Good Fish, Bad Fish

By Chuck Griffin

A lot of people, particularly younger adults, don’t like the idea of “going to church.” This is true even if they consider themselves spiritual.

That’s not just a personal observation; studies and polls are proving this fact repeatedly. Most recently, Gallup research showed that for the first time in U.S. history, less than 50 percent of American adults belong to a church. (Gallup included membership in synagogues and mosques, too, and still got to just 47 percent participation.)

Particularly instructive for us are the studies that explore why some people have strong negative reactions to the idea of being involved in a church. Yes, people sometimes complain that church is boring. Yes, people say there are now many other attractions on Sunday, and involvement in church simply cannot compete.

There is one criticism that stands out above all others, however, and it is the primary problem we “churched” people face when telling others about Jesus Christ. Churches, these church-averse people say, are full of hypocrites.

The solution is not to call these critics wrong, but to acknowledge they are right, using that humbling truth to move toward a deeper conversation about why Jesus Christ died on the cross.

Jesus told us from the start that the global church would be considerably less than pure until he returns and restores all of creation to a holy state. One place he illustrates this truth is in a parable found in Matthew 13:47-50.

The church is the primary way we now see the presence of the “kingdom of heaven” on earth. But Jesus described the kingdom of heaven as being a net full of fish, good fish and bad fish mixed together.

In the story, the good fish are put in baskets, while the bad fish are thrown out. “That is the way it will be at the end of the world,” Jesus said. “The angels will come and separate the wicked people from the righteous, throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This parable sometimes is misinterpreted, with people assuming it’s a simple tale of God’s desire to separate the righteous and unrighteous in the world. But in this parable, the world is represented by the ocean, while the net is the initial gathering of people who say they want to follow Christ.

A similar parable is found in Matthew 13:24-30, where an “enemy” sows weeds in a field of wheat representing the kingdom of heaven. The two are allowed to grow together until the final harvest, when the weeds are separated and burned.

When we hear the “hypocrite” charge leveled at us, it’s important that we learn to say in all humility, “Yes, things are not as they should be in the church. Brokenness and sin remain among us even though we call ourselves Christians. Jesus told us this would happen.”

We can hope such simple honesty will open the door to a conversation about deeper truths. For example, Christ remains our perfect savior regardless of Christians’ imperfections. And Christ wants his followers in fellowship together, even though he knows evil will sometimes wriggle into the net.

As fishy as it sometimes smells, church remains the place to be in relationship with God.

Lord, help us to project desirable images of righteousness to a hurting world needing to know you better. Amen.