Once upon a time there was a splendid fishing trawler docked at an Atlantic seaport near some of the world’s richest fishing grounds. The large boat was well equipped with everything necessary for netting, landing and preserving fish. Nets were in excellent repair, and the hull gleamed with fresh paint.
Yet the trawler was secured to the dock with heavy lines that were never released, and the powerful engines never roared into life.
On a regular basis the officers and crew gathered for instruction in fishing theory. Afterwards they discussed with zeal and intelligence the various approaches to fishing. Some maintained that the only way to fish was to anchor and pray that the Lord would send the fish into the nets. Several argued for friendship fishing, noting that fish are easily frightened. Others held to the position that it is best to seek out the young ones, before they have opportunity to swim out into the deep.
In the meantime, day after day the other fishing boats went out early in the morning to the fishing grounds and regularly returned at evening loaded down with fish. The officers and crew upon occasion noted the hauls of fish, but shrugged off the matter by saying: “Mostly culls, easy catches of surface fish.”
Yet the trawler was still secured to the dock by heavy lines. The engines never roared into life.
One day a young man was called before the captain and the crew for having questioned the value of caring for equipment that was never used, and doubted whether the instruction in fishing theory had anything to do with fishing. He admitted the truth of the charges. He was challenged, “Do you not understand that you are threatening our whole tradition of fine fishing inherited from the fathers?”
The youth stammered his reply, growing in boldness as he progressed. “You–you are all so much older and wiser than I am. And–you all seem so sure of yourselves. But why do we always sit here tied to the dock?
Do we study fishing theory without going out into the deep and putting down the nets? Why watch others fish and never fish ourselves? Are we really afraid of the great ocean?”
Some officers and men wanted to fire the lad right away on the grounds of a dangerous activism. But cooler heads prevailed. Perhaps things were not altogether in balance. Someone even reported a rumor that at one time the fathers had put out to sea and landed great catches of fish. Therefore it was decided to set up a committee to study the whole matter. So far, there has been no report from the committee, but rumor has it that the committee meets on shore and has not yet been able to come to any conclusions.
This allegory of the fishing trawler is meant to dramatize the problem of passivity concerning evangelism in the typical Reformed congregation. The fishing boat is not going anywhere. It is safe from any storms, but it is also firmly secured to the dock. What is even worse, those in leadership positions have often found the perfect excuse for their failure to deal with the obvious lack of evangelistic urgency in Reformed circles today: it is the committee system. Obviously the committee can never conclude anything because opinions are inevitably divided.
Two words characterize much of our approach to evangelism: risk nothing!
But the Lord of the harvest has been highly explicit. He commands, “Launch forth into the deep, and let your nets down for a draught” (Lu.5:4). He reasons, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men” (Lu.5:l0). Yet often the members of the typical Presbyterian or Reformed church remain immobilized on the shore. At best they are spectators to His ongoing kingdom work.
Unconsciously they prefer an order of church life which poses no dangers, where witnessing is reserved for the uniquely gifted or the specially trained.
At times this passivity frustrates and embarrasses leaders in our theological training institutions, missionary agencies, and local churches. After all, there is something absurd about a fishing boat permanently tied up at a dock. Still, it is an age of Jimmy-Jones style extremism, and we leaders fear being different. Who wants to risk the criticism of his peers? And so leadership remains “tied up in committee,” studying issues “in depth” on a permanent basis.
But this lack of urgency is not the whole story in the Reformed world. Here and there congregations in the Presbyterian tradition are on the move. Occasionally we hear of whole denominations of Presbyterians stirring with new life as in Korea. In the days ahead it is to be hoped that these manifestations of Christ’s life will increasingly embarrass and stir to action those who cling so tightly to the security of the shore.
It is into this particular setting that I wish to speak about our theology of hope and indicate ways that we may together recover strength and the urgency of the gospel proclamation so evident during the Reformation of the sixteenth century. What we want is a recapturing of the daring of our fathers who brought the gospel of pure grace to men in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword.
To accomplish this goal, we need a clearer idea of what constitutes Reformed evangelism.
In this study I am taking the position that Reformed evangelism is simply New Testament evangelism come into its own. I am also persuaded that the unique feature of such a witness is not passivity before the sovereignty of God but boldness or openness marked by urgency.
In seeking to establish and apply this conclusion, we shall consider evangelism from two closely related standpoints.
In the first section we shall look at evangelism as the presentation of the gospel. Here we have in the foreground the action of speaking the good news.
In the second section we shall look at evangelism as a comprehensive enterprise of the church in making disciples. Here what we have in the foreground is the task and of the church in discipling the nations to Christ.
“Launch Forth Into the Deep,” Chapter 1 in “Reformed Evangelism Revisited” by Jack Miller (July 20, 1979).