our rituals. Baptism they can almost figure out, but they are mystified by Communion, the Confession of sin, and Passing the Peace.
  • The un-churched do not think like we do. They don’t process spiritual information as we do. They do not know the Bible or consider it authoritative.  They do not approach morality with the Christian bias we have. They don’t see the value of the church.

We have to know these things about the people we are trying to reach.  We have to think like they think and adjust our ministries to reflect this new awareness.


The un-churched are the fastest growing demographic in America. And they aren’t mad at us. They are not anti-religious. They are not involved in a left-wing government conspiracy to destroy the church. They can be reached. They can be caught, but they are not  going to jump into the boat.

If we are going to reach these people we have to understand them. What works for us may not work for them? What we’re most proud of may mean nothing to them? What makes sense to us may be illogical to them? What attracts us to the church may not appeal to them?

They are not asking us if Christianity is true – they are looking for evidence that Christianity works.

They are not impressed by what it says in the Bible, they want to know how it is changing people’s lives.

They are not interested in what happened to Paul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road, they want to know what is happening to Paul of Cocoa Beach on A1A.

This is the challenge for the church in the 21st century; understanding how the un­churched think, so we can craft the message of Jesus and present it in a way that it will be heard and embraced.

If we can do that; then we can reach them.

And it will be said of us, the Presbyterians let down their nets in the deep water and their nets were filled to breaking.