Fishing for Students

Mark 1:16-18   “One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them,“Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him.”

Last fall I had a chance to teach a couple of evenings at a local college. It was a class on evangelism. I started by reading  Mark 1:16-18 and then asked the students “When fishing, what is most critical to catching fish?”. The class started to shout out all sorts of answers: “you have to use the right bait, the rod you use is important, the time you go fishing is important, you have to be quiet, a boat helps, you have to go with a person named Bubba”. I responded “Those are all good answers. Bubba could probably help, but you’ve missed the one critical issue. You can have the right bait, the best rod, a sweet boat, and a fishing coach but without this I can guarantee you will not catch fish”. The class was perplexed, thinking they had covered it all.  It became very quiet at that point. They were stumped. Are you stumped too? Do you know what they missed?

So I said “What if we took all our expensive gear and jumped in our beautiful boat (along with Bubba) and launched our boat into the parking lot at the mall? How many fish would we catch?” as soon as the words were out of my mouth they understood. The most important thing  we can do is go to where the fish are. If we are not doing that, then nothing else will matter. If you want to catch fish, you have to go to where the fish are.

I heard it said that “we are no longer fishers of men but keepers of aquariums”.  I agree with this.   Most people I meet in student ministry are aquarium keepers.  Somehow we have come to a place where we spend all our time and resources buying the best gear, but it doesn’t do us any good because we don’t go to where the students are. Leaders are frustrated and can’t figure out why their ministry is spiritually flat.

Ultimately we have to come face to face with the reality that we must leave the comfort of our offices and enter the world of teenagers. It can be intimidating though knowing where to begin, and what to do. Therefore I’m going to unpack some of the how-to’s of incarnational ministry. If you would like more details or need to ask clarifying questions please leave a comment so we can have some open discussion. Rome wasn’t built in a day, this will take some work on your part and you will probably need some coaching. So feel free to ask. We are all in this together.

How do I get started? If you are going to begin doing incarnational ministry the first step is simply finding out  where students hang out.  Ask some of these questions:

  • Where do students hang out after school?
  • Where do they like to eat?
  • What sporting events do they go to?
  • What school activities do they go to?
If you do not know the answer to these questions, then begin spending time in the area and simply observe where students are. You might also consider asking some of the students you already know to find out what they think.  Here is how we answer the questions for middle school students in our context:
  • Where do students hang out after school?  They either go home, go to athletic practice, or to the YMCA. On Fridays a large group goes to Dairy Queen.
  • Where do they like to eat? They like Dairy Queen, Starbucks and Sonic, all of which are in walking distance from the school.
  • What sporting events do they go to? They go to home football games on Friday nights.
  • What school activities do they go to? They participate in school dances, choir concerts, musicals and most recently a dodgeball tournament.

So where do you think you will find me and our leadership team? Where the students are. I do my best to make it to the school and Dairy Queen at least once a week. Sometimes I go to middle school basketball games. This past week I helped organize and run the middle school dodgeball tournament.  In the fall, I attend the home football games.  Once you know where the students are, you GO to that place.

What do I do when I GO? When I go my only agenda is to be present in their world and care for students.  I do not hand out tracks, I do not initiate spiritual conversations, I do not carry my Bible.  Heck, I don’t even tell students I work at a church.  I simply want them to know me as John, a guy that cares. I have been in the game long enough to know that God will connect the dots when the time is right.  Eventually a student will find out who I am and where I work. I’m not suggesting that I never have a spiritual conversation. I am continually praying and asking the Holy Spirit for the right words and attitude. What I am suggesting is that you allow students to initiate the deeper talks.  In the mean time, I simply am present in their world. So when you go, leave the agenda behind. Simply go be present with them in their world.

Three tips on initial conversations with students.

  • Don’t be shy. Say “hi” but keep conversations to a minute or less at first. Long conversations are too intimidating for students.
  • Ask questions. When I am waiting in line to get my blizzard I’ll ask the student in line behind me “what do you usually get?”.  At a football game I will ask “who is a good player?”. The art of asking questions is a key to conversing with students.
  • Don’t bring up church or ministry. Your agenda is to be with students and hang out on their turf. Don’t mention your ministry, students coming to church or anything to do with church. You are not there to sell anything. Learn to love and care about students on their turf without putting a target on their back.  It could be that over time Jesus will put a particular group of students on your heart. And perhaps you get to have deeper conversations with them, or maybe not. Either way, are you still willing to go to them and be with them?

One final thought.  I saved to best for last.  Pray. And not just 5 minutes before you get out of your car and walk into the local hangout spot. Spend a chunk of time praying. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and go ahead of you to encourage student’s hearts. Acknowledge that nothing is going to happen unless the Holy Spirit does it.   Ask Jesus to search your heart and help you to be humble. The last thing you want is to go to students with an inflated ego.

Tomorrow:  5 things you can count on when being incarnational.

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2 thoughts on “Fishing for Students

  1. You mean you don’t have a trench coat full of tracts to throw in teens faces at games:). I love this insight. One change I want to make is being more incarnational. Couple of questions. How do you balance time between being incarnational and doing discipleship? What are your adult leaders expectations for being incarnational? Keep the inspiration coming.

  2. Thanks Jon. I think it is always good to push ourselves to GO to students. I don’t think you have to try to balance being incarnational and doing discipleship. I would suggest changing the way you think about them. Going to students and being with them is actually part of making disciples. I try to go to the school at least once per week. In terms of expectations, we expect all our paid staff to be engaged incarnationally. We encourage our volunteers to do the same. Many times we take them along with us to games or school events. We encourage volunteers by helping to pay for admission and celebrating them when they do go.

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