The “Toolbox” and “Bigger Hammer” Theories


Suppose you wanted to build a house. You were given all of the raw materials, but (for some reason) you were only able to use one tool. Which tool would you choose? You could choose a saw. It is good to have things cut properly to size. Perhaps you could use the handle like a hammer and the blade as a screwdriver. Of course you could use a hammer. A hammer is great with nails and you can use the claw feature for screws. And with enough work and determination you can break apart 2×4 lumber to size (approximately).

Limiting oneself to using one tool could be called “THE BIGGER HAMMER THEORY,” based on a friend of mine that liked the quote, “Any problem can be solved with a bigger hammer.”

The bigger hammer theory works up to a point. One can build a house only using a hammer (perhaps) but the amount of time and effort would be huge and the results unsatisfying.

An answer to this could be called “THE TOOLBOX THEORY.” It simply suggests that certain tools work better for different tasks and situations. Using “the right tool for the right job” will normally be easier and give better results.

These two theories apply to other things beyond building a house. Consider psychotherapy. One person may follow a psychodynamic model (such as Freudian or Adlerian). Another may follow a Behaviorist, Rogerian, Gestalt, or others model. Each model has its own methods, and goals. Following one of these methods strictly is the “bigger hammer” approach. However, in recent years there has been a greater appreciation of eclecticism. That is, the therapist uses different methods from different models. Some even go further and are eclectic in underlying model as well.

Evangelism is another area to consider. Some people memorize the Roman’s Road, or the Wordless book, or the Bridge Illustration or the Gospel Hand. Some do evangelism magic or chalk art. Others focus on mass media or friendship evangelism. Are these useful? In my mind, it is like asking whether a screwdriver is useful or a cordless drill. The answer is that these methods can be useful with the right training in the right circumstances. An effective evangelist adjusts the method to the audience and situation.

What are some of the problems with “THE BIGGER HAMMER” approach to evangelism?

  1. More work. Consider those methods that focus on freedom from the punishment of hell. A recent study suggested that 97% of Americans (for example) do not have a fear of hell. Some don’t because they believe they are saved from hell already. Some don’t fear hell because they don’t believe in it. Some are open to its existence but don’t find it emotionally relevant. Since these methods commonly focus on a cognitive and emotional event typically linked to what is often called the “Sinner’s Prayer,” these methods must involve extra time trying to remove the security of their salvation. Or extra work must be spent on convincing them hell exists. Or effort is expended to make them care about hell.
  2. Adverse/low quality results. Since the goal is conversion, not insecurity or fear in hell, the result may be off target and may even produce an adverse result. One may leave a person who is already a believer in a state of unreal insecurity. Or the person may still reject God but now also believes that God is sadistic.

A Suggested Evangelist’s Toolbox

  1. Classic evangelistic methods. These can still be useful, particularly for unbelievers who were raised with a Christian worldview. It may also be useful for immature believers who are shaky in their faith.
  2. Methods designed for people of other worldviews. The Camel method is one of many used reaching out to Muslims. It is good for those Muslims who are neither too scholarly nor too secular. Other methods may work better for Muslims not in this category. Brian McLaren has a recommended model for reaching out to American post-modern methods. Other methods exist for other groups. Paul shared the Gospel to Athenian philosophers using a method tailored to them.
  3. Proclamation. Peter preached in Acts 2 and thousands responded. In group settings, proclamation based on Christ and Scripture can be valuable.
  4. Testimony. Every Christian should be able to coherently (and accurately) describe what God has done, and is doing, in his or her life. The story does not have to be exciting. The truth is definitely exciting enough.
  5. Apologetics. There are times when one must argue/defend/persuade. Some others like to argue and it is good to be able to express one’s faith in a way that can stand up to the scrutiny of others. It is difficult to convince the one you are arguing with that you are right (how do you convince a salesman that the car he is selling is no good?). However, it may be a help for others that are around. However, Peter’s call in I Peter 3:15 regarding gentleness in explaining our faith is important.
  6. Dialogue. Discussing beliefs can be very useful, even if it does not have the clear goal of conversion. Dialogue can lead to greater understanding and can break down barriers. These all are important in evangelism.
  7. Lifestyle. Lifestyle/actions are often more important than the words we say.
  8. Closeness to God. We are told in the Bible that the Holy Spirit can tell us where to be and what to say… but we have to be listening. And since much of what God tells us is from the Holy Bible, it is important that we know it well. Spiritual maturity is not a requirement in evangelism (young Christians are often very effective) but older Christians that do not evidence maturity will be ineffective.
  9. Friendship. Unfriendly evangelists often do more harm than good. Conversion often follows friendship.  But friendship that is fake (be a friend to get a conversion… rejecting them if they reject God) lacks integrity and lack of integrity is also destructive.
  10. Love. Love that flows from God and through us to others has impact that goes beyond all of the others combined. Love also means acceptance of who they are (as God’s special creation) and treating them with respect. While some of the other items in this list can be used or put aside as needed, love is different. Love is like work gloves or safety glasses. It should always be worn.
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2 thoughts on “The “Toolbox” and “Bigger Hammer” Theories

  1. Hi! I just came across your blog today & have enjoyed the posts I’ve read so far. I’m especially interested because I’ve just completed my application to work with a mission organization doing anti-human trafficking work, probably in the Philippines.
    Anyway, thanks for your writing! I’ll keep reading.

    • Sounds great. There are plenty of concerns in the area of human trafficking. Our experience with this problem is fairly limited here in Baguio… but as you know, many problems such as this are hidden just below the surface. It looked like from your blog you are a graduate from Houghton. We visited there last June. Our son was looking for schooling options and since my sister attended there many years ago, we thought we’d stop by.

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