America has been hemorrhaging Christian followers in general and Protestants in particular.
But today’s churches could turn the corner, by following Jesus’ example and casting their nets on the other side of the boat, taking a “leap of faith” that a different approach might work.
On a recent Sunday morning, I woke up early, joined my daughter on West Point Lake. We kayaked out among a growing number of pontoon crafts, as well as Supras, Malibus and Axis boats. But we weren’t skipping church. We were taking up the collection in our nets for First United Methodist Church of LaGrange’s “Church on the Hooch,” a nod to the Chattahoochee River, which flows in and out of this recreational lake on the border of Alabama and Georgia.
That day, while our pastor and associate were handling the duties downtown, Rev. Yolanda Jones-Colton and her flock from the Smith Chapel United Methodist Church in Pine Mountain, Georgia. And boats from across the lake joined in the service.
The pastor gave us a fiery sermon, with the lesson of Jesus preaching, going out into Simon Peter’s boat, and heard that the fishermen worked all night on the Sea of Galilee, without a single fish to show for it. Jesus suggested casting the nets on the other side of the boat. If you know your Gospel, you know that the nets soon get to the breaking point, teaming with fish. It was the same crazy logic as Joshua and the Israelites marching around Jericho seven times, or sending a shepherd boy against a Philistine Champion in single combat. You need faith for that to work.
America’s Christian Churches seem as beleaguered as those Galilean fishermen, or Israelites facing empires. “On average last year, 36 percent of Americans in ABC News/Washington Post polls identified themselves as members of a Protestant faith, extending a gradual trend down from 50 percent in 2003. That includes an 8-point drop in the number of evangelical white Protestants, an important political group (https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/protestants-decline-religion-sharply-shifting-religious-landscape-poll/story?id=54995663).”
During that same time, those identifying as “no religion” jumped from 12% to 21%, the only group growing fast in the USA. And if you think they’re all liberal atheists, you’d be wrong.
“We can’t keep doing what we’ve always been doing,” Pastor Yolanda Jones-Colton told us in that sermon. Perhaps that’s why both West Georgia churches did try something new, to go where the Sunday boaters were, with a special church service on the lake.
There may be other ways to fish on the other side of the boat. I’ve seen so many articles blasting universities for being atheist factories, full of “Godless Communists.” Well, I’ve brought pastors and religious people to my college students, working in Biblical parables and Gospel stories in my lessons. My college students don’t mind. In fact, they even tend to appreciate it. Writing off college students and criticizing them and professors is a poor example of evangelism.
In our current politically-polarized environment, people are encouraged to hate those who look or think differently. Reaching out to someone distinct from you is seen as a sign of weakness, for some. But it’s a recipe for a shrinking church, not something the Bible necessarily encourages. Isn’t it true that you miss 100% of the fish you don’t cast your line out for?
Hopefully, today’s churches can recover from today’s ideologically-split environment, and intra-faith battles, and renew that spirit of fishing for new Christians in America. You never know who or what you’ll catch when you cast your nets in a new direction.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.