August 8, 2012

Evangelism FIFO Style

We’ve all heard that Western Australia (and Queensland) is running at a two-speed economy.  The plodding garden-variety “drive to work and do the job” economy is being propped up by the mining boom and the Fly-In-Fly-Out (FIFO) economy of what is now known as “fluorescent-collar” workers. (see pic at right – Ed)

Church planting in Australia desperately needs a bunch of FIFO fluorescent-collar workers. What do I mean by that? Well, I am coming to the conclusion that while the    church plants have trained people well in the art of “long-term, low-key, relational” -(LT/LK/R) – evangelism, it’s simply not going to cover enough ground quickly enough. We need high-speed, manoeuvrable, succinct, relationship-lite evangelism too (and yes, I do mean knocking doors!).

Two things tell me this. First, simple maths! You will not grow a church plant simply with  LT/LK/R.  Give it a few years and find out.  Many churches in Oz are planted with that aim, but three years on, faced with little fruit, find themselves importing Christians to bolster the ranks.  While it is a most attractive way to evangelise (and it IS “attractional”, no matter what the plethora of new books with “church” in their titles say), it is incredibly slow, and it relies on your willingness to accept the risk of losing a friendship for the sake of the message: a friendship you have built up slowly over time.

Secondly, anecdotally and experientially I am yet to see it bear much fruit. Let me give you an example. Much has been made of the “school gate” conversations people have, and how these can lead to fruitful conversations and possibly conversions.  The difficulty in this is more evident to me in a lower-socio economic area – such as where live – than in some of the inner urban middle-class enclaves.  Being friendly at the school gate in middle class areas is about up-bringing.  It is about understanding the social conventions of polite conversations and being seen to be an interested – and interesting – person. Conversations can continue for years, but never get below the surface.  At our local school (a great school BTW), if someone is not interested in you they won’t engage you in polite conversation, they simply won’t engage you! Jill and I are no longer surprised at being ignored by someone when we say hello to them. We see it as rude: they see it as getting on with life and not wasting time with for the sake of our social conventions. For us, at the moment at least, the school gate seems firmly shut.

(I would be interested in your feedback on this issue in particular. Perhaps your experiences are different).

So, from my experience, here are some of the benefits of the FIFO evangelism. There are plenty more, but here is half a dozen for starters: 

1. Impersonal: Sounds harsh, but you really know that it is the gospel that smells and not you, when you come up against strong reactions doing door to door.

2. Variety:  LT/LK/R – because it fits the patterns of our lives – usually means that we meet people pretty much like us.  That’s why church plants with lots of kids end up with even more kids! It is a great fit for busy lives, but everyone we connect with seems just as busy.  FIFO evangelism gets you across a wider spectrum of ages, experiences and sub-groups than you could imagine. There are plenty of lonely, listless people out there with little in the way of friendship. The parable of the Great Feast in Luke 14 is a great example. 

3. Flexible: Why do I no longer play soccer and why do I run instead? Because I can run pretty much any time. Soccer is on a certain day with a certain bunch and requires two nights training. With the start-up of a 24/7 gym in our area flexibility is pretty much a requirement.  If we have time we can “do” a street in an hour, meet 30 people and have two good conversations. 

4. Scary: I never feel less than scared doing door-to-door, but that’s ok because it throws me back onto Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, not my winning personality and our ability to throw a good dinner party.

5. Impersonal: It’s NOT relational – well, not to any great extent.  When a LT/LK/R person pulls away because of the gospel it can be a bit of a blow, especially if you had a lot invested in it.  The test then becomes whether your friendship can survive this, and how they will react to it cooling off or at least becoming less important on your radar.  FIFO door-to-door forms a certain robustness in you, that over time, muscles you up to the fact that you are simply a messenger and steward of someone else’s message.  

6. The Filter Effect: The benefits of the FIFO economy are said to filter into the rest of it (although so do the problems – Ed). A strange thing happened when we started pushing FIFO evangelism.  A husband and wife were converted through a more relational approach! Perhaps there is a spiritual principle here – perhaps not. But we decided to take a deep breath and do a hard thing and God did an amazing thing.

In conclusion I am not going to universalise our experience, – there’s no book coming out about this. But maybe that’s my point. We’ve read so many “post-Christendom” books that we dismiss FIFO out of hand. But we actually need a TWO speed economy, because it covers all the bases. Let’s not land on an evangelistic strategy simply based on a bad historical experience of FIFO, a perception it treats people as numbers, or because we think it will be received badly.

And so to today’s gospel reading: “A sower went out to sow….

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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