Imagine standing on the bow of a large ship in the vast ocean. Looking out on miles and miles of beautiful open sea. Out there, bobbing around in the water, as far as you can see, are fish tanks—aquariums. Some square. Some round. Some large. Some small. 

In the aquariums, are fish. Some alone. Some with other fish. 

Are these fish really in the ocean? No. They’re looking through glass at the ocean.

They may want some of the fish who swim by to come get in the aquarium with them or they may want to get out. Those other fish look in and see what? Water which is a little murky. Some fake plastic plants. A motorized life support system which keeps oxygen in the water. 

The fish behind the glass need to be fed by someone else. Those fish outside the glass may wonder just what is going on in there. Why would they really want to be a part of it? The fish inside look imprisoned.

Have we forgotten what it means to be free in Christ? Or have we never known?

Have we forgotten what real open water is like? Or have we never known?

Have we become keepers of our aquarium?

We need to be helping fish find open water. Fish can’t live free in an aquarium. We, as fish whom Jesus has loved, are to be ‘open seas fish’, as we go, loving other fish. As I said in the introduction, we are captives He wants to set free. Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18. But we are no longer captives if we are His. He has set us free.

Yet we have accidently, and also purposely, built for ourselves, aquariums…personal and religious aquariums.

Much of our lives—and what we call church in America—is spent on ourselves, and in the buildings or programs we have designed to ‘do church.’  Sometimes we may attempt to be ‘fishers of men.’ Again Jesus did not say, “Follow me, and I will make you keepers of the aquarium.” He said, “I will make you fishers of men.” 

Though we might know the bible verses, we don’t know the freedom of Mark 4:19. We aren’t free. We aren’t fishing. We are captives. Maybe re-captives. We became free in Him, then a system guided us into the fish prison. 

NOTE: Right about now you are already thinking I am against church. I am not. I am not against church buildings, programs or Sunday mornings. But we have expected the entirety of scripture to happen within these confines—no more than a few hours out of our whole week. And we have sub-divided ourselves into age groups, which can cause us to be unable to know the wisdom of those older in Christ than us. We have created programs and processes which are to help us grow. This is not all bad, but this is not working like is used to. Unfortunately, some places may look more like a club. This stings me. Does it sting you?

How We Got Re-imprisoned

As I did research for my dissertation, I was looking for writers who saw God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as relational, not just rational. Heart and not just mind. A person, not just a fact of truth. Even in the Spirit’s main name He is relational: ‘The Comforter.’ In my research I found three men who seemed to be saying what I was sensing: Dr. David Ferguson, Dr. Larry Crabb, and Dr. Neil Anderson. There are many others, but these were the main three at the time. They taught me that the Bible and the God who wrote it, are relational first, but also functional and factual. 

That was twenty years ago. Many other voices have joined in since then. Bill Hull, in “The Disciple Making Pastor,” outlines great relational processes. Our staff were greatly influenced by Anything you see by that organization has been good to help us move forward. We are grateful for how Jim Putman and Brandon Guindon have been used by God to help so many.  Working through the “RealLifeDiscipleship” manual and reading through “DiscipleShift” helped us immensely. These two books can help you make relational discipleship your own where ever you serve in His kingdom.

I realized how many times in church history we have become un-relational and made life in the Spirit very technical, functional, authoritarian, boxed up, or simply a way to keep people in check politically. Martin Luther fought a similar, but more deadly fight. We still tend to move toward boxing things up. “Aquarium-ing” them. It is easier to manage. But is that the point? Ease of management? I thank these men, along with many others, who have been working for years to draw us back to the relational God of the Bible.

But let’s back up a bit and look at how we possibly got re-imprisoned. In the 1800’s, Charles Peirce, the father of Pragmatism, and William James, the Father of American Psychology, both had good intent. In short, their ideas were this – think about your thoughts, your plans. Now, what are the outcomes? Pragmatism is basically outcome-based actions. Not bad in and of itself. But we adopted much of mathematical business pragmatism in the Western church. That type of business pragmatism is basically this. If you wanted to sell 10 pieces of product a week, and you had found that for every 100 people you talked to, 10% bought one, then you would need to talk to 100 people per week to hit your goal of 10 sales. This may be fine with sale items, but not with people. You really don’t need a God to lead you if you have a plan with outcomes, and a sure-fire way of succeeding numerically. Just go get a 100 people. 

I remember door knocking on evangelism evenings, and then going back to the church building to talk about how many people came to Christ versus how many doors we knocked on. Now, I agree with looking for people who don’t know Christ in order to talk to them, befriend them, love them. But if I pay attention to those around me in my daily life, that would give me scores of people to love, and talk to. So why go knock on the door of a stranger? Maybe they were a guest at church and gave you their address. They basically invited you to contact them. And you should. But why not make disciples of those you already know? You know, love your neighbor.

Christ has set life up so we are around people all the time all day who don’t know Him, or don’t know Him well.

Our problem is we seem to be trying to get to the ‘sale’ too quickly. Or we are scared and won’t talk to them at all about God. So we just force ourselves to pick some people and talk. And if they don’t ‘accept’ Christ on the first conversation, then why have another one? In my opinion, that is a wrong assumption. If you genuinely cared about someone, and you knocked on their door to talk to them about Christ, and they did not accept your presentation, would you go back? If you cared about them when you were there, did you ask them how you could pray for them? If they said something like their mother was in the hospital, and you said you would pray, why not go back next week to see how their mom was doing? And then go back the next week to check on her. And go back the next week to see if there was anything else you could pray about. That seems loving to me. That would not just be pragmatism, that would be loving.

However, I personally know people who had it happen this way. A knock on a door. My point here is that may have been one way, but not the only way. Christ seemed to meet people where they were as He went about life. Relationally intentionality, ‘as you go’.

About the same time as Peirce and James, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, in his desire to see people cured of mental and societal issues, accidentally took soul care outside the church. I don’t think that was not his intent. There was not really a such thing as a psychologist until that point. The original phycologists were called ‘alienists.’ They worked with people who had alienated themselves from society because of their deeply abhorrent behavior. Psychology has grown over the years, and psychologists help people in many ways.

Are trying to fix souls without consulting the maker of souls?

Yet it is the churches’ job, through the genuine comfort of the Holy Spirit, to care for one another’s souls. But over time we the church have become very pragmatic, looking for bigger numbers and quicker ways to grow numerically large. This came with a price, at times, of growing large but growing more spiritually unhealthy. Not true everywhere, but it seems we were always comparing numbers, not health. I have attended enough pastors’ conferences to know what one of the first questions is: “So, how many you runnin’ these days?” We compare ourselves and then feel bad or good based on whether our number is larger. For those who want to argue about this, if our church growth principles worked, why are they not working very well now in so many churches in the West? Why is the church declining so much? A book to read which explains a bit of this is, The Myth of the Dying Church by Glenn Stanton. The church is only dying in some areas, and thriving in others, especially in other countries.

Yes, there are those churches which have a DNR. In life-or-death situations many people have a pre-decided DNR. Do Not Resuscitate. In some people’s minds and in some churches it seems we have a spiritual DNR. Do Not Revitalize. It seems we only want enough Jesus to get us to our last breath. We don’t want more. We really don’t want to live for Him. Just with Him, or near others who live for Him. Vicariously living the Christian life. We applaud when someone gets baptized or we hear a good missions report, and we had absolutely nothing to do with it. Not even praying. Nor are we personally doing much to help things move forward. It’s like going to an OKC Thunder game and the Thunder wins. People say, “We won.” No, the Thunder won. We watched.

We must make certain our growth is based on truth and health, not hype. Christ has asked us to make disciples, not design a comfortable aquarium. The apostles and Paul and Silas did what they did, because it was only what Christ had asked them to do. In Acts 17:6 it is recorded that the locals said, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.”  Has that ever been said of you or your church? We know many came to Christ there, and the church at Thessalonica came into being. Why have we become so obsessed with the size of a congregation and the popularity of a preacher? We have bought in pragmatism too much. We could be asking, “How could we plant a church in a new city where God is calling us?” Think about how God called Paul, then Paul went into the synagogues to teach from the scriptures. Paul knew he was sent.

In a class I took, Christian psychologist Larry Crabb said, “If we were to relationally disciple one another as we should, we would need far less Christian counselors. Jesus can save our soul, but when it comes to issues of the heart, instead of turning to one another, we pay a hundred dollars an hour to have a friend we can talk to.” Please don’t think I am disparaging Christian counselors. He wasn’t and I’m not. I am so very grateful that they would go through the training and become very skillful at helping souls wrestle through the angst of living on a fallen planet. I have dear friends who are counselors, who have helped me deeply. I wish them well.  I wish they could help us all learn how to relate to one another better as the body of Christ. We could learn from them. After all, psychology is the study of the soul. And our great God is the one who created the soul. But could we not learn from one another as part of the church to relationally treat each other well and heal each other’s wounds? As I studied in seminary, I realized I was working to see how theology—the study of God—and psychology—the study of the soul—were intertwined. So why not ask the creator of the soul how it should function? At the time this was called integration. But now I see it more as re-integration.

The Maker and the soul must come back together. They should never have come apart. What soul doesn’t want a garden walk with a loving Father? But here we are.

We have relied too much on the classroom and sitting in rows, learning with our minds what God wrote for our hearts. Face to face heart talk is needed.

Relational discipleship is what God intended, but somehow we got caught up in re-imprisonment. Christ showed us relational discipleship, and then asked us to do. We need to take some of that classroom time, sit in small circles and help each other with our souls and our hearts. Yet, the mind is more measurable than the heart. We can memorize verses and measure that progress. We can take tests about biblical information. Though not a bad thing to do in school, I’m afraid we have neglected the heart while focusing on the mind. We need both. In many ways we have missed the heart and the soul of Christ’s intent.

Someone who is mourning needs me to comfort them, not just explain comfort to them. They do not need me to quote, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). They need me to be someone who will “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15b). We need to take seriously that God, in all His trinitarian-ness, is relational. With Himself first and then with us. He is about loving others and making disciples. 

The love which God expresses through Paul is first relational. But we must know it to do it. We can’t replicate that which we do not know. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). Again in Philippians 1:7-9 Paul tells us, “For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment.” Do we live this way?

Disciples lead with love. Not emotions, but a deep heart-felt love. We can help each other become who and what Christ has asked us to be: Disciple-Makers. Instead of being stuck behind the glass, we must help each other find open water, as well as bring fresh water to our gatherings. It is not so much about ditching what we have as it is converting it, looking at life differently, and living as His disciples in all of it—all our time, in church and out, not just part of it.

The problems with helping fish find open water:

One – We’ve become content with fish tank water.

It’s really not water. Often it is recirculated swimming liquid. Sometimes our personal life and our ‘church life’ is the same every week. Every Sunday. Rarely anything new. We sit in the same rows on the same seats. We intellectually learn things, but our hearts are not changed. We have become content living in the fish tank, and fishing in the fish tank. I had someone recently come up to me and say, “Hey, when are you going to get us some new prospects for our Sunday school class?” In other words, “When are you going to go fishing and come back with a little plastic bag with fish in it and pour them into our tank so we can have more in here?” Wow. Really? We may have been lied to. Made to feel guilty. But it is all we know. So we become as comfortable as we can. Questioning whether God is even personal.  The enemy is dividing us and containing us. It is the water we know.

Two – We’re afraid, and therefore we won’t break the glass.

We must break the glass. But if we do break it, we think we will let the bad water in, or we will let fish out. Or even worse, let new fish in which are not like us. How will we keep the purity of the fish and the water consistent if we break the glass? Are we overly concerned for the wrong things? Could we keep our high view of scripture and, at the same time, swim around looking for fish who need Jesus? If we can’t, we need to adjust our theology and view of scripture. After all, we are supposed to be fishers of men. Our purity is based on Jesus, and how we reveal Him to others and show them how to follow Him. Not just on Sunday. In a row. In a seat. In a building.

Three – The worst problem of all… we don’t see the first two as problems.

The church building is a fine place to meet and worship together. Church gatherings are a time and place to spend time worshipping and disciple-making – being real about who Christ is in us and what Christ instructed us to do. We do need to gather for those purposes. But the building is not the church. I am not suggesting getting rid of your aquarium. Just convert it. Break some of the glass walls. Suggest people live more outside, rather than simply waiting to be back in the building each week. Your time in the building should be the beginning of your week of going beyond the glass, into the life you lead for Him out there—disciple-making. That time should also be celebrating who God is and what God did while you were out there last week, making a difference in the lives you connect with out there.

You don’t have to be stuck behind the glass of your own comfort zone, or that of the religious comfort zone. You can break out. You can become all that He sees you to be. You can make a huge difference in the lives of those around you. You are an ambassador in Christ’s kingdom. You will have to drop a lot of preconceived ideas about how relationships with God and others work. But you can break out of your religious aquarium and learn to swim in open water. How are your fish bowls holding you back from following Jesus as He asks you to? What ‘fish prison’ does He want to help you break out of? What is stopping you?

If you are inside the fishbowl, good news…God is still working to get Matthew 4:19 “to make you fishers of men.” accomplished in the lives of those who will follow Him. If you did not grow up in church, you saw it from the other side of the glass, the same good news applies. He wants to set you free, and to help others get free!