Switching Fish Bowls

For all but one year of my ministry life I’ve served in an area [North San Diego County, CA] that is blessed with an abundance of solid, biblically sound, evangelical churches. Southern California truly is a “Christian Disneyland.” At present the website for our ‘denomination’ lists 329 affiliate churches in California. Our administrative pastor at CCEsco has often joked, “You can’t swing a dead cat in San Diego without hitting a Calvary.”

All kidding aside, I think it is a good thing we have so many [good] churches in this area. Would to God that we had twice as many (or more) bible believing/teaching churches in California, and an exponential increase nationwide. In Escondido there are three Calvary’s (one of them Spanish speaking), which have a combined weekly adult attendance of about 1,000, in a city of 140,000+. There is certainly no lack of opportunity and no room for territorialism. The push for church planting and church revitalization is [to me] greatly encouraging. But I’m bothered by an observation I’m sure many pastors could identify with.

Week after week we have new faces in our fellowship. Rarely does a service go by where no one raises their hand to identify there self as a guest, or does not drop a visitor card in our offering or agape box for more information about the fellowship. The irritation comes when you interact with the newcomer and find that they’re attending your church, having left another solidly biblical church to do so. So, church growth does not always mean CHURCH growth, especially when Barna has, in recent years shown a > 90% increase of unchurched adults in America (approaching 100 million in 2007). (1) (2)

The landscape is filled with a multiplicity of varying sized fishbowls, in which the Christian [fish] swim. They were once caught in the sea of humanity by fishers of men, but now much of the [apparent] growth comes through fishbowl switching and not drawing in the net. Furthermore, much of church growth initiatives I see come across my desk are aimed at casting the net in other fishbowls. When a mailer goes out from a church with words like “rapture,” “sanctification,” or an advertisement for Phil Wickham leading worship, it’s not exactly aimed at non-believers. The fact is, spiritual inbreeding is twisted.

“Less than 20% of Americans regularly attend church” said Outreach Magazine in 2006. There’s an awfully big sea of people out there needing to be caught. Jesus’ word’s to (the fisherman who never caught a fish apart from Jesus’ help) Peter, are appropriate…

“Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.”

Luke 5:4

The simplicity of Jesus’ command is striking; it surely went against everything that Peter’s expertise as a fishermen would have said. With all the writing out there on church growth, we sure seem to have a lot of expertise in our day too. Perhaps it’s time to seek the Lord for direction from the shore as to where to go for fish. His ways always seem to yield a draught.

9 replies
  1. Trip Kimball
    Trip Kimball says:

    Miles, this issue strikes home for many of us. It bothered me 25+ years ago, helping stir my heart for the mission field. The wholesale lack of relational, intentional discipleship, as Jesus did, helps spawn this trend of “church growth” in American churches. The problem with this kind of discipleship is that it’s a slow, progressive, unsensational process. But it IS how the Lord established His church.

    I was blessed to hear of your assistant pastor’s (Josh?) ministry time in the city park. Maybe it’s time to seek God’s direction for how to do church planting (and church growth) differently. I’m watching how the new church plant Susan and I are involved with develops. I’m hopeful for something new. The whole idea of going back to what I left in 1990 — what I saw as “ministry management” — doesn’t appeal to me. And I respect those who can persevere in it.

    What does appeal to me is the idea of non-formal, non-traditional ministry, while maintaining the foundation of the Gospel and simple discipleship. Perhaps we’ll see more of it down the road. Perhaps things won’t change till life becomes less comfortable for America… we’ll see.

  2. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Thanks, Miles. I would think that most of the unreached groups of people in America are ethnic in composition. In my city – Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Chinese, Filipino, etc. When I go to CC conferences I see a lot of white pastors – very few ethnics. If we are fishing for Anglo-Saxon fish, that school is getting smaller and smaller. Maybe Trip is onto something when he writes of non-formal, non-traditional ministry. For me, there has to be an intentional targeting of people who aren’t like us. That’s hard.

    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:


      There are unreached ethnic groups for sure, but there is also a very large demographic of unchurched or unengaged in our nation. These are not unevangelized, but they’re uninvolved and unaffiliated 😉 the work is undone.

      Second and third generation descendants of immigrants to America are very American in their culture and very quickly English becomes their first language. That being the case, it would seem that we have a lot of people that us white guys can still engage. They are targets of opportunity.

      I guess my question (which I already have opinionated answers to) would be, is the larger Church in America really engaging that group? Or have we been content with poaching stocked ponds?

      The largest cultural group in Escondido is Hispanic (46% and climbing). Seeing this afar off our leadership raised up a Hispanic Pastor and started a Spanish Calvary 10 years ago. God is doing great things… hoping and praying for more!

  3. Jeanne DeBenedictis
    Jeanne DeBenedictis says:

    I don’t pretend to have the answers to this topic but I appreciate tge conversation.
    There are many unreached in our own backyards and I loved learning in our perspectives class that one way to reach out is to be a welcomer to those of other cultures. Some friends and I rode the train and engaged strangers in conversation trying to open the door to sharing Christ. We invited several to our church. It was an exciting evangelistic opportunity.
    I love the comment on lack of ethnic faces at conferences. Lord help us all to have insight and your heart to truly extend a hand of friendship to those around us who need God’s love. Thanks guys keep up the good work

  4. Kellen Criswell
    Kellen Criswell says:

    I think that preaching has a lot to do with the state of the people in our churches in the West. Transplanting isn’t always a result of sin. I meet a lot of people who are searching for another church because they aren’t sure what’s missing but know something is. They have been in church, and even been baptized, and never really understood the gospel. Or they’ve understood and believed the gospel, but live in a state of mediocrity, or dare I say, luke-warmness. Why is this happening?

    I think much of it has to do with the state of our preaching. In the name of grace, we aren’t clear and bold about sin, hell, and the need for Jesus and His gospel. We aren’t preaching repentance, stewardship of life, or dealing with church discipline. We have a kind of user-friendly, no repentance required, “just add Jesus” to what you’re already doing Christianity and gospel. We keep reminding people by practice and sometimes even words that they are here to consume, not here to give themselves sacrificially to the mission of Jesus for the sake of His glory and the salvation of the world.

    I’m not trying to preach at anybody (except maybe me). But what role do you guys think the average content, tone, and urgency level or our preaching is playing in the musical chairs approach to the local church by so many believers? Is there a cowardice in pastors and in the pulpit that continues to facilitate and encourage a non-committal, milky-middle “Christian” life-style in our midst?

    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:


      I do partially agree… There is a lack of depth, breadth and conviction in some preaching today. I’d also say that the evangelical church may be guilty of not teaching very well what it means for an individual to be part of the local church. In other words, it’s very easy to transplant. Furthermore, in an entertainment/me based culture like ours, people attend church based [often times] on very superficial reasons.

      We could probably go on and on looking at the possible reasons for such issues, but it doesn’t negate the statistics, which show that the number of unchurched or unaffiliated are increasing.

  5. Gunnar Hanson
    Gunnar Hanson says:

    First, I must say about fell over when you referred to your denomination…I missed the quotations. I digress…

    I have noticed this observation and am not sure we can call it a problem per say. Our church has experienced this for sure, but one thing I have noticed in this that I enjoy at my church is where one family member (normally a wife or mom) moves from one healthy church to my church is because their husband or children suddenly want to come to church when they used to not go. I feel like this is reaching an unchurched population from within a churched group if this makes sense…

    Oh, and not that I have done anything to do this, rather I have just noticed it…

  6. Nancy Allen
    Nancy Allen says:

    A Gallup Poll from last year showed only 54 percent of Americans said religion was “very important” in their lives. That leaves almost half who aren’t committed to any religion.

    Since that includes all religions, not just Christianity and certainly not just evangelical Christianity, it seems like a fairly safe bet that there are an awful lot of fish out there of all ages and ethnic groups.

    I have noticed that a lot of non-believers have had bad experiences with phony Christians and churches that only seem to want their money. They are really good at sniffing out Christian phonies. In some cases they are better at it than some believers.

    The one thing that draws respect and positive attention from these non-believers is when they see Christians doing what we’re supposed to be doing in serving others and acting with humility. They may not understand our theology, but they know what a real Christian is supposed to look like.

    In my opinion, if we’re going to reach the unreached they need to see that we aren’t escaping reality through our faith. They have to see us with our sleeves rolled up helping others.

    If anyone is interested, here’s a link to the poll I quoted:

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