Going Fishing

In a previous post, I described an important type of sermon series we call “fishing expeditions,” the difference they have made in the life of our church, and why we would encourage any church to consider them. Having covered the “why,” today we’re going to focus on the “how.” While there can always be moments of luck – just being in the right place at the right time – success in fishing more often depends on proper bait and technique. So it is with these sermon series as well.

Right Topic
One of the most important decisions in planning a fishing expedition series is the topic. We saw one of our largest single increases in worship attendance when we preached a post-Christmas series on “Love, Sex and Marriage.” Perhaps more than at any other time of year, a fishing expedition topic needs to pique the interest of non-religious and nominally religious people. In other words, it needs to scratch somewhere they are itching, whether consciously or not. Turns out, a lot of people who couldn’t care less about church or organized religion really care about the state of their personal relationships.

It also needs to be a topic that makes it easy for your existing members to invite their friends, neighbors, co-workers and classmates. Who doesn’t know someone with relationship questions?! Moreover, who wouldn’t want to invite that someone to hear a series full of practical information, tips and hope?

With that in mind, a lot of time goes into this decision at Resurrection, beginning with prayer and discernment by our senior pastor – and sometimes some obvious options are readily apparent. For example, when our local NFL team was having post-season success we hadn’t seen in years, which eventually led to their first Superbowl appearance in 50 years, doing a series on “Lessons from Football for the Game of Life” was a light-hearted, community-spirited, outside-the-religious-box way to catch the attention of our Christmas Eve visitors. Our pastor also regularly surveys our staff and, often, our congregation for suggestions of topics that would be relevant and compelling to people they know who don’t go to church. Among the most effective topics over the years have been series like The Gospel and Stories Making the News, Questions Thinking People Ask, When Christians Get It Wrong, Facing Issues That Divide, Unafraid: Facing Life with Courage and Hope, Confessions of a Struggling Parent, Why?, Forgiveness, 5 Keys to Relationships That Last, Christianity and World Religions, Questions Thinking People Ask About the Bible, Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, and Conversations With an Atheist, to name a few.

The Invitation
Once you have the right topic, the next important thing is how you present it to your visitors. At Resurrection, we couple a brief personal invitation from our pastor with a short, well-produced promo video and place it strategically in the order of worship on Christmas Eve or Easter. And, before we close the service, we remind them of the series and invite them to come back.

If we have any money to spend on additional promotion during the year, this is when we will spend it – either to invite the community to Christmas Eve/Easter worship or to produce an oversized promotional postcard for the fishing expedition series that is handed out on Christmas Eve/Easter for our congregation to give away when they invite others to join them for the series. Even visitors might know someone who would be interested in the series. This postcard gives them an easy way to pass along the invitation. Whether you have the budget or not, the key question is: How are you equipping your members to invite people to church?

Series Design
Finally, while in another series the order of sermons might follow a sequence of events in the life of Jesus, the themes of a particular book of the Bible, or even the verses in a specific passage, fishing expeditions are designed to connect with non-religious people, earn their trust and invite them to consider faith in Jesus Christ. In a series like Love, Sex and Marriage, this began with addressing the topic broadly by sharing information like congregational survey results about “what women wish men knew” and “what men wish women knew.” It then included addressing real relationship questions, pitfalls and challenges with constructive, hopeful responses, often illustrated with clips from personal interviews with both “regular people” and relationship experts. Finally, the series concluded with a gentle message about the role of faith in relationships and an invitation to consider a life of faith. The same intentionality is applied to every fishing expedition – connecting with people where they are, around the questions they are wrestling with; earning their trust by being honest, transparent, helpful, informative, and encouraging; then inviting them – in a respectful, non-threatening way – to consider faith in Jesus.

This is primarily about series design, not sermon delivery. If you feel you could be stronger in your delivery, there are lots of available resources and courses – or simply find someone you trust to give you feedback and suggestions. These will be among the most important sermons you preach all year. Along with the topic, your preparation and confidence are essential. After working hard to select the right topic, you won’t want to fumble in the delivery.

People spend billions of dollars annually, in the U.S. alone, on lures and bait for fishing. Why? Because the bait matters. Nevertheless, anyone with experience will tell you that, even with the best of bait, success in fishing also depends on the presentation. So, pick your topics carefully, craft your best invitation, then hone both your design and delivery and . . . go fishing!

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.