Rick Warren: Go Where the Fish Are Biting

Why waste seed, time, energy, effort and money?


In 32 years of planting and leading Saddleback Church, I’ve learned some key lessons about evangelism and outreach. One of the most important is that it’s a waste of time to fish in a spot where the fish aren’t biting. Wise fishermen move on. They know that fish eat at different times of the day in different places.

How does this apply to evangelism and ministry? Simple. Just like wise fishermen, as leaders we have to focus on the most receptive people in our area and move on when we sense a dead end.

This is not a marketing principle but rather a basic New Testament principle. Jesus illustrated it in His parable of the sower (to add another metaphor). When you sow seed, some of it falls on rocky ground, some on stony ground, some on hard ground and some on good soil. Wouldn’t it be great if we knew where the good soil was and could sow all our seed there? Why waste seed, time, effort, energy and money?

Remember that it’s God’s job to prepare the soil and our job as the church to sow the seed. God uses all kinds of sovereign things like divorce, crises, death, economic problems, government shutdowns, losing a job, a new baby or a new job to prepare the soil. But God uses His church to sow the seed.

The fact is, receptiveness to the gospel varies widely at different times in people’s lives. Sometimes people are very open to the gospel. Sometimes they’re very closed. And receptivity doesn’t last forever.

Jesus knew this truth very well. That’s why He said, “Go to the people who will listen.” When He sent the disciples out to evangelize, He told them, “If a home or town refuses to welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet” (Matthew 10:14, NCV).

That statement is significant. Jesus instructed His disciples to leave the unresponsive place and move on to other soil. Far more people in the world are ready to receive Christ than the number of people who are ready to share it. As leaders, we should constantly ask God, “Who are You preparing right now for me to talk to?”

Recommended On ChurchPlants:  Welcome!

Has someone ever said to you, “Pastor, I think before we go after any new people we ought to go back and round up all the old people who’ve left the church”? This is a guaranteed strategy for church decline because often the people who have left have resolved to be unreceptive to your church’s mission and message.

Reclaiming someone who’s gotten upset and cantankerous takes 10 times more energy than to go out and win someone who hasn’t yet trusted in Jesus. God has called us to feed sheep—not corral goats.

Growing churches focus on reaching receptive people while non-growing churches focus on re-enlisting inactive people.

How do you know who’s ready to be reached and people in your community who might be receptive to the gospel? I’ve found that people experiencing change or transition and people under some sort of tension are generally more open. Someone coping with transition (a new job, home, baby, marriage, school) or under tension (physical, emotional, financial or relational) is usually searching for answers, for hope and for truth.

Who in your sphere of influence do you know that needs to hear the gospel? Where is God already working in your community? This fall, take some time to think through how your church plant can engage people in transition or under tension and go where the fish are biting.

Rick Warren
Dr. Rick Warren is passionate about attacking what he calls the five "Global Goliaths," spiritual emptiness, egocentric leadership, extreme poverty, pandemic disease and illiteracy/poor education. His goal is a second Reformation by restoring responsibility in people, credibility in churches and civility in culture. He is a pastor, global strategist, theologian and philanthropist. He’s been often named "America's most influential spiritual leader" and "America’s Pastor."
  • Neftali B. Lopez

    I admire you Rick Warren. I do not have the level of experience and impact that you have had. However, I think that there are some questions left unanswered. How can we know if people are receptive? It took several decades for James Chalmers, missionary to Papua New Guinea, to share the Gospel with some of the natives and at the end he was murdered and eaten by other tribe members. What is the measuring standard that we could use to know that fish are biting? God’s work is many times subtle.
    Yes, Jesus indeed moved on and spoke to audiences who wanted to listen rather than insisting on press-in his message on deaf ears, but fishing is also a patience developing activity. It seems to me that some of us, readers, could chose to perform a shallow work, throw the hook and move on without learning patience.

    • AJGeorge

      In all that we do for the kingdom, it can’t be anything short of a sowing or fishing without the Holy Spirit guidance. In short, if we are not led by the Holy Spirit.. We will just be doing our own thing…..

  • Darrell Davis

    I was with him until he said “This is a guaranteed strategy for church decline because often the people who have left have resolved to be unreceptive to your church’s mission and message. Reclaiming someone who’s gotten upset and cantankerous takes 10 times more energy than to go out and win someone who hasn’t yet trusted in Jesus. God has called us to feed sheep—not corral goats.”

    He is passing over some very important scripture. The shepherd (pastor) is supposed to leave the 99 to go after the 1. (Luke 15:3-7). Too many of our churches are neglecting God’s people in search of new butts in seats. We have to stop leaving our wounded on the battlefield. If someone is “upset and cantankerous” there is a huge probability that there is a good reason! Churches wound people whether they intend to or not. We would do well to tend to their wounds and not discard the carcasses. Most of them would probably come back if someone simply told them that “you are important and we need you.”

    We have to stop focusing on church growth by the numbers at all costs. There is a more important way to grow the church that we tend to overlook. Let’s focus more on growing deep and not just wide. If pastors spent more time focusing on the spiritual growth of the members they have, those spiritually mature Christians would grow the church faster than any strategy the pastor could concoct.

  • Darrell I agree with you. It is the healthy church that grows the church. Healthy leadership, that concentrates on the health of the church, led by the Holy Spirit is the best strategy you can have. That’s our focus now. Bringing fish into an unhealthy environment will only keep them sick or make them more sick. Not good.