Modern electronics have made fishing more exciting and productive than ever. For a few hundred dollars or less, fishers can equip themselves with electronic devices that show on a screen the depth and temperature of the water, the shape of the bottom, the number of fish in the area and at what depth the fish are located.

Fish-finders are fun to use. They remove some of the guess-work involved in fishing. While even the best fish-finders can’t make fish bite, fishers armed with fish-finder information can increase their chances of catching fish. Once they know where the fish are and how deep in the water the fish are swimming, they can match lures, lines and techniques to catch them.



The claim is probably true that “10 percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish.” You can expect those “10 percent” to make good use of fish-finders and the information they provide. Where do we start when we witness to people?

One of the challenges we face in witnessing and evangelism is determining the “depth” of people’s ignorance or knowledge of gospel language, and the “depth” of their involvement in other faiths. Often we think we are communicating the gospel, while in actual fact our listeners do not understand our words nor the biblical ideas behind them. Several years ago, James Engel, an expert on Christian communication, popularized a simple way to illustrate this matter. Please look at the adaptation of “The Engel Scale” (next column).

Some people are recognized as being far from the gospel. They are deeply involved in some other religion, or they are declared atheists, and so they are rated on the scale as being at -8 to -7. At the same time, other people enjoy some awareness of Christianity and some knowledge of the Bible’s message and so they are rated as -6 to -7. When you talk to them you can assume that they know at least a little bit of what you are saying.

Among others who are still unconverted there is a degree of knowledge of specific aspects of the gospel that they are clear about. We can place them on the scale between -5 and -4. Among some of them, a growing sense of the implications of the gospel for them personally and their need for Christ is becoming evident. They are shown on the scale as being at -3 to -2.

Persons who have come to this point need to be called to decision. They have enough understanding of the gospel to make a responsible decision for or against the Lord. When they were still further back on the scale, asking them to receive Christ by faith would not have made sense because they were not ready. But when the time comes, the “hook” must be set and the crucial questions asked.


Proclamation evangelism -8 Hostility to the gospel -7 No awareness of the gospel -6 Awareness -5 Some knowledge of the gospel -4 Knowledge -3 Implications of the gospel seen -2 Sense of personal need -1 Call for decision

Conversion: repentance and faith

Process of discipleship (begins immediately after conversion)

+1 First steps: prayer, Scripture, worship, changes in world view, values, lifestyle +2 Incorporation in the community of believers +3 Witness and service +4 Continual growth

Mistakes Often Made

Engel contends that Christians often make the mistake of addressing any and all listeners as though they were all in the -3 to -1 zone. But the truth is that large numbers of people are not at all prepared to understand the gospel’s claims or to respond to the invitation to turn away from their old religious commitments and trust Christ alone for salvation. This mistake results in many failures and disappointments in evangelism.

In countries where the Scriptures have been widely circulated and gospel proclamation has gone on for a long time, there is an assumption that almost everyone understands the essentials of the gospel. But that is not true. Many important biblical words and ideas are almost totally misunderstood. You cannot expect people who seldom, if ever, attend church to know Bible stories and understand religious vocabulary.

The wonderful Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace,” is sung in many places. But how many who enjoy the song show by their lives that they know what it means? Americans may describe themselves as “born again,” but when you examine their moral values and lifestyle you don’t find much evidence of regeneration.

The very idea of who God is remains a muddle in the minds of many of our neighbors. Only a minority know or remember what the Bible teaches about the nature of God, or about Jesus Christ being God’s Son who came to earth to save us from sin. They would be hard pressed to explain how lost we are apart from the Holy Spirit’s regenerating work, and how our only hope rests on God’s unmerited grace.

Talk to the average person in the West about spiritual matters, and you will find that most of them assume they have a better than average chance to go to heaven. In their minds, going to heaven has nothing to do with repenting from sin and submitting yourself, body and soul, to Christ, your Redeemer and Lord. They are not yet even at -3 or -2 on the Engel Scale, and your proclamation of the gospel may still fall on deaf ears. They are not yet “seekers” after Christ and salvation.

Obstacles of a Different Kind

Just as ignorance and confusion are serious obstacles to the effective communication of the gospel in Western society, obstacles of a different kind are found in places where the majority of people adhere to radically different religious systems, or to no religion at all. Such people are not only ignorant of Christian teaching, but their minds are steeped in beliefs and traditions that are altogether contrary to Christianity. We must rate them as being -8 to -7 on the scale.

Worst are those who are so bitterly opposed to Christian teaching that they may resort to violence in order to eliminate Christians from the community and put a complete stop to the spread of the gospel. They probably should be rated at -10.

What all this means is that while unbelievers all are alike in their need for spiritual regeneration, they differ greatly so far as their knowledge of Christian teachings, their commitment to non-Christian religions, and their interest in hearing the gospel. Therefore, the wise evangelizer will avoid the mistake of assuming too much, but will tactfully probe to determine where people have arrived in their spiritual journey.

How the Holy Spirit Works

For many years I have conducted my own private research as to the patterns that can be observed in the work of the Holy Spirit as He convicts sinners John 16:8–9) of their need for a Savior and leads them to the point of receiving Christ by faith (John 1:12). After listening to many new followers of Christ, I conclude that the Spirit generally begins His saving work in people years before they consciously embrace Christ by faith. In fact, the Spirit sets the stage for their salvation before they are born.

The stories told by most new disciples are stories of long spiritual journeys full of strange turns and struggles. Many different Christians play roles in the stories, and in some way each one contributes to the outcome. Journeys to faith begin in murky ignorance, sin, and rebellion. Under the Spirit’s direction they eventually lead to the conviction that forgiveness, truth and righteousness are through Jesus Christ alone.

The Holy Spirit always works mysteriously. In the early stages, people are never conscious of what is happening to them. If they are pressed too early to make a decision about the gospel, they may react so negatively that the process is stalled.

People who still are stone deaf to spiritual realities (-8 to -7) need to see and hear the gospel proclaimed in simple language and by kindly deeds. Those in the early stages of spiritual awakening (-6 to -4) need to be told the life-changing truths of the Christian faith, and along with this they need to see Christianity demonstrated in the lives of believers. They ought not be left in the dark! regarding the practical implications of Christian discipleship, including sacrifices that may be required.

When the preparatory factors appear to be in place, the time comes when the evangelizer needs to call forthrightly for people to make a decision for Christ. In the words of Hebrews 3, the evangelizer must say: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart!” In other words, like a skilled fisher, set the hook and keep the line taut! The persuasive proclamation of the claims of Christ upon hearts made ready by the Holy Spirit is an essential role of fishers of men.

Unfortunately, some churches do not teach that persuasion has an important place in evangelism. Such churches cultivate, but they seldom harvest. In their proclamation they address people’s minds, but not their wills. They state the facts of the gospel, but they do not call their hearers to make a conscious decision to repent, receive Christ as Savior and Lord, and follow Him for the remainder of their lives. As a result these churches seldom grow very much through evangelism, and others gather the harvest when it is ready.

Diagnostic Question “Test the Waters”

Wise evangelists tactfully probe to discover the religious knowledge and ideas of the persons to whom they hope to proclaim the gospel. They “test the waters” to discern the spiritual condition of their hearers. They do this by asking questions that shed light on the state and condition of other people’s souls, and they move beyond the questions to a clear and simple proclamation of the gospel. Consider asking the following questions (transitional phrases are suggested in parentheses):

1. Have you ever read the Bible? (I’m excited over what it says about Jesus.)

2. Are you satisfied with your religion, or are you searching for something more? (Let me tell you what I’ve found.)

3. What do you think the song means: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me?” (I can tell you what it means to me.)

4. Do you think God is satisfied with us as we are? (There’s something in the Bible that has made me think hard about that question.)

5. In your opinion, why did Jesus have to die on the cross? (Let me tell you what I’ve heard, and I believe it is true.)

6. Have you asked God to forgive you and give you a new heart and life?

7. Are you in the practice of praying? Would you let me pray for you right now?

In evangelism, we should avoid two mistakes: We should not run ahead of the Holy Spirit by pressing for more response than people are ready to make, nor should we neglect to call for decision when the Spirit has led them to that point.

Foolish fishers jerk the bait out of fishes’ mouths before they have swallowed it well enough to be caught. Others let the fish nibble, nibble and nibble some more, without ever boating fish. Wise fishers of a spiritual kind observe carefully and patiently the Spirit’s operation as He draws, convicts, and illuminates. And then when the right moment comes, with all their strength they persuade sinners to repent and submit their lives to King Jesus.

This article is reprinted from Missionary Monthly, March/2000.

Dr. Roger S. Greenway, Missionary Monthly Associate Editor, has been professor of World Missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI, since 1989. Earlier, he and his Wife, Edna, served as Christian Reformed missionaries to Sri Lanka and Mexico. Greenway has served as pastor and mission administrator and has written numerous mission books and articles.