Is 0.3 Percent Enough?
At last weekend’s Harvest Festival in College Park, Maryland, my friend David Kim gave a lively and colorful presentation titled “Fruitful Fishing and One-to-One Bible Study.” His talk really made me think.
In the middle of the talk, he presented statistics reported by a New York missionary in 2005. At the beginning of the fall semester, 300 students were contacted to see if they would be interested in Bible study. Three students (1.0%) actually came to a Bible study, and one student (0.3%) eventually participated in discipleship training.
Statistics don’t lie, but they can be interpreted in many different ways. Here are two opposing narratives that can be built around that figure of 0.3 percent.
Narrative #1: God rewards discipline, hard work, and dedication. This missionary had to work incredibly hard to raise one disciple. We should work as hard as he did, or even harder, so that God will bless us and so that we too can raise disciples of Jesus.
Narrative #2: Fishing – the practice of contacting complete strangers and inviting them to Bible study – is a difficult way to make disciples in our current environment. Although it may have worked well in other times and places, God is not blessing our fishing and one-to-one ministry right now. Instead of kicking against the goads, perhaps we should step back and prayerfully think about why so few students are responding to our invitation. What might it tell us about our methods? About the culture in which we live? About ourselves and the way we are perceived? About God and how he wants to use the church?
A few years ago, I would have simply accepted Narrative #1 and not allowed myself to consider anything else. But my understanding of Scripture and my personal experiences are now pressing me toward Narrative #2.
My mentors in UBF have always challenged me to put aside cultural presuppositions and preconceived ideas when I study the Bible. So I applied this principle and read through the New Testament to see what it says about church growth in the days of the apostles. I discovered three things.
1. The early church did not grow through intensive fishing, evangelistic outreach and membership drives. In the days immediately following Pentecost, Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship (kononia), breaking of bread, and prayer. They cared for one another’s needs and opened their homes to one another. They were not aggressively trying to bring strangers into the group, but they did meet openly in public where people could see what they were doing. They formed a genuine, loving, welcoming, Christ-centered community. Then the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Ac 2:42-47).
2. The mandate for carrying the gospel to the world in Acts 1:8, which we often call “the world mission command,” is not a command but a promise. Jesus states that his disciples will be empowered by the Holy Spirit, and then they will become his witnesses. The only command that Jesus actually gives in that passage is to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Ac 1:4). The disciples obeyed this command by waiting, joining together constantly in prayer, and working together under the leadership of Peter to heal the relational wounds in their fellowship caused by Judas’ betrayal (Ac 1:12-26).
3. The apostle Paul never counseled an entire church to go out and work hard to evangelize the non-believing world. He did carry out his own personal calling to preach and to teach. He encouraged individuals in the church with similar callings to diligently carry them out. For example, he exhorted Timothy to preach the Word in season and out of season (2Ti 4:2). But in his writings and advice to whole churches, he counseled them to deeply understand and believe a gospel message of salvation through Christ alone (Galatians and Romans); to praise God, purify themselves of sin, solve moral and interpersonal problems, put aside divisions, practice unity, and be conformed to the character of Christ (Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Thessalonians); and so on. The big themes in Paul’s writings are holding fast to the gospel and faithfully being the Body of Christ. Increasing membership through intensive ministry-wide outreach is not found in the writings of Paul nor, to my knowledge, anywhere in the New Testament.
[Am I misreading and mischaracterizing the New Testament here? If so, please take this opportunity to show me where and how I am wrong. I have been wrong many times before. I am eager to hear counterarguments and will publicly correct myself if I am wrong.]
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that evangelism, discipling, sending missionaries, etc. are unbiblical or unnecessary. I believe they are essential and should be carried out in a wise, biblically defensible and culturally appropriate manner by those who have been truly called by God to do them. But Scriptures do not show the early church engaging in intensive, regular fishing to increase their numbers.
Despite this lack of regular fishing, the early church exhibited steady and dramatic growth. Sociologist and historian Rodney Stark (The Rise of Christianity) estimates that Christianity grew by about 40% in each decade during the first three centuries after Christ.
If the early did not aggressively pursue nonbelievers to bring them into the fold, then how did the number of disciples grow?
I believe it was not brought about by human efforts to grow the numbers. Rather, growth in numbers was a byproduct of the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit within the church.
On the day of Pentecost, the crowd’s willingness to listen to Peter was a direct response to their observation of the Spirit’s activity (Ac 2:14-21). In the days after Pentecost, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church was evident in wonders and signs that went far beyond the apostles’ own works and efforts (Ac 2:43).
After 3,000 converts were baptized on Pentecost (Ac 2:41), statistics on numbers of disciples are scarce. Health and vitality in the church seems to be measured not by the numbers of new members, by but by the quality of believers’ character and the inward fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).
Now some of you may object to what I am saying. Here is one possible counterargument: “The fact that fishing was fruitful in earlier days of UBF proves that it is a God-approved method. If we redouble our efforts and vigorously go fishing with absolute faith, then God will bless us once again as he did in the past.”
Perhaps so. But doesn’t that argument put the cart before the horse? In my opinion, it was not fishing (nor any other method) that caused the Holy Spirit to bless UBF and produce fruit in our ministry. Rather, fishing and other activities that took place were a response to the work of the Holy Spirit that was already going on. If today’s UBF members are not fishing, some would call them disobedient and lazy. But perhaps they are simply uninspired. Inspiration (in-Spir[it]-ation) is what the Holy Spirit does.
The Spirit works in different ways at different times. Incorrect notions about him may arise when Christians experience the powerful work of the Spirit in a particular time and place (as in a revival) and then assume that it is normative; they begin to think that this is what the Spirit’s work should look like in other places and times. This is why we need to carefully compare our own experiences with what the Bible says.
This reminds me of a great little video called The Big Red Tractor and the Little Village which is narrated by Christian author and pastor Francis Chan. If you haven’t seen this video yet, I would encourage you to watch it now.
Contacting 300 students to find one disciple seems analogous to what the townspeople were doing when they pushed and pulled the tractor through the field. Perhaps such Herculean efforts are inspired by the Holy Spirit. But from a distance, doesn’t it look like an attempt to do by our own strength, diligence and hard work the things that the Holy Spirit ought to be doing?
At his point in my life, I simply cannot engage in an intensive fishing and discipleship ministry. Working full time, taking care of my family (including two special-needs children) and pastoring a church was already more than I could handle. Through a painful process of acknowledging my failures and limitations, I have been forced to make significant changes to my lifestyle to improve my physical, mental and emotional health. I discovered that I need more time for personal reading, contemplation, and writing. I need to focus on building healthy, loving relationships with my wife, my children, and members of my church and community. I need to spend quality time with God and people whom he has already placed in my life. Intensive fishing at this stage of my life would be unnatural and cause me to burn out. Unlike my wife, I have never been good at it and have always disliked it. For me, it would be sheer drudgery and pain. In fact, I think it would actually be disobedient, because I would be neglecting the personal gifts, talents, opportunities and vision that God has given me and forcing myself to wear clothing that doesn’t fit.
Moreover, at this moment, I cannot in good conscience tell the people in my church that they are required to do it either. Most of the members of Penn State UBF are no longer students. While engaging in busy lives of full-time work, taking care of young children, etc. they are also serving our church in many valuable ways. For example, tomorrow (Saturday) morning they will be gathering at our church building to rake leaves, make building repairs, and so on. They tithe. They practice and perform praise music. They teach the Bible to our children and teenagers. They come to our weekly leaders’ meeting on Thursday night. They maintain good relationships with their neighbors and serve the State College community by participating in service projects and organizations. They are truly good people. I want to love and respect all of them just as they are and give thanks to God for what they are already doing. If they are going to do more, I want them to be motivated by love and personal faith, and not by guilt, relationship pressures, or my own ambitions or expectations. Pushing them to engage in vigorous programs of evangelism and discipleship – especially when I myself cannot do it now — would offend them, and rightly so, because at this stage in their lives God may indeed be calling them to serve him in other ways.
But if members of a church do not want to get back into the trenches and “fight the one-to-one battle,” then aren’t we going to become extinct? If we don’t go fishing, then how could our church ever grow?
Perhaps we can adopt some of the strategies of the early church.
Here are just a few ideas. Perhaps we can focus on building our relationships with God, so that we deeply experience his presence and gain new understanding of how to walk in step with the Holy Spirit rather than supplant him. Perhaps we can build better relationships with one another so that we become a Christ-centered community of love, so that fewer people will leave our ministry, and so that when newcomers stop by they will be strongly attracted by the presence of Christ. Perhaps we can take a long, hard look at the sociocultural and spiritual climate within our church that tends to turn away a very large portion (some 99.7 percent?) of the people we contact, and then make intentional, prayerful, and biblically sound changes that will not drive them away.
And as our current members grow in their love for Christ, perhaps they will see new opportunities to bring Christ into their existing non-church relationships and social networks.
According to Rodney Stark, the early Christians did not create their own institutions, but joined and transformed existing ones: “Social networks grow much faster when they spread through preexisting networks” (The Rise of Christianity, p. 55).
A vivid description of how the early Christians lived is found in an ancient letter (Letter to Diognetus) written about the 2nd century. It says:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life… With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in… And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through… Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country… They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.
For the last three decades, UBF in America has remained a distinct subculture. Our idiosyncrasies, our UBFishness, is displayed powerfully to the world in how we look, speak, and act. In our methods of evangelizing and raising disciples, we have been attempting to draw young Americans out of their natural (often Christian) habitats and into our own idiosyncratic subculture. Our second gens know how to navigate that subculture, but most American students do not; it makes them uncomfortable.
Instead of assuming that it’s okay to sift through massive numbers of students to find the 0.3 percent that can remain among us, perhaps it’s time to stop, reflect upon ourselves, and consider how to reach at least some portion of the other 99.7 percent.
Or we can stay the present course. We can joyfully thank God for our 0.3 percent, train them to do exactly as we do, and send them out fishing to find that next 0.3 percent.
But putting on my statistician’s hat, I need to tell you this. If we stay the present course, the prognosis is not good. I fear that the present course is a road to extinction, because 0.3 percent is not enough.