I’d like to share with you the story of a lifeboat station. This lifeboat station was on a dangerous section of the sea coast where there were often shipwrecks. The lifeboat station was a rough little building, just a hut, really, with only one boat. The lifeboat station had a few devoted members who kept constant watch of the sea. With no thought for their own safety, they went out night and day to search for those lost at sea.
Some of those who had been saved by their effort wanted to become associated with the lifeboat station. Others in the surrounding area who heard about the work the little lifeboat station was doing also wanted to be associated with the station. These new people gave their time, their money and their talents to support the work of the station. They bought new boats and trained new crew members. The little lifeboat station was growing.
Some of the members of the lifeboat station wanted to upgrade their building because it was rough and wasn’t well equipped. They wanted a more comfortable place for the rescued to come when they were brought in from the sea. They replaced emergency cots with warm beds. They expanded the building to include a gathering area that they furnished nicely. The lifeboat station was now so nice that it became a popular gathering place for its members. It became a hang-out spot for the crew and all those associated with the lifeboat station.
As the station became more social, fewer members were interested in going out to rescue those shipwrecked, so they hired lifeboat crews to do the work for them. Lifesaving pictures and keepsakes still decorated the station’s walls. There was a lifeboat model in the gathering area and a nautical theme in all the beautiful décor. The members continued to keep regular meetings.
There was a large ship that wrecked off the coast. The hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick. The beautiful club was chaotic with the rescued guests. Water all over the floors. People everywhere.
At the next meeting of the members, there was dissention about the future of the lifeboat station. Some members wanted to add a shower house to the property where shipwreck victims could get cleaned up before they came into the club. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities because they were a hindrance to the social life of the club. Some insisted that the lifesaving activities was their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifeboat station.
The many outvoted the few. The few were told that if they wanted to continue to save lives they could go start their own lifeboat station down the coast. So, they did. As the years went by, similar changes took place in the new station. It too evolved into a club, and yet another lifeboat station was founded. History continued to repeat itself and on that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.
The story of the lifeboat station is a good illustration of what has happened to many churches. Churches run the risk of becoming exclusive clubs when they lose sight of their purpose. Members want to draw more people like themselves into their club, but don’t want to be bothered with people whose lives may need “cleaned up.”
The call story of Simon Peter, James and John is a good reminder of what our call is. We are called to be fishers of people. I’ve talked before about inviting people to church. That’s good. That’s important. That helps the church grow. But, putting more butts in the pews and cash in the coffers is not our primary purpose. Fishing for people like Jesus was talking about was more than inviting people to come to church.
Our calling is to make Disciples, not church goers. We’re called not to just go to those like us who kinda already know about Jesus and turn them into church-goers. Again, that’s good and necessary, but we need to do more than fill our sanctuary with our friends. Fishing for people means finding people who are in need of salvation and bringing them to the One who saves lives. That may be our friends; that may be strangers; that may be people like us; that may be people who are very different from us. That means we have to leave the clubhouse and seek out those who are drowning.
Here’s the problem we face. The post-modern world doesn’t trust institutions. A lot of people don’t trust Washington anymore and voted for an outsider. That same distrust of Washington is being applied to the church. The church is as institutional as government for those who don’t know the church, and there are, unfortunately, a lot of people who don’t know the church.
In my last call, the town had a strong ministerial alliance. There were 6 of us that were pretty close. We had been talking about doing a revival for 5 years. It kept getting put on hold. We started talking about it again. All the plans sounded very much like we were planning extra church services that we were going to invite the community to come. I didn’t think we were doing anything to reach those who didn’t know Jesus and were unfamiliar with the church. That is kinda the point of a revival.
One of my colleagues didn’t understand why people wouldn’t feel comfortable coming to the church for something. I pointed out that the church is not a safe place to those who don’t know the church. There is a stigma in secular society that the doors might catch fire if they enter because they’ve not lived up to what might be expected of them. There’s the idea that your kids need to sit perfectly quiet, not fidget and fuss and coo and laugh. For those who don’t know the church, they wouldn’t be compelled to come to something at the church that seems to be designed to sell them something they don’t know they need.
The churches that are the safest, that are the most approachable, that are the least distrusted, are the ones offering something for the unchurched to come to other than Sunday morning service. The churches that are going to survive this era of distrust and those who are thriving are the ones who remember their primary purpose is to be fishers of people, not a club. The church must continually be engaged in the ministry of saving lives and not fall prey to the allure of becoming an isolated club.
I know. Your minds have been racing with ideas. We can do this and we can do that and we have this but we don’t have that and what can we do here when we could do stuff there and what if we tried this and we can do this and we used to do that and we haven’t tried this and… I have heard that you are full of ideas of ways we can help and reach out to our neighbors.
But, I’m sure there’s also a little fear of meeting new people, of doing new things, of failing.
God has something for us to do where we’re at…in this beautiful church. He’s giving us ideas of what we can do. He’s setting up people with the resources we need. The only thing we can do to fail is not try. We fail if, like that lifeboat station, we give up the mission of saving lives and refuse to let the rescued take refuge in our sanctuary.
Jesus commanded the Disciples, “Do Not Be Afraid.” For whatever fears we may have about what we are being called to do, the only failure we should fear is not trying. Jesus will be with us in all we do, because we do it in His Name.