Rethinking the Fisherman parable. It points out the risk of becoming a theorist in ministry, particularly evangelism. I had referenced the story before, HERE.
What got me thinking was a bit of FB dialogue I was somewhat in. The discussion started out simply enough: Do we in missions (and perhaps Evangelical Christianity as a whole) focus too much on marketing strategies and not enough on the gospel? <Spoiler alert: Yes>
But a couple of people decided to answer a different question from the one that was posed. Not sure why. The question a couple of them decided to answer was:
Who should we listen to— people who are theoreticians or the boots-in-the-ground folk that actually do ministry?
The direction of the answer was that they would listen to people who actually do ministry and not armchair theoreticians. One of them did a reference to the parable noted above when he said that he would listen to the fishermen, not the ones who sit around and talk about fishing. The context of the story is that it is about Evangelizers— those who encourage people to follow Christ.
This got me thinking because I do talk about, and commonly critique, evangelism and evangelistic methods. Three major critiques I make are:
- Most evangelistic methodologies already presume a Christian worldview and belief in key assumptions of the Christian Faith. As such, most don’t actually work for those of other worldviews, and many are little more than getting (already redeemed) Christians to say the Sinner’s Prayer.
- Most do not work with the cultural context of the responder, but rather try to get people to “itch where it doesn’t scratch.”
- Few encourage honest dialogue. If dialogue is part of the program, it is strongly orchestrated to drive certain responses and/or is carefully flow-charted.
I think these are quite valid concerns. I remember learning the Dunamis method that essentially (in the Philippine context at least) “tricks” Roman Catholic Christians into saying the Sinner’s Prayer. I listen to a presentation of the Gospel to a devout Asian Buddhist where the presenter uses the blood atonement metaphor to address sin, liberally sprinkled with Bible references (a metaphor that the culture doesn’t recognize to address a problem the person isn’t focused on, quoting a book the person doesn’t value). I listen to an American college student screaming at a Filipino on the street here in my city— “YOU GOT TO BE SAVED!!! YOU GOT TO BE SAVED!!”
But maybe it is true that I am a theoretician— not a practitioner. While I have shared my faith to groups, and in written form, I have only shared it one-in-one to strangers perhaps 20 or 25 times in my life. That is not a lot. Frankly, I see my ministerial calling more in training up future Christian leaders.
But who should be listened to more— a seasoned practitioner or an academic? Let’s consider the points for or against the seasoned practitioner— the expert evangelist. One positive is that such a person “knows what works.” That is, he may have tried out different things and now knows what people respond to better. One negative is exactly the same thing, however. Talking to expert evangelists one can learn the “marketing secrets” to evangelism. Going to the practitioners leads to the problem suggested in the first question (the red-letter question at the top). A second positive is their specialization. No one is good at everything— so the best people to talk about the specialty of evangelism is someone who specializes in it. A second negative is also this issue of specialization.
A broader view can help. Is evangelism effective if it doesn’t dovetail into discipleship and faith community? I recall an evangelizer “practicing” on me. Once I responded positively as I was supposed to, the person gave me a teeny-tiny Gospel of John (I think Mark or Luke would have been better) and told I should pray and find a church. And that was that. There was no follow-up because that person only shares the gospel. That person claimed to lead at least three people to Christ day after day, every day. However, the method was manipulative, and the follow-up was completing lacking. Perhaps an outside critique could be helpful. Evangelizers can feel the temptation toward “What is the least I can share and the least the responder can do so that I can slap a “Christian” sticker (figuratively-speaking) on her forehead.”
What about an academic “arm-chair” evangelism critic? The most positive aspect is the advantage of an outsider perspective. Insiders can get together and “pool ignorance” every bit as well as well as ivory tower theologians. But reflection without action commonly becomes skewed. We learn iteratively by bringing together action and theological reflection.
This seems to me an improvement over deciding one group is not helpful to learn from. Maybe we might try listening to everyone.
- Talk to evangelists
- Talk to theologians
- Talk to missiologists
- Talk to those who have responded positively to the gospel message and have grown in the faith
- Talk to those who have rejected the gospel message
- Talk to those who have not yet heard.