I have been thinking about the stories in the four Gospels where the disciples have worked hard and have caught nothing, then Jesus turns up and instructs them to try on the other side of the boat.
Swallowing their professional pride, the fishermen among the disciples do as Jesus says and the result is a net-straining catch of a lifetime.
There is something unsatisfactory and disappointing about fishing all night and catching nothing.
I remember going on holiday to stay with friends who owned a tiny island on a lake in Ontario. Late afternoon most days we would head out by boat to certain points around the island, drop our fishing lines and within minutes we had caught our dinner. Fishing at the right time and place seemed to work every time.
I was reminded of this by what I read recently on Twitter. Someone had been talking about a new booklet for preparing people for baptism. One of the replies surprised me. A pastor wrote that it had been some years since their last baptism.
What surprised me was the matter-of-fact way that the statement was made. It was as if such a situation was perfectly normal.
If we are preaching the life-giving word of grace, is there an expectation that this message will have an impact on our hearers that will lead to life? Should preachers expect their preaching to lead to conversions, confessions of faith and new converts wanting to declare that faith in the waters of baptism?
What is a reasonable time for a preaching ministry to go on without there being any saving fruit? Timothy was urged to “preach the word, in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). This implies that navigating a preaching ministry involves budgeting for the rough and the smooth; there will be lean periods as well as times of growth.
Failure to factor this into our understanding of what it means to be a pastor-teacher could make us neurotic, paranoid or unnecessarily anxious.
A preacher in that state is not going to be able to communicate the gospel effectively to a congregation that needs to hear the words of eternal life. Preachers do need, however, to exercise confidence in the power of the gospel and communicate a sense of compassionate urgency in delivering its message.
Preachers need to engage in prayerful expectation.
I guess we have all heard the famous Spurgeon story about the young preacher who came to the great man and asked why people were not being converted every time he preached. The great man asked whether the young preacher expected people to be saved every time he preached. The young preacher gasped and admitted that he did not. “Well,” said Spurgeon, “that is why they are not!”
This might not help the preacher who has struggled through a long spell of no conversions or baptisms. It might increase their anxiety levels.
Preachers pray that they will see conversions. Ask others to pray with you.
Be specific. Pray that lives will be changed in the next three months.
Be strategic. Along with public preaching, talk to unbelievers, befriend them, and listen to their stories and questions. Run courses like Alpha and Christianity Explored on a regular basis. Get people in the congregation to tell their stories.
When people are converted and baptised on a regular basis in the church, it tends to have a chain reaction. Non-Christians begin to think, “That could be me.”