I did a lot of fishing when I was young. Truthfully, I did not care for fishing all that much. I enjoyed hiking and exploring, but fishing only allowed one to do those things for a short while followed by hours of sitting or standing in a hot sticky itchy place.
I was not good at fishing. To some extent my lack of success was due to lack of patience. I couldn’t just let my line out and then relax. Additionally, because I did not enjoy fishing, I did not become a student of fishing.
A big mistake I did in fishing was with worms. I would most commonly use earthworms to catch fish. <For those traumatized by worm impalement, please skip a bit ahead.> I would stick the hook through the worm. Then I would stick it through again and again and again. In the end I would end up with a tangled ball of worm on the hook.
Why in the world would I do that? I was afraid that a fish would come along and take a bite out of the worm and get away without being caught by the fishhook. It made perfect sense to me that a bite on the worm that did not have the hook in it is a wasted bite.
If I had talked to my friends or researched books from experts in fishing, I would have realized that having the worm alive and well and wiggling is a good thing. And having the fish take a nip on the bait without getting hooked, makes it more motivated to come in for more. In an effort to make nibbles turn into a catch, I made the worm unappealing to most fish.
Evangelism has been described in terms of fishing. Jesus described His disciples as fishers of men. More recently, there has been the modern parable where people get so caught up in the science of fishing and gathering together to discuss fishing theories that no one is actually fishing. Tied to that story is the question, “Who do you want to learn from someone who studies fishing or one who actually fishes?” Relating that to missions or evangelism, the question becomes, “Who do you want to learn from, one who does the work or the one who analyzes and theorizes about the work?” In truth, to be a GREAT fisherman it is helpful to draw from both. To be a great car driver it is good to learn from great drivers, but it is also good to talk to those who design and test cars as well.
But in this case, my lesson from the worm is a bit different. In the mid-1800s there were huge sawdust revivals. Big musical numbers of peppy gospel songs, firy preaching and a hard-sell altar call. Walking forward and praying the sinners prayer was so linked to the idea of being saved that it matched the early church’s tendency to see getting baptized as the same as getting saved.
Into the 20th century the question was how to lead people to Christ the quickest. Some suggested that one should throw out social ministry. The sawdust revivals still met a social need, since many communities had little entertainment, little quality music, and few great orators. But in a reaction to the so-called “social gospel” the removal of the social side of the gospel seemed to make sense since it took time and money— essentially slowing things down. This reached a local peak in the 1960s with Evangelical reaction against conciliar missions. Another peak in this happened more recently with focus on bible studies in creating church-planting movements (CPM). Additionally, revivals are had to quantify without a simple metric… so saying the sinners prayer became so much the focus that some methods were developed that almost tricked someone into saying the sinner’s prayer. (This reminds me of a missionary friend who was almost tricked into saying the Shahada three times by some neighbors who held a reductionist belief that doing so “made one a Muslim.”)
I think these are like what I was doing in fishing. I tried to make it so that a fish could hardly go after the worm without getting hooked. Some things done in missions seeks to ensure a positive response (even if that positive response is ambiguous). However, what I did to the worm made it more unappealing to most fish. I increased the likelihood that a bite would result in a catch, but I greatly reduced the number of bites. It is possible that our tactics can increase the percentage of positive responses to a direct plea for the gospel, but only doing so through driving more away.
Binging the Squid Game this last weekend brought this to light. There were a number of references to Christianity in this Korean series. However, all of them showed Christianity as being a bit weird— people dressed funny (much like Mormon missionaries in the US and Philippines dress), and a bit loud and preachy. I don’t think anyone watching the show would come to the conclusion that Christians are called upon to be meek, kind, hospitable, loving, and self-sacrificing. If you haven’t watched Squid Game, try watching it as if you have never heard of Christianity before. What characteristics would you gain of Christianity from watching the show? Now before you get the idea that Squid Game is — “Anti-Christian”— I think it may be better to think of it as a fairly neutral portrayal of how Christians have often chosen to portray themselves. Preaching the word, using a lot of Christian-speak and dressing in a way that strongly contrasts those around them can seem like a good idea… being good witnesses of the truth. However, few would be attracted to Christianity— it is an unappealing worm— much like the primary Christian in the Squid Game is so focused on himself and his faith, that he offers nothing of Christ or himself to others that would be appealing.
This is a bit off on a tangent, but perhaps it is better today to identify people who come to Christ though tracking (believer’s) baptisms rather than through saying the Sinner’s Prayer. Neither one is actually the same as salvation (a transformation of the heart) but I suppose baptism demonstrates a deeper level of thought or commitment than does repeating a prayer that someone else gives you. Of course, there is the risk of falling into the mistake of many groups that confuse salvation with baptism, but it is probably less in error than associating the sinner’s prayer with salvation. <Sorry… just was thinking off the top of my head while I was typing.>