NOTE: This article has been edited slightly. In place of “Seekers” I have put “the interested.” And a few portions that have only to do with cross cultural missions have been deleted for the sake of brevity. The full, unedited version of the original article can be found here: http://www.globalopps.org/training/articles/workplacevangelism.htm
I became free to enjoy evangelism when I shifted from hunting to fishing. Most Christians dislike hunting, so they rarely evangelize.
A major hurdle is initiating conversations. We feel uncomfortable invading the privacy of unsuspecting targets and surprising them with unwanted religious information. So if hunting is the only approach we know, we will not do it often.
But fishing evangelism is different. It is selective. It draws out the interested from a mixed group of people and focuses on them instead of giving the gospel to non-believers indiscriminately. The interested are people who have become hungry for God through their own deep need and through observing the character and conduct of Christians and hearing their casual references to God. The interested nibble at this bait. They ask questions. So you begin your evangelistic conversations by answering the questions of people who want to know about God!
Fishing is ideal for Christians who see the same non-believers daily–in the workplace or on campus. It is ideal for tentmakers who witness discreetly as they support themselves in hostile countries, and for all of us who try to win our own compatriots and the internationals around us.
I will consider six subjects:
I. Fishing out the interested –explanation, examples, benefits, contexts, components of bait, and work and witness issues.
II. Answering questions–attitudes, readiness, kinds of questions.
III. Drawing the interested to Christ–focusing their attention on God, tuning them in to God, using information and people resources.
IV. Encouraging commitment and caring for new believers.
V. Noting kinds of interested people
VI. Getting started.
I. Fishing out the interested
I was earning my living as head of a secular international school in Sao Paulo. A teacher came into my office and said, "Weren’t you lucky to find that money you lost?" I almost agreed. But instead, without interrupting my work, I turned my head toward her, and said, "Oh, it wasn’t luck–I prayed like mad and God helped me to find it!" Then I changed the subject. She left, surprised at my answer. But because I did not push the matter she returned and asked, "You don’t really think God cares about a little problem like this, do you?" I told her about a prayer God answered the previous week–and I changed the subject, leaving her free.
I wanted to explain the gospel to her from the start, but she might then have avoided me, fearing I was trying to convert her. She asked more questions on successive days–because she felt she had the initiative. I let her set the pace for our conversations as she was ready–and to set the agenda. Her questions showed me what answers she was ready for. It struck me that I should always act and speak in a way that would cause people to ask the questions I longed to answer! I should fish out the interested from among the indifferent or resistant people around me.
Christians who fish focus on a godly lifestyle where they work or study–a place where non-believers can scrutinize their lives. They learn to insert fitting comments about God casually and naturally into secular conversations. This verbal and non-verbal bait causes spiritually hungry people to ask questions. The Christians then answer the interested’ initial questions, win their friendship and gradually lead them to put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Even Jesus fished. He did and said things to incite questions. In Jn. 4 he surprised an immoral Samaritan woman by asking for a drink of water–something no other Jewish man would have done! He saw past her promiscuity to her deep spiritual need and led her to ask the right questions. . . But in John 3 Jesus’ miracles were bait. They brought Nicodemus on a night visit. Then Jesus’ puzzling statements about birth elicited the right questions from this Jewish theologian. Jesus fished!
Bait varies in each situation. On a layover in a Texas airport I could have talked to 100 travelers in the boarding area. But which one should I choose? What should I say to people I did not know? I broke the ice with a friendly "hello" to everyone nearby as I sat down. This freed one woman to ask me what work I do. An evasive answer would have ended the conversation. Instead I said, "I assist caring Christians to obtain salaried positions abroad, so they can tell hurting people around them how Jesus Christ can help."
The woman grabbed both my hands and said, "I’m so glad you are here – I am a hurting person!" Her husband had just died. I was sorry when my plane was called, and then realized we were on the same flight. She was assigned to seat 12A and I to 12B! God had planned our encounter! On takeoff she made the sign of the cross three times–so I knew she was Catholic and that she was afraid to fly. After significant conversation I gave her a Gospel of John. (Pocket-sized Gospels and evangelistic booklets can continue your conversations, and your address inside may lead to correspondence.)
On another flight I chatted with a businessman about current events. An attendant brought our meals and I said softly what I felt, all in one breath: "I am hungry –t his looks good – Thank you God for good things to eat! Now as you were saying. . ." By returning immediately to our subject I was leaving him free. I had not closed my eyes. He did not bat an eyelash. I decided he had not heard my little one-sentence grace. After the meal we both returned to our reading. A half hour later he put aside his book and began a barrage of questions about God. He had needed time to decide if he wanted to talk and then, what to ask. He chose when to speak. If I had pressed a conversation after my prayer, he might have been defensive.
So bait can be any casual thing you do or say that discreetly announces, "I know about God and I am willing to talk." In the workplace there may be no response for several days. But when your colleague or client or patient or student faces a crisis, he or she will know where to come for help.
This happened to me one Monday soon after my arrival in Sao Paulo to head up an international elementary school. The principal of the adjacent secondary school came to say that one of his teachers had drowned in a storm at sea during the weekend. The high school teachers were preparing a memorial service for the student body and parents. (I agreed that the elementary school should participate.) The Glee Club was learning a hymn. But no high school teacher was willing to say the prayer. He said, "They suggested you would know how to do that." Now what made my new acquaintances think that I could pray? Had someone noticed me briefly bow my head in the teachers’ lunchroom?
So in my short prayer at the service I asked God to comfort the bereaved family and friends. Then I added confidently, "Thank you, Lord, that we can know about life after death!" My little prayer brought teachers and students from both schools into my office for days, to ask questions. It was also how I fished out several Christian high school students and started a Bible club in my apartment to help them win their friends. In this way I multiplied my own ministry in both schools!
This event also speeded up my ministry. It could have taken awhile for most people in the elementary school to find out about my faith, and months before I would have enough contact with the high school. But God used the service to quickly inform everyone in both schools, and many upper class Brazilian parents. Yet I was not imposing religious conversations on anyone–I was answering their questions!
This chain of events occurred because I had quietly put out bait at work where I was being watched. If I had been hunting, most people around me would already have become defensive. Fishing had proved advantageous.
2. The benefits of fishing
Note just 14 benefits of the fishing approach to evangelism.
1) Fishing evangelism is enjoyable! You look at the people around you and think, like Jesus, "If you only knew what I have to give you, you would be begging me!" (Jn. 4:10) When people ask, you enjoy telling them the gospel because they want to know, and you want to tell them!
Their first questions are often indirect, but Marta came straight to the point. I had just come to Lima to teach in a secular school and I met this Peruvian teacher at the school board’s reception for us newcomers. After a bit of small talk, she asked, "Would you teach me the Bible?" I was surprised! I did not know what I had said to make her ask. But when I learned that her pilot husband had just been killed in a crash, I knew how this hurting young widow had become so open to Jesus Christ. After a few studies at my house she invited him into her life. What joy that gave us both!
Then she brought her three sons to learn about God–sons whom this doting mother had named Miguel, Rafael and Gabriel! I soon learned they were not angels–just three normally naughty teenagers whom God loved. A year later Marta died in a car crash. I was so glad God had led me to her in time!
2) Fishing evangelism is easy since anyone can put out bait–a godly lifestyle and occasional appropriate words about God. Bait is little. You need not elaborate a sermon. You learn to drop tiny spiritual bombshells in the most casual, natural way! Speak with confidence–as if every thinking person would agree. But do not be dogmatic, arrogant or preachy. Fishing is easy because you put out bait in tiny bites.
3) Fishing evangelism is kind–never rude, not imposing on someone who might become defensive, embarrassed or angry. A graduate student at U.C. Berkeley saw me with my Bible in a campus coffee shop and thought I might help with her research paper on the Protestant Reformation. I wanted to tell Daphne so much! But she assured me she had no personal interest in religion. I soon suspected that was not true. But she was prickly! So I let her questions guide me. I answered each one briefly, adding bits of bait to keep more questions coming. It became a long, substantial conversation that let me say most of what I had longed to tell her. Then I gave her the names of two pastor friends in a fine church just off campus. She said goodbye and left. But then she returned and said, "Thank you for not being pushy." This showed me why she had been so sensitive to any initiative on my part. She had been the victim of hunters! Hunting can make people very difficult to win. Good evangelism is always kind.
4) Fishing evangelism is patient, allowing the interested to pace the conversations with their questions as they are ready. We can turn people off or confuse them by saying too much too soon and using terms they do not yet know. Speak briefly and then think, "The next move is up to you." The interested need time to process what we tell them and time for the Holy Spirit to work on them.
That was true of Joao Olavo, a medical student in Curitiba, Brazil, who had been attending an investigative Bible study in my apartment for a couple of months. Late one evening he asked me, "What does the death of Jesus 2000 years ago have to do with me today?" I thought to myself, "Dear Joao Olavo, where have you been these last three weeks?" As I began to explain it again, tears filled his eyes and a smile filled his face. He grasped the meaning for the first time. A bad experience that week had shown this very intelligent, self-sufficient, self-righteous young man that he desperately needed God. It can take time for people to understand spiritual truths even after hearing them several times.
So we must be patient with the interested because the Holy Spirit is patient with them and we must not run ahead of him. We can let the interested’ partial responses encourage our faith and we can rejoice over each small step they take toward God. I put small t’s after their names in my prayer notebook for a small "Thank you, Lord," and then a big T when they make their commitment. A whole row of t’s tells me God is working, so I can be patient.
5) Fishing evangelism is respectful of individuals. You treat people as persons, not objects. You customize your approach for each one. When you get a nibble, determine what kind of seeker your bait has drawn. Listen to what that person says, making sure you understand. As I started university fellowships in Brazil, I spoke differently to Catholic philosophy student Ramon, to Marxist economics professor Maria Eugenia, and to my maid, Benta, who panicked at rainbows, fearing they could make her pregnant! Individuals are as unique as their fingerprints.
6) Fishing evangelism shows you what to say. It puts you right on target, with little hit-or-miss. You will not be giving a lot of answers to questions no one is asking. The interested’ questions reveal their spiritual history, the gospel truths they already understand, their misconceptions, their felt needs, and obstacles that might hinder their turning to the Lord. Listen to them. Build on what God’s Spirit is doing with them. Do not fear their questions. (See Section II.)
7) Fishing evangelism shows you what to pray. None of your effort or expertise can bring anyone to the Lord unless you pray. Hunters can only offer general prayers. Fishers can be specific. You ask God to change Lucho’s concept of him as a severe Judge, and the idea that he may get by if he balances his sins with good deeds. You pray that he will do well on his math exam, and won’t be distracted by the soccer game or his girlfriend, and that Friday’s study on the rich young ruler in Luke 18 will touch his heart. Our prayers free the Holy Spirit to do what he is longing to do for us.
8) Fishing evangelism is wise and discreet. It is not indiscriminate, but selective. You let your light shine for everyone, because it can turn indifferent and hostile people into the interested. You answer their questions, too. But you focus on those whose questions show they are seeking. You take them aside to talk without arousing the opposition of the spiritually hostile people around them. (Evangelism is so risky in non-Christian countries that I will return to this subject later.)
9) Fishing evangelism is versatile. If you do not get a nibble, wait for an appropriate moment and try another kind of bait! There is a right kind of bait for every kind of fish. Many Christians should cultivate broader interests in order to have more in common with non-believers. At least we should be able to ask intelligent questions about current events, business, sports, literature, art, music, TV, etc.
Scripture is versatile, containing a variety of salvation metaphors to help people respond to the Lord–terms like finding him, believing in him, inviting him in, being born again, submitting to him, making a commitment to him. As alienated from God, they can be reconciled to him. As guilty and condemned they can come to the Judge for acquittal. As disobedient children they can beg forgiveness from the loving Father. As lost sheep they can let themselves be found by the seeking Shepherd. As broken people they can be made whole by the Great Physician. As slaves to sin they can let the Redeemer buy them out of the slave market and set them free. As rebels they can change sides and make an unconditional surrender to the King of Kings! Use the metaphors and Bible passages best suited to the seeker’s questions.
In a crowded but quiet hotel elevator in Manila, a well-dressed Filipino man saw my Bible and asked me if I was one of those people who believe Jesus is the Good Shepherd. I said, "Yes–are you one, too?" He said, "No. My brother is. But I value my freedom too much to give it up." So I asked, using his metaphor, "Which lamb has the most freedom–the one near the shepherd’s rod and staff, or the one in the dark alone with the lions and bears?" He said, "You have just put a whole new perspective on the subject!" (A captive elevator audience listened.) I had no time to explain how Jesus can make us truly free (Jn. 8:32). I did not have with me the booklet, Becoming Free. I pray his brother has won him.
10) Fishing evangelism is rightly motivated by a biblical definition. It is not headhunting, chalking up numbers or filling a quota. Evangelism is not even winning people to the Lord, although that is a desired result. Evangelism is joyfully, reverently, tactfully "declaring the glory of God" as we know him from Scripture and personal experience. It is storytelling! It is the purpose for which the church exists (1 Peter 2:9, Psalm 96:3)
A bad definition kept me limping along for years. I feared starting a conversation that would not result in a decision–I could not risk another failure. But this biblical definition freed me to sow and water. God was pleased whenever I spoke of him. Because I was no longer uptight, the interested came to me. Even if I see no response in a listener, I rejoice–God can make my words bear fruit in coming days or weeks–for other Christians to reap.
11) Fishing evangelism is biblical. It is not another gimmick. Both Paul and Peter describe evangelism as answering the questions of the interested.
Listen to Paul in Col. 4:5, 6: "Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of each opportunity. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so you may know how you ought to answer every one." A godly, non-judgmental, attractive lifestyle and tactful, thirst-inducing comments elicit the questions we long to answer.
Listen to Peter in 1 Peter 3:14-16: "Have no fear of them (persecutors), nor be troubled. But in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. (His presence gives courage and wisdom and power!) Always be ready to make a defense (an answer) to any one who asks you the reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear (lifestyle)." According to Peter, what most attracted non-believers? The Christians’ hope! They puzzled over what secret gave the Christians joy and peace and confidence even as they suffered physical persecution, property confiscation and economic discrimination.
In our hectic, anxiety-filled world today, non-believers wonder what hope gives Christians peace and patience in the daily grind of work and the frustrations of life, and peace in spite of future uncertainties.
But fishing evangelism cannot work if no one asks questions. Three reasons they do not ask: a) Too little contact. The Christians ignore non-believers, eating meals and spending free time with each other. b) The interested see nothing different in the believers’ behavior–they gripe like all the rest. c) The interested admire the Christians’ conduct but do not relate it to God because they rarely mention him. Christians must put out bait, in a context they share with outsiders–the neighborhood, workplace, campus or club. This is biblical evangelism.
12) Fishing evangelism leads to evangelistic Bible studies. After a few questions, even if you could answer, say, "I’m not an authority on this subject–I’m still learning about my faith. (You are non-threatening.) But would you like to see what Jesus said?" Pull out a New Testament or Gospel and do a one-on-one study of a few relevant verses. Ask questions and let the seeker find answers in the text. These will raise new questions. Agree when to meet for a longer passage. This kind of study usually grows into weekly encounters with several the interested. (Say investigative Bible study–IBS, because an outsider could be offended or put on guard if you say evangelistic.)
IBS’s are not a new idea. Remember Philip, the social services administrator who fled Saul’s persecution and evangelized in Samaria and the Gaza Strip. He hitchhiked south along the international highway and hooked a ride in the luxurious chariot of a foreign dignitary, who turned out to be the treasurer of Queen Candace of Ethiopia! Philip knew he was an interested person because he was reading aloud from an Isaiah scroll! He got the man to ask him to explain Isaiah 53, then led him in an IBS of this wonderful passage. He helped him to trust in Jesus and then baptized him by a roadside pool!
I have seen more people find God through IBS’s than any other means. It is a patient way to provide the background the interested need to make an intelligent decision. Each one discovers truth as he or she is ready for it. You study gospel narratives. Stories have always been the main conduit for truth, especially in non-Western cultures. Stories link mind, heart and emotions in a way that abstract teaching and linear arguments do not. In the Bible, the gospel stories are the main evangelistic literature. John 20:31 says, "These things were written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ. . . and that you might have life in his name."
Most important, the stories are about Jesus, who is always the shortcut in evangelism. You watch him in action, listen to his words and to the testimony of his friends and enemies. As you stress his humanity–he is tired, hungry, thirsty, sleepy, lonely or sad–his deity stands out in sharp contrast. Ask questions that help participants interact vicariously with him through the characters in the story.
IBS discussions are quite different from the usual Bible study. The majority of the participants should be non-believers. They share more honestly and spontaneously when there is no psychological pressure from a Christian majority. But emphasize the ground rules–to answer the questions from the text–to discover what the passage means, not to exchange religious opinions. This avoids arguments and makes sure the participants will not leave with wrong conclusions. (But note the opinions they present and discuss them privately between studies.)
IBS’s enable you to rejoice as the interested take small steps toward God. Their comments and questions show when you should ask for commitment. It produces converts who are lay evangelists, because the new Christians can immediately win others, as they were won–leading an IBS with a question guide on the gospel stories! In Spain, Marisa had not yet made a verbal commitment herself when she took a page of questions to lead that week’s study with her non-believing father and sister! See GO Paper: Investigative Bible Studies.
13) Fishing evangelism facilitates follow-up, because it quickly leads to an IBS, which not only helps the interested find God, but provides the matrix in which the converts are taught and nurtured. The IBS turns into a DBS–a discipleship Bible study. You also begin new IBS’s, with the converts inviting their friends and leading them to God.
14) Fishing evangelism facilitates church planting, because it quickly leads to an IBS which soon turns into a DBS–and that soon becomes a house church! A larger congregation can be formed if tentmakers bring two or three DBS groups together. But in Muslim countries they may have to wait until the converts learn to trust each other, since they fear infiltration by spies (phony converts) seeking to report them to authorities.
The above 14 benefits of fishing can be experienced in different situations.