Context Matters

In a previous post, I described an important type of sermon series – what we call “fishing expeditions” here at Resurrection – and the significant role they have played in our ability to reach new people, as well as some reasons every church might want to consider them. I also included a post on how we do fishing expeditions, with tips any church can use. As powerful as these sermon series can be, however, I just want to clarify they are not a magic potion that will cure all ills, apart from other factors. Without overworking the fishing metaphor, it is safe to say that no amount of great bait can overcome dead water or the inability to “land a fish.” In other words, context matters.

Dead Water
Everyone who has done much fishing has likely encountered at least one body of water that simply did not support aquatic life – where, even if fish were introduced, the condition of the water would soon kill them off. The same can be true of the worship experience at your church. If your worship experience is driving away first-time visitors, having a great post-Christmas sermon series won’t magically solve the problem and grow your church. Before we began work on our first fishing expedition series at Resurrection, we had to make sure we were offering great visitor-friendly worship, especially on Christmas Eve and Easter. For us, here is how that looks on Christmas Eve:

  • Having our friendliest volunteers outside in the parking lot and at the doors offering a smile and a warm welcome.
  • Excellent music with familiar songs – hymns and Christmas Carols – that even people unfamiliar with church might recognize.
  • Making sure every person who leads or speaks during worship introduces themself or has their name on the screens. Don’t assume visitors know who they are.
  • Providing context for what will happen in the service (thereby reducing guests' anxiety) and verbal instructions for every element in which the congregation participates.
  • A specific welcome during the service to guests who might be worshiping with us.
  • Making sure all song lyrics, as well as words for prayers and readings, are on screens or printed so people can participate.
  • Removing all acronyms or “insider language” from any announcements.
  • An inspiring sermon that connects with emotion, speaks to the human condition, and offers the hope that Christmas brings, with a call to action that everyone can do.
  • A candle-lighting element that creates a “memorable moment,” representing the light of Christ breaking through the darkness and illustrating the difference it makes when that light is shared.
  • A warm, compelling invitation to return after Christmas for the fishing expedition sermon series.
  • Friendly volunteers wishing people a Merry Christmas as they exit.

Landing Fish
If any experience is universal among people who have fished, it must be “the one that got away.” Whether it was due to a lack of skill or preparation, or perhaps a broken line or other equipment failure, the sense of disappointment, loss and unrealized hope is the same. Nothing you did up to that point matters anymore – once the fish gets away, you have nothing to show for your effort. The same can happen with fishing expeditions. No matter how well you did Christmas Eve or how effective your sermon series was in bringing visitors back, without excellent follow-up and clear next steps, it will all be for naught. Check out Yvonne Gentile’s excellent lists of characteristics of effective follow-up and reasons visitors may not return. In them, she explains that follow-up, when done well, tells visitors they matter and has a strong correlation to return rates. We try to follow up with every guest within 24 hours of their first visit by personally delivering a simple gift and message – “we’re so glad you worshipped with us today and we hope you’ll come back; we’d love to be your church family.”

During every fishing expedition series, we provide clear information about relevant upcoming opportunities that will make a difference in the lives of our guests or involve them in making a difference in the world. We also strategically schedule our new member process – Coffee with the Pastors – to closely follow the conclusion of each fishing expedition. Before launching your expedition, be sure you are ready to follow up effectively with every new person attracted by your sermon series. And, know what non-threatening, relevant next steps you will offer them when the series concludes.

If you are struggling with either of these issues, you are not alone. Even Jesus’ first disciples knew what it was like to work hard “all night” and not catch a thing. [Luke 5; John 21] Yet, even with Jesus himself present, they still had to cast their nets. And, after making adjustments at His direction, they were “astonished” by the number of fish they caught. Are you willing to make the necessary adjustments in your context, whether it’s in your worship experience, your follow-up or both?

The results might just astonish you, too.

Jonathan Bell is our ShareChurch Leadership Resources Specialist. He is passionate about helping people and churches live out their faith in the world and helps strengthen other churches by equipping their leaders with ideas, tools, resources and training. He loves being married to his wife Angie and doing just about anything with their six kids. He particularly enjoys hiking mountains, catching fish, baking, holding babies, serving others, and growing things.