By Ruth E Siemens
Fishing evangelism gives me joy! But I remember how I used to struggle. Most Christian workers struggle with evangelism and so rarely do it. Even many missionaries minister mainly to other believers.
Before going abroad, Christians need to ask themselves, “How is God using me now in evangelism in my neighborhood, my workplace and my campus?” Because crossing an ocean will not make it easier. I know from experience.
I used to choose an unsuspecting target, then plan my approach, my one-size-fits-all sermonette and my plea for decision. But by the time I was ready to speak I was so uptight that my victims became embarrassed, too. My problem? I was a hunter. But I hunted infrequently. Two reasons:
First, I had a bad definition – that evangelism was winning people to the Lord. So if I thought a conversation would not end in a decision, I desisted rather than risk one more failure. But evangelism is just joyfully declaring the glory of God! It is telling people about Jesus Christ! Winning people is a desired result. We should not confuse the activity with its result. We should rejoice whenever we can say a fitting word for the Lord and turn people’s thoughts to him.
Second, I did not know whom to approach nor how to begin. I had a list of great opening sentences! But I felt strong reluctance to invade the privacy of people in so personal a matter. I feared catching them at an awkward moment. I feared rebuff. Many tentmakers also fear job loss, arrest, prison or expulsion from their host country! Fishing evangelism can reduce all these risks so we can evangelize more frequently, confidently and fruitfully.
Fishing for seekers
Jesus said that evangelism is fishing for people. Fishing, not hunting. Instead of indiscriminate evangelism, you fish out seekers from among indifferent or antagonistic people. It is what Jesus did and what both Paul and Peter taught. You discover seekers by putting out bait to elicit questions. In your neighborhood, workplace or campus, bait is of two kinds:
1) Your life: Personal integrity, your character, moral purity, graciousness, truthfulness – regardless of the crunch. Quality work for the employer – as though he were Jesus Christ! Paul insists! Caring relationships. Lovingly giving costly time and energy, counsel and practical help. You are imperfect, so you apologize for failures and admit you are still learning.
2) Your words: Brief, appropriate comments about God tactfully inserted into secular conversation. Bait is tiny. You drop small spiritual bombshells in a casual, natural way (as though all would agree) – then change the subject. This leaves people free. They ask questions if they feel they have the initiative.
I had just arrived in Lima, Peru as a tentmaker, to earn my living in a secular bilingual elementary and secondary school. At the board’s reception I met Marta, a Peruvian teacher. After a few minutes of small talk I was surprised when she said, “I think you know what’s in the Bible – would you teach me?” (What had I said to elicit that question?) I learned she was open to God because her pilot husband had just died in a crash. After a few Bible studies she committed her life to God.
At a later time, a teacher entered my office and said, “You were lucky to find the money you lost!” I almost agreed, but caught myself. Without stopping my work, I said cheerfully, “Oh, it wasn’t luck! I prayed like mad and God helped me find it!” Then I changed the subject. Because I left her free, she returned and asked, “Do you really believe God cares about a little thing like that?” I shared an answered prayer of the week before and changed the subject. She came again. If I said too much, she would have avoided me.
An unforgettable incident occurred just after my arrival in Brazil to run a secular elementary school. The principal of the adjacent high school came to tell me one of his teachers drowned over the weekend. They were planning a memorial service. The glee club was learning a hymn. But no high school teacher was willing to say the prayer. They had suggested me! What made my new acquaintances think I could pray? Maybe they saw me briefly bow my head before lunch in the cafeteria.
In the large memorial service I asked God to comfort family and friends and then joyfully added, “Thank you, Lord, that we can know about life after death!” For days, teachers and students from both schools came to my office. God had helped me fish out a net full of seekers! It also turned up a few Christian high school students, with whom I started a Bible club to teach them how to win their friends. My almost imperceptible bait had speeded up and multiplied my tentmaker ministry!
Noting the benefits
1) Fishing evangelism is enjoyable, because seekers’ questions show they want to know! And that it is a convenient time. You aren’t imposing.
2) Fishing evangelism is patient and kind, allowing seekers to pace conversations as they are ready. We turn people off by saying too much prematurely or confuse them with unfamiliar concepts. In Curitiba, Brazil, medical student Maria came to live with me. But she said, “Don’t expect me to evangelize. Last year everyone disappeared into classrooms when I came along.” We agreed not to talk about God unless they asked. Students came – up to 30 at a time! (Once we had 60!) They brought cadaver parts to study for exams! They asked questions. Soon we were leading a Bible study on Saturdays and spontaneous ones during the week. When we split into three groups, some came three times a week! All non-believers.
3) Fishing evangelism is respectful of people. You treat them as persons, not objects. They are as unique as their fingerprints. I customized my approach to Brazilian philosophy student Ramon and to my maid Benta, who panicked at rainbows for fear they could make her pregnant!
4) Fishing evangelism is right on target, not a stab in the dark. Seekers’ questions show you what to say and what to pray! Their questions reveal their spiritual history, their knowledge of truth, their misconceptions, their felt needs and obstacles to faith. You build on what God’s Spirit is patiently doing instead of running ahead of him.
5) Fishing evangelism is culturally sensitive. Questions of international seekers help you learn their world views and assumptions. You do not answer questions no one asks.
6) Fishing evangelism is discreet. It is ideal for spiritually hostile environments, including universities. These are microcosms of our multicultural, anti-Christian world – superb missionary training laboratories! Today eighty percent of this planet’s people live under governments that restrict the entry of missionaries. But they admit Christian professional people with needed skills – tentmakers! Fishing evangelism helps these expatriates (and local believers) to draw out seekers around them without arousing antagonism.
7) Fishing evangelism is full-time ministry. Even in the context of a full-time job! You are always under the unrelenting scrutiny of non-believers. Secular jobs are not an inconvenience, but God’s provision – the shared contexts in which to live out the gospel and induce spiritual thirst in observers. Two Christians together more than double the impact, because the gracious interaction between them has a supernatural quality which draws and convinces seekers.
8) Fishing evangelism leads into evangelistic (investigative) Bible studies. Instead of answering a third or fourth question, say, “I am not an authority on this subject, but would you like to see what Jesus said?” Pull out a small New Testament and ask questions on a few verses. This raises new questions requiring another passage. Soon the seeker is hooked on a weekly Bible study and bringing friends! Use mainly gospel narratives. These videos of Jesus in action are the Bible’s evangelistic literature. Story-telling is still the main conduit for truth in non-Western cultures. The stories touch people more deeply than linear arguments. Help seekers observe Jesus and interact with him vicariously through the characters. Jesus is always the shortcut in evangelism. He reveals the Father. He says “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me.”
9) Fishing evangelism is biblical. As Jewish hostility grew, Jesus taught in parables. These loaded stories allowed insincere listeners to go home with their prejudices intact. But seekers accompanied the disciples home to hear Jesus’ explanations. He did not cast His pearls before swine, before scoffers who could mock holy truth, dissuade seekers and cut short his own mission.
Peter told converts not to fear hostile people, but to live godly lives, to trust Christ’s presence in them and to be ready to graciously answer questions – especially about their hope. People would marvel at their confidence and joy even in the midst of physical persecution and economic discrimination. What bait! If arrested, they knew God wanted to reach the authorities. It was how he had transformed Saul, the chief persecutor of the church into Paul, the beloved apostle!
Paul also told converts to draw out the seekers by their holy living and thought-provoking comments about God, and then to answer their questions. He told converted slaves and paid laborers to give their employers the same hearty service they would give to Jesus! Their secular work became spiritual ministry! If their good work won the householder, it could transform his extended family and all his slaves into a new house church!
Paul not only taught – he demonstrated. He earned his own living as an artisan, making animal skin tents. His three main reasons: 1) To gain credibility for himself and the gospel. He did not say religious things because he was paid to do it. 2) To facilitate his identification with working people. 3) To facilitate his modeling for converts. None had ever seen a Christian! He modeled a holy life in an idolatrous, immoral culture. He modeled a biblical work ethic for a society which had none. It was essential if there were to be godly converts, healthy families and independent churches. He modeled unpaid evangelism. All his converts were to fish out seekers and answer their questions! Paul’s goal was the exponential growth of the church – not just addition or simple multiplication! This was Paul’s tentmaker strategy.
And if you are a student or working Christian, you have sustained, natural contact with the same non-believers, you know their mindset and jargon, you don’t intimidate because you are one of them, and you are evidence that the gospel works for average people.
Peter says, “Be ready to answer the questions.” Paul says, “Know how to answer.” Do not fear the questions seekers ask. But always present yourself as a learner, not an authority. It is less threatening to seekers and takes the pressure off of you. If you cannot answer a question, say, “Give me until tomorrow to organize my thoughts so I can explain clearly.” Then consult the Bible, a book or another Christian. You might give an appropriate booklet.
Seekers’ questions depend partly on how they understand their own religion. If you criticize, be gentle. Mainly, just give truth. The deepest human needs are universal. A Muslim great-grandmother in the Arab Gulf asked a Christian linguistics professor,”Why are my people and I so afraid to die? I think we have dirty hearts – we lie and cheat and steal.” He answered, “Let me tell you how Jesus cleaned up my dirty heart.” An engineer in China said to his English teacher, “I want to know about God – is there a book about him?”
Expect questions in three areas. 1) Personal testimony. How did you find God? How do you know your answers to prayer are not merely self-suggestion? 2) Apologetics (defense of the faith). Does God exist? Why does God allow suffering? 3) Facts of the gospel. Who was Jesus? Why did he die? Did he rise from the grave? How can Jesus’ death save? Consider the following four points – the minimum that seekers should understand. But you would not usually give them as a little talk, but use them as a checklist to know which parts the seekers does not yet know.
God: He is our Creator. (However he may have done it -don’t get into a discussion of evolution.) He is loving. He is holy. To present his love without his holiness is to distort the gospel. People: They are guilty and spiritually dead – cut off from God, the only source of life. A sawed-off apple tree may look identical to the growing one next to it, but it will soon manifest its deadness. The question is not whether people are good or bad (symptoms), but whether they are dead or alive. Jesus Christ: He is God and man. He lived a sinless life, died a voluntary death on the cross for our sins, arose bodily from the dead, triumphed over all His human and non-human adversaries and reigns from God’s throne today. Response: Seekers must believe the gospel facts, repent of their passive or active rebellion, and invite Jesus Christ as Lord – to manage their lives! He enters through his Spirit (who cannot die), giving them everlasting life! He helps them obey and please their new King. What good news to share!
Giving fishing a try
As you focus on a holy, attractive, non-judgmental lifestyle, you will gain skill in putting out appropriate bits of verbal bait. Answer seekers’ questions and develop a friendship with them. You will find yourself spontaneously evangelizing even strangers!
Recently, in an airport layover in Texas I wanted to share the good news, but which stranger should I approach, and what should I say? I expressed friendly greetings to everyone as I sat down. Immediately, a woman asked me what work I do. I said, “I assist caring Christians to get jobs in other countries so they can find hurting people around them and tell them how Jesus Christ can help.” She grabbed both my hands and said,”I’m so glad you are here! I am a hurting person!” She was newly widowed. I was sad when my flight was called – then discovered we were on the same plane! She was assigned to seat 12A and I to 12B! On takeoff she made the sign of the cross three times – so I knew she was Catholic, and afraid to fly. Most important – I knew God had planned our encounter!
God expects all Christians to give the gospel to people around them. At the same time that you fish out seekers, your lifestyle is changing other indifferent people into seekers. Why not try this fishing approach to evangelism which Jesus, Peter and Paul found fruitful even in hostile environments? Experience the joy of telling the good news to people who want to know! Then do the same in another country as you support yourself in a secular job. Be a tentmaker in that 80% of the world that restricts or denies access to missionaries!
Ruth E. Siemens
The full version of this paper is available to GO Associates on the Associates web site. It describes how to deal with various kinds of seekers in our post-modern, neo-pagan age, ways to tune them in to God, some helpful resources, and when and how to ask for commitment. To learn how to become a GO Associate, please click here.
Miss Siemens went to Peru as a tentmaker educator, and served 27 years with IVCF-IFES, mainly pioneering student movements in Latin America and Europe. In 1976 she founded a tentmaker job-referral, missions training and counseling service�Global Opportunities.
Rebecca Pippert and Ruth Siemens. Evangelism, A Way of Life. A Lifeguide Bible Study. Downers Grove: IVP. 1985.
Rebecca Pippert. Out of the Salt Shaker and into the World. Downers Grove: IVP. 1979.
1. Psalm 96:3
2. Mark 1:16-18
3. Col. 4:5, 6
4. 1 Peter 3:14-16
5. 1 Thess. 2:10, 1 Tim. 4:12
6. Col. 3:22-25, Eph. 6:5-9
7. 1 Thess. 2:4-12
8. John 17:18-23, 13:34, 35
9. John 14:6. Acts 4:12
10. Mark 4:10-13
11. Matt. 7:6
12. 1 Peter 3:14-16
13. Col. 4:5,6
14. Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-25.
Householders: Cornelius, Lydia, Jason, Gaius, Onesiphorus, etc.
15. 1 Cor. 9:12, 1 Thess. 2:1-6
16. 1 Cor. 9:19-23
17. 2 Thess. 3:6-12, esp. v. 9
18. Matt. 10:32, 33, 28:18-20
Copyright 1996 Ruth E. Siemens