The Alphabet of Grace: N is for Nets

When Jesus called some of his disciples, he told them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people” (Mt 4:19).

Today, of course we use that phrase entirely abstractly. I’ve gone fishing on a few summer vacations, but I’m hardly a fisherman. If I hear Jesus making that command — to be fishers of people — I think of him referring to a kind of recruitment drive. Like a corporate manager telling sales reps to go out and fish for more customers.

But, the very disciples to whom Jesus first made that invitation were in fact young fishermen. Sure, it was a metaphor, but one that Jesus’ listeners would have imbued with greater meaning than we do today. The metaphor of fishing-for-people conveyed much more than the simple idea of ‘catching’ people. Jesus had referred to an activity these men engaged in daily, and by so doing sowed the seeds in their imaginations of the kind of community he was wanting to create with them.

When we think of fishing today, we see a single person with a single rod and a single hook on the end of a single line. The fisher is attempting to catch one fish with each cast of the line. It is a one-on-one contest, like hunting. And good fishers know how to read the weather, the tides, the presence of weed and the use of lures to gain an advantage over that pesky unseen fish.

So, when we hear Jesus telling his disciples, and by extension ourselves today, to fish for people, we can’t help but assume it will be a similarly one-on-one activity. We think of evangelism like this. We’re often told by our ministers to invite someone to a church service or an evangelistic event. This kind of recruitment strategy has been employed by the church for decades. We shape events that might appeal to outsiders and then target our invitations to the kind of individuals we had in mind. We imagine ourselves having been sent to ‘catch’ a newcomer. It’s like fishing for people.

But is this what Jesus had in mind? And, as importantly, is this what the fishermen-disciples understood him to mean? They didn’t fish with a single line. They used nets.

Why am I raising this? Because it shapes how we understand the metaphor of fishing-for-people. Jesus’ disciples would have thought that fishing was done by casting a net out onto the water. The weight of the net would cause it to sink into the depths and the fishermen would haul it through the water, scooping up everything in its path. It’s more about brute strength than the finessing involved in line fishing. Whatever happens to be swimming in the way of the net will be swept up into the fishing boat.

The key to successful fishing then might have included an ability to read the weather and the seasons, but the most important thing for net fishing to be successful was the quality of the net. If your net is strong and clean, if it can glide effortlessly, almost invisibly, through the water, it will swoop up whatever fish is down there. That’s why fishermen by the Sea of Galilee spend so much of their working day mending and cleaning their nets. In fact, when Jesus first meets James and John, that’s what they’re doing.

In fact, I’ve heard it said that the majority of a Galilean fisherman’s working life was spent onshore attending to his nets. We picture fishermen from the Bible times being out on their boats all the time, but that wasn’t the case.

So, when Peter and Andrew, and later James and John, heard Jesus telling them they would become fishers of people, what would they have imagined he meant? I guess they would have thought of what they do all day — building and cleaning strong nets.

You see, the expression, “fishers of people” has become synonymous with the ministry of evangelism, and those of us who fish with rods and reels can’t help but imagine evangelism as trying to catch a single convert at a time. We don’t clean our fishing line. We barely do any preparation, other than buying bait. We see fishing as a contest between two wills — ours and that of the fish. We try to snag the little fella with a sharp hook through his mouth and drag him out of his natural habitat. To what degree does this shape a lot of our assumptions about evangelism?

But there’s a big difference between evangelism with a rod and evangelism with a net. Here’s what I mean:

I think Peter, Andrew, James and John would have thought about becoming fishers of people by spending time building nets. That is to say, working hard at making deep connections, between Christians and others, to create a net-work of trust and kindness. Neighbors and colleagues and family members swim into this network. They are caught up in a grid of friendship. It’s such a context that sharing faith becomes so much more natural and easy.

When you do evangelism with a rod you’re thinking about ‘catching’ one convert at a time. This requires you to work hard at finding the right bait to hook them. But if evangelism was a net, you would spend more time on fostering relationships, practicing hospitality, and trying to create a network of believers and not-yet-maybe-never-believers.

In 2013, my friends Nigel and Cathie Cottle, together with Tim and Grace Shallard and Blue and Katey Bradley wanted to make Morningside, the Auckland suburb where they live, a better place. They asked the locals what the neighbourhood needed most and addressing social poverty was top of the list. I hope they won’t mind me saying that Morningside was a bit of a nothing suburb, a semi-industrial zone about four kilometres south-west of downtown Auckland and overshadowed by cooler suburbs around it and the huge rugby stadium at Mount Eden right next door.

But things soon changed. In response to their neighbors’ yearnings, the crew launched Crave, a cafe and meeting space in the heart of Morningside. But Crave is more than just a cafe. They see themselves as a neighbourhood whanaungatanga, a Maori word meaning kinship, a sense of family connection through shared experiences. The collective that owns Crave sees themselves building nets in the community.

They say, “One of the basic cravings of humanity is to connect with each other. We think that outstanding coffee, superb food and engaging conversations in locally-crafted spaces are a brilliant way to show ‘manaakitanga’ to all.”

Manaakitanga is another Maori word meaning hospitality, welcome, kindness, generosity, respect and support, especially to those visiting. For the Cottles, the Shallards and the Bradleys, that means all their profits go towards making the neighborhood a better place.

And it’s working. Morningside is coming to life. Even the prime minister Jacinda Ardern pops into Crave for her coffee. In fact, when she was recently re-elected she held her press conference there.

But not content with a beautiful cafe, Cathie Cottle launched out and has started a vegetarian restaurant called Kind just a block away from Crave. And in between those two venues, Tim Shallard has launched a bar and cidery called MorningCider (in Morningside, get it?).

I’ve eaten many times at Crave under the gaze of the huge portrait of St Mary. I’ve also eaten at Kind and had a drink or two at MorningCider. The three venues (all a few paces away from each other) form a kind of precinct of hospitality. The Cottles, Shallards and Bradleys, along with their mate Lou Giles and a host of others either work at Crave or are regularly in the spaces, creating that manaakitanga they talk about. They’re net-makers.

And behind the scenes, the collective — including the founders, members of their staff, neighbors and friends — meet weekly as a faith community, to foster deeper connections, between each other and God.

After Jesus called those fishermen to become his disciples and fish for people, he sent them out to preach the good news (Luke 9:1-6). But not by standing on street corners or behind pulpits. He sent them out to sit at people’s tables. To eat with them. To bring healing and compassion, to announce the truth and share good news. To point helpless, broken people to the new world Jesus was creating. Over food and table fellowship.

Here’s a picture of the Morningside community. They are gathered under a mural of the finger of God reaching out to touch Adam (from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling). It is painted on a factory wall across the road from Crave by the same artist who painted the picture of Mary that hangs above the Crave kitchen.

God is touching Morningside. And God is doing it through the net-making work of Nigel, Cathie, Grace, Tim, Blue, Katey, Lou and a host of others. They are fishers of people.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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6 thoughts on “The Alphabet of Grace: N is for Nets

  1. HI there Mike,
    I’m enjoying your Alphabet of Grace. Enjoying the wonder… and wander through different thoughts about Grace. Just a comment, echo, sound of distant rejoicing, a bit of “YES! and…” from my (small) life experience. I have this lovely part of my life where I work with indigenous people to help them write in their own language. It’s hilarious (I can only speak English), humbling (I work with people who have enormous potential – I love seeing them thrive), and becoming fruitful.
    Over the years of working with the Arabic teams, I have discovered some of the differences in language quite stunning.
    In Arabic, there is no fishing-specific term, so the literal translation of the verse is “I will make you hunters of people/men”. While this produces a short term mental shock of some kind of nightmarish Hunger Games evangelism. It truly echoes your thoughts.
    Hunting/Fishing is sourcing protein for communities. It’s LIFE. Recreational fishing and hunting might be done piecemeal, one-at-a-time. But for those dependent on fishing, you have to have a sustainable plan, and team-work, and roles (even if they are swapped around), fishing is a whole family, whole community business. I LOVE the nuance that you’ve given to what’s happening in Morningside, the metaphorical cross pollination/fishination… and look how it Brings Life!
    …to those who reach out and to those who are reached! Praise God!

    1. That info about the Arabic translation is really interesting, and your comment about the essential nature of protein and the communal aspect of hunting/fishing is super insightful. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Good teams, like John the Baptist, make fishermen “drop their nets” when Jesus says follow me.

  3. Thanks for sharing! This is inspiring.
    We are just in the process of stepping out into something completely new. The pandemic has shown us that we don’t want to ‘do’ church anymore – we want to ‘be’ the church in our immediate community in our little corner of South East London.
    Pray for us as we prepare to mend our nets, and cast our nets and reach out and love people being Jesus’ hands and feet and eyes and ears to a lost and lonely world looking for answers.

  4. Hi there,
    Thanks for sharing. This is inspiring.

  5. This is Wonderful . Churches seem often to pursue a fishing plan of cages (buildings?); bait (attract), catch (convince), and keep (close the back door?). I doubt the power of an attractional loving community of people who have and are experiencing Christ can be improved upon.

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