If I didn’t do it now it would likely never happen. For twenty winters I’ve passed by Reeds Lake in Grand Rapids a few thousand times and seen hundreds of people fishing on the ice. For some unknown reason, however, I’ve been hesitant to walk out on the ice myself, fearful that I’m going to be the one to break through.
A week ago my curiosity got the best of me. I gingerly stepped onto the ice and walked out to a man fishing 200 yards off shore. “Would you mind telling me a little bit about ice fishing?”
“What kind of fish are you trying to catch?”
“We’re fishing for blue gills, but others fish for crappies, perch, and northern pike.” This is known as a very good ice fishing lake, especially since it’s in an urban area.”
“How thick is the ice?”
“Eight inches. It’s not as thick as it normally is at this time of year.”
“How do you know when the ice is unsafe?”
“If it starts to warm up or get too windy the ice can break up pretty quickly.”
“It’s an auger. It makes holes in the ice, and then we put the fishing line down the hole.”
“You have six lines here for two people.”
“The limit on Reeds Lake is three lines per person and twenty-five fish per day for pan fish.”
“Why don’t you have an ice shanty for protection like some other guys do?”
“It’s sunny today, and we’re wearing warm clothing. We’re fine. The huts with heaters get so warm that you don’t even need to wear a coat. You ought to try ice fishing some time.”
“Maybe I will.” What I neglected to tell him is that fishing is my life, too. The only difference is that I’m fishing for people.
The fish is an ancient Christian symbol. After all, Jesus’ disciples Peter, Andrew, James, and John were commercial fishermen, and Jesus spent most of his ministry teaching, preaching, and healing around the Sea of Galilee. Jesus used fish and bread for the feeding of the 5,000, commissioned his disciples to “catch people,” and asked them after his resurrection to cast their nets on the other side of the boat where they caught 153 fish.
It was so dangerous to be a follower of Jesus in the first centuries of Christianity that they developed a secret password for identifying fellow disciples as well as marking meeting places and tombs. According to tradition, when Christians met one another the first person would draw the arc on the top half of a fish. If the second person was a believer, he or she would respond by drawing the bottom half of the arc slightly overlapping on the right edge.
Fishing was a wonderful part of my childhood because my father was an avid and artful fisherman. My first memory of fishing was at a family church camp when, as a six-year old, I cast my line into the lake and got a bite. After struggling to reel in the line my dad and I discovered that I’d caught a huge snapping turtle instead of a fish!
The summer after eighth grade my father joined a fishing club on a remote lake in northern Quebec. Every summer for ten years our family spent a week at what became one of my most cherished places on earth. One time my little sister hooked a walleye, but the fish fought so hard it yanked the fishing pole right out of her hands. We were fairly close to shore, but the wind was up, the water was stirred, and we couldn’t see the bottom to find the pole. The next day the water was calm, so we returned to the same spot and, sure enough, there it was. We recovered the rod, the fish was still on the hook, and we ate it for dinner.
Fishing is important for Christians because Jesus instructed his disciples and us to fish for people. Unfortunately, United Methodists haven’t been fishing too well over the past 45 years. If we could regain our fishing touch we’d also recover our lost skills in disciple-making.
The (Ice) Fishing Life: How to Catch People
- Be clear about why you’re fishing.
As Christians we’re understandably hesitant to pressure people into becoming followers of Jesus by giving the impression that they’re out and we’re in, they’re lost and we’re saved, and they’re off track, and we’ve got it all together. The reality is that we’re all out, we’re all lost, and we’re all off track at times.
Jesus asked us to fish in order to build Christ’s church. You and I are called to “catch people” by inviting others to encounter the living God, experience the unconditional grace of Jesus, allow their lives to be transformed, and then join us on the Way to the kingdom of God.
- Know where to fish.
My father had an intuitive sense of where the fish were because he could think like a fish. He knew the lake he was fishing inside and out, and he understood the habits of the specific fish he wanted to catch. Anyone could catch fish with my dad.
In the same way, in order to grow, local churches need to study the demographics, know their neighborhood, target a specific audience, and then seek to understand their lifestyle, needs, hopes, and dreams. This is no longer the 1950’s when churches quickly grew simply by opening their doors. In order to experience growth in today’s world we must know the context of our setting, be intentional, have a plan, and get outside the building.
- Know how to catch fish.
If you want to be a fisherman, you need a rod, reel, and bait suitable for the specific fish you want to catch. Out on the ice the man fishing for blue gills used a tiny rod, whereas another fellow I visited let down a line inside an ice shanty with a huge artificial fish lure that he would periodically bob up and down. The lure sat in several feet of water, and when a pike came by to check it out the fisherman would stab it with a spear.
By contrast, fly fishing demands more skill than simple casting because aim is everything. The artificial fly sits on top of the water, and the fish rise to the surface to eat the fly. The challenge of fly fishing is to aim your cast about five feet upstream of a fish rising to the surface. You have to target an individual fish or you’ll never catch anything. Then you have to watch the fly move downstream. If the fly disappears, it means a fish has taken it. You can’t rely on feel for this; you have to watch.
What system does your congregation have in place to “break through the ice”- to watch, reach, invite, welcome, follow-up with, and assimilate guests into the life of the church? How are you using outreach, social media, marketing, personal contacts, and worship to “go fishing”?
- Be flexible and patient.
Each day on the lake, river, or ocean is different. The sun, clouds, wind, air and water temperature, currents, water flow, depth of ice, and angle of the sun all affect the fishing. When fly fishing I am especially aware of the wind. If it’s gusty, the wind will take the end of my line when I’m casting and double it back on the rest of the line, creating a humongous tangle called an air hole. It works much better when I don’t cast into the wind but with the wind.
The same principle applies when we fish for people and invite them into a transforming relationship with Christ. Sharing our faith is not a one size fits all process. Every person is different and has unique needs. Our goal is to authentically connect with people and respect where they are on their spiritual journey. Above all, we have to follow and work with the wind of the Holy Spirit, not against it.
- Rely on God’s grace.
Norman Maclean’s novel A River Runs Through It is about a Presbyterian minister and fly fisherman in Colorado who teaches his two sons to fly fish. The story is told through the eyes of the oldest son, Norman, who said that he and his brother Paul were left to assume that Jesus’ disciples were fly fishermen because all first class fishermen were fly fishermen. He said his father taught them that “all good things, catching trout, as well as eternal salvation, come by grace. And grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.”
Fishing for people is a work of art undergirded by grace and seasonal ice. We fish because Jesus calls us to build the kingdom of God; because all people yearn for fullness of life by connecting with the divine and with one another; and because, as a just released survey (http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/survey-reveals-strong-us-connection-to-local-churches/) from Rasmussen Reports shows, “nothing else comes close” to the bond Americans have with their local religious institutions.
Ultimately, however, we fish because Easter’s coming, and we have a whopper of a fish story to tell.