By James Merritt
Perhaps the greatest spiritual fisherman who ever lived outside of Jesus Christ was the Apostle Paul.
Paul, who was once a fish and was totally antagonistic toward the Church and the gospel, met Jesus Christ face to face while walking down the road to Damascus. Paul immediately went from being a fish to a follower, and ultimately from a follower to a fisherman.
In Acts 17 he is fishing in a lake called Athens. One of the most magnificent ancient structures in the world is the Acropolis. I have been there several times and have stood on Mars Hill, the exact place where Paul preached the message found in Acts 17 to these Athenians.
It is interesting that even though almost 2,000 years have passed since Paul preached there, Athens is basically the same type of city–secular, full of culture, beauty and entertainment, but totally empty of God.
Paul, the fearless fisherman, has cast his bait into this lake. In this famous sermon, he talks about the creation, he talks about the Creator and then he talks about Christ. He simply tells these Athenians of a man who died for their sins and who was raised from the dead.
Notice how the Athenians respond:
“When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (Acts 17:32-34, NIV).
Did you notice that there were three different responses to Paul’s message?
This is important–don’t miss it.
There was nothing wrong with the fisherman. Paul knew what he was doing. Paul knew how to fish. Paul was a man filled with the Holy Spirit. It was not his fault that all the fish didn’t bite.
There was nothing wrong with the bait. He simply preached to them the simple gospel that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried and was raised from the dead and that through faith in Jesus Christ, a person can have eternal life.
The truth is as we go out and fish, fish will react in different ways.
Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay and a major expert on church and culture, wrote a book entitled, The Unchurched Next Door. Working with 15 research assistants who spent two years going to all 50 states and Canada, he interviewed hundreds of unchurched people in every major age and ethnic group. They discovered major differences on how people respond to the gospel that Rainer calls, “faith stages.“ He identifies them as U1 to U5 with “U“ standing for unchurched. Here is his scale:
- U1: Highly receptive to hearing and beliveing the Good News.
- U2: Receptive to the gospel and church.
- U3: Neutral, with no clear signs of being interested yet perhaps open to discussion.
- U4: Resistant to the gospel, but with no antagonistic attitude.
- U5: Highly antagonistic and even hostile to the gospel.
As I read this book and studied these faith scales and compared it to the response that Paul got in Athens, I realized that you could basically fit these five faith stages into the three different responses that Paul received in Athens.
In my experience, I could categorize all the responses I’ve ever gotten to basically these three:
A measure of people will reject the gospel
We see this group in verse 32:
“When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject’” (Acts 17:32, NIV).
These would fall into the latter two categories in Rainer’s graph. Now the good news is that combined, these groups make up only 26 percent of all unchurched persons. The odds that you will meet someone who will either completely reject the gospel in an antagonistic way or be resistant to the gospel without being antagonistic is only one in four.
Remember the man who preached this message in Athens was once a U5 himself. He not only was antagonistic toward the gospel; he hated it. He despised the Church and his former full-time job was hunting down Christians and throwing them in jail.
He wasn’t just a fish. He was a great white shark. He wouldn’t take the bait, but he would devour the fishermen until he met Jesus. He went from being a fish to a follower to a fisherman.
Keep in mind that only a minority of people will completely reject the gospel.
Most people will respect the gospel
Notice the response of the second group:
“But others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject’” (Acts 17:32b, NIV).
That response was totally neutral. They were not anywhere near ready to receive the gospel or respond to the gospel, but they had a limited curiosity about the gospel. Remember the U3s? The U3s are people who are neutral with no clear signs of interest, yet are perhaps open to discussion. They are right in the middle when it comes to the gospel. They are not resistant to the gospel, but they are really not interested in the gospel.
These people represent the largest segment of the unchurched in America. Thirty-six percent fall into this category, which represents 57 million people. These people are not resistant to the gospel. They respect the Church. They respect Christians. Eighty-six percent of them would come to church if someone invited them. Eighty-three percent of them believe in heaven. Seventy percent of them believe in hell. They are concerned about where they are going to spend eternity.
The point is they will give the gospel a hearing if they encounter someone speaking it.
Many people will respond to the gospel
We read in verse 34:
“Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (Acts 17:34, NIV).
It is obvious that this group would include the U1s and the U2s. Together they represent 31 percent of the population in the United States. Simply put, there are 60 million people in the United States alone who are willing, and even desire, to talk to someone about Jesus Christ and their eternal destiny.
It is easy to look at our secular culture, our secular city and our secular state and think that there are few fish out there waiting to bite. Listen to this last verse of Scripture that is in the next chapter of Acts that is so encouraging:
“One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city’“ (Acts 18: 9-10, NIV).
Did you hear what the Lord told Paul? Even though Paul couldn’t see them and Paul didn’t know where they were, the Lord said there were many people in that pagan Corinthian city that belonged to him and would receive Jesus Christ if Paul would just be faithful and share the message.
We are in the fishing business. There are a lot of fish ready to bite. We just need to go where they are.
James Merritt is Lead Pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga.
Published May 30, 2018