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Watkins challenges church leaders to drop their nets, follow Jesus, and change the church

Evangelism conference’s opening preacher says that ‘nets have become strangleholds around our mission and our ministry’

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

PETE BEACH, FLA. – After weathering rains so heavy that they flooded the exhibit hall and much of the ground floor on the first day of the Go Disciple Live “Be the Light” Conference, some 275 attendees at the opening worship were particularly primed to hear a sermon on Jesus’ call of the first disciples at the seaside.

And on that text, Mark 1:16-20, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins more than delivered.

Watkins, one of the conference’s featured plenary speakers, is the Peachtree Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and pastor of Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta. An expert in social media as a tool for evangelism, Watkins also regularly makes effective use of still images and video along with his writing and preaching as a way of telling stories and connecting with today’s visual generation.

As evocative photos—including some from Watkins’s own family album—were projected on the screen during worship to augment the Scripture and sermon, Watkins told of his uncle, who made him “hunt and fish, not for sport, but for dinner,” punctuated with some of the important life lessons he learned.

Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins —Photo provided.

Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins —Photo provided.

“If you want catfish or trout or mullet or crab, you have to use the right kind of bait,” Watkins said. “If the fish ain’t biting, it might be the bait.”

As he closely followed Mark’s text, Watkins moved from the means to the method of catching fish and to what, for him, is key to understanding the passage—the net dropping.

“These men were comfortable; these men were trained to be fishermen; these men were set up for life,” he said. “Then they leave their symbol of status and comfort to follow Jesus to do what they had no idea what he was asking them to do. They’re being called to follow Jesus, which means not only leaving their profession but also leaving their religious tradition and to follow Jesus and fish for people. There’s nothing in their context to make sense of the call, but yet they still dropped their nets and followed Jesus.”

Watkins said he imagined that some folks—namely Mama and Papa Zebedee—had some problems with their decision.

“’Are you out of your mind,’” he imagined they might have said. “’This makes no sense,’ and yet they listened to God’s voice in the midst of what had to be some serious opposition. As an innovator and leader in anybody’s church you will run up into some opposition.”

Watkins said that Mark’s story challenges him because he believes that God is still walking along the seashore in St. Petersburg, Florida. “God has called us here to challenge us,” he preached. “God has called us here to invite us on a journey. God is saying to us you have to drop your net because you can’t fish for people with a net…Our nets have become strangleholds around our mission and our ministry.”

Using his 24-year old self compared with his current 54-year old self as an example, Watkins proclaimed that “yesterday is gone; you can’t go back to it.” In the same way, he said that church isn’t what it used to be.

“If the church doesn’t adapt to be a church in the present age, she will die,” Watkins said. “This week we have come to seek God and God’s wisdom in this community as to how we make these changes. We are called to be that love—that love change agent. We are called by the God of love to love the world and to change the world and we must go therefore and share this transforming gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Watkins closed his message by challenging his hearers to decide how they’re going to fish and what bait God is calling them to use.

“We’re here this week to enjoy the seaside, but then to leave the shore and go into the city,” he said, “because in the city we’re going to make a difference, because God will empower us to change the world. That is my fish story and I’m sticking to it!”

The Go Disciple Live “Be the Light” Conference, formerly known as the Evangelism and Church Growth Conference, August 8-11, is a vibrant gathering of Presbyterians committed to disciple-making which leads to authentic evangelism, effective church transformation, justice, and church planting through 1001 new worshiping communities.

To follow the evangelism conference on Twitter, use the hashtag #godisciplelive.

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