Fish Fry Evangelism: A New Yorker Deep in the Heart of Texas

One Friday afternoon I joined a group of men from my church on an evangelism road trip.  We accompanied our pastor, Brother Jim, to a large church in North Texas where he was to preach the gospel of salvation to a men’s group.  Now this wasn’t just any men’s group.  The event was the annual area fish fry and it was by all reckoning at least the 20th year they’ve held it.  It was sponsored by a group called the Fishers of Men.  I met the founder, a spry 82 year-old who actively ministers weekly at a halfway house and almost daily at the local Wal-mart.  The Fishers of Men annual event centers on a huge buffet of fried foods:  fish, shrimp, hush puppies and French fries.  Men come from a host of area churches.  What they have in common is a certain attachment to a church community and a large attachment to the fishing community.  Needless to say there were lots of Bass fishing garb—hats, shirts, etc.  I had had a tough time figuring out what to wear.  Despite living in Texas for seven years, I do not own cowboy boots or 10-gallon hat.  I wisely chose my best Johnny Cash outfit—all black.  I figured Johnny Cash would fit in anywhere country music might be heard!  The pre-meal conversation I eavesdropped on offered lots of references to various fishing spots—nearby lakes whose names I didn’t recognize  where all kinds of piscatorial wonders live, breed and try but seem to always fail to elude dedicated Texas anglers.  Being a big city boy I found this all quite anthropological.  It was like witnessing a tribe of some remote outback region –replete with a culture centered on interaction with nature, search for food (here in the form of fish) and the male bonding that hunter-gatherers act out in dress, language, ritual and celebration.

 Pardon the digression.  Back to the fish fry revival meeting itself.  The buffet line dissolved, the men seated and eating, and the host got up on stage to introduce the evening’s program and we began.  The large gym had about 50 tables and seated about 300 men.  The sound system was barely adequate—a hand held microphone boomed through the gym’s loudspeakers and the words ran into and over each other with a thunderous reverb.  Couple the cacophonous sound with the Texas drawl of our MC and I just about needed to ask for a translator.  The first one up on the program was a singer with a guitar who mouthed a spoken song with a Gospel theme.  I have to guess because I really couldn’t follow the story.  The men munching away on the fried feast hardly seemed interested.  There was still a murmur across the room of settling in, and I didn’t get the sense that this group was here for anything more than the food.  I began to worry that our preacher‘s upcoming  address was going to echo in the huge gym and miss all the ears the message was designed to strike.  A glimmer of hope emerged as the next man up on stage, a singer, belted out a magnificent gospel song backed by a pre-recorded CD track.  The guy was really good and with his deliberate pacing and careful phrasing I even understood him.  He got a half-hearted but sincerely offered ovation.

As the MC introduced the main speaker, our pastor, I grew uneasy again.  There was still some buffet line activity, and we could clearly hear the clatter of activity in the kitchen area.  Could they really be cleaning up in the middle of the program?  The backdrop included a cell phone ringing in the kitchen and resultant live rude conversation.  I glanced around and became disheartened.  The looks on the faces of the attendees were less than enthusiastic.  I feared they were ready to go back to eating and talking fishing; certainly anything but listen to a preacher angling to hook them on Jesus.

I sensed a real foreboding that this evangelism effort was doomed to failure for several reasons.  First, we had a room full of fried food-gulping fishing buddies hardly ripe for a sermon from a loud-mouthed (I say that with love) Baptist preacher.  Second, Pastor Jim, who is as passionate and on fire as any preacher you’ll ever see, would be working with a hand-held microphone with a cord flowing behind.  It would be like putting a roaring lion on a leash.  He usually preaches with a wireless headset and can freely pace, wander, and stomp right down amidst the audience.  Third, the sound system was too bassy and loud, and Brother Jim, who had a penchant for getting fired up in the Spirit, tended to yell and whoop and holler.  I feared he would fracture the tweeters and tear the woofers.  Fourth, there was the clatter in the kitchen and the cell phone conversations of somebody who thought he was out of earshot of the gym audience.  All in all, I concluded there would be nary a soul get saved this evening.

Pastor Jim preached a short (in fact, much shorter than what I was used to) focused message:  that Jesus was knocking at the door to each man’s heart.  He knocked through the Spirit, through sorrow, sickness, suffering, supper (the fish fry), and through Scripture—but He was there in that room knocking for us.  Brother Jim proclaimed  the need to open our hearts to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not be fooled into the  inadequacy of belief (in the head) without a complete surrender to Jesus (of the heart), and the fallacy of thinking that a sinners prayer on the lips and a walk down the aisle one day guaranteed a secure salvation.  Brother Jim called for a complete surrender and transformation in Christ.  He talked about famous tombs of the world—the tomb of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, the grave of Audie Murphy in Arlington National Cemetery, the tomb of Mohammed in Mecca.  All are famous for the bodies contained therein.  But one tomb stands out above all others—the tomb of Jesus.  It is famous, not for the body found inside, but for the body not found inside.  The tomb proclaims to the world that Jesus is not to be found there—He is alive!  He is in our midst, and He stands and knocks at our hearts in order to enter in and save us.

All in all it was a powerful, direct assault on the comfort zones of both the natural (unsaved) man and the nominal self-proclaimed Christian who feels smug in his church membership, attendance and a memory of a long-ago forgotten empty sinner’s prayer session.  While the message was spot on, I fretted that the atmosphere and audience were working against him.  The body language and facial expressions of the audience were either blank or even a bit hostile.  They seemed to be saying either “Who cares?” or “Who is this short stranger /preacher questioning my Christian credentials?”  Add it all up – unreceptive crowd, awful sound, the kitchen staff murmuring on the phone – and I wondered, “How can this revival possibly work?”

The climax of the evening came and Brother Jim gave his invitation.  He called on the men to unharden their hearts, proclaim their helplessness before Jesus and surrender to Him then and there.  As we prayed with heads bowed and eyes closed, I was convinced that nobody in that atmosphere would respond.

 To my utter amazement, when Brother Jim asked for all those who had professed Jesus as Lord and Savior to publically proclaim their new faith and raise their hands, I heard his rapid fire cry of “God bless you, sir, God bless you, sir”  echo across the gym.  I lost count as each “God bless you, sir” rang out.  It was an avalanche of souls falling down before the LORD!  In that gymnasium!  With that horrible sound system!  With the cell phone conversations! With the buffet line aromas wafting through!  With the hardened icy faces of these self-professed Christians! 

The men who declared for Jesus and surrendered their lives that night were led outside to be counseled by the home church pastor.  The final tally was 31 men saved.  My skepticism had been fueled by the shortcomings of the human elements of the evangelistic effort. At the end, however, I was overcome by a realization that these conversions, these men being regenerated in that seemingly hostile atmosphere, owed it all to the power of God.  I was humbled and amazed and found myself overwhelmed and in tears as the power of Jesus Christ flooded me and all around me.  I had made a mental list of careful calculations of all the human elements of this fish fry revival and concluded that the event was doomed to failure.  I had forgotten the one essential element of revival and of salvation—the presence of Jesus Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit to convict men of their lost state.  The power of God requires no human props—no sound systems, no great cathedrals, no soaring music.  The Spirit blows where it will.

I was truly astounded at the result.  Pastor Jim and our carload of men knelt on the lawn outside the church and praised God that His power had filled the assembly and touched these men’s hearts.  Brother Jim acknowledged that these men would be like the 10 lepers that Jesus miraculously healed.  Only one of the ten returned to thank Jesus.  But the pastor acknowledged that even if only one were truly saved then our mission was a success.

As I reflect back on that night I can sense both the power of Jesus Christ and the joy of evangelism.  Brother Jim in his long ministry has seen thousands drawn by the Father to His Son through His Word.  There is satisfaction in the successful fishing of men, in the Good News delivered to and received by the lost.  But I sense that the real joy lies in the experience that God directs His perfect and perfecting power to work through imperfect human vessels and reach imperfect men to His glory and our benefit.  It wasn’t the fish fry or the sermon or the fellowship or the witnessing that saved these 31 men—it was the true saving power of Jesus Christ. The tomb is empty. He is alive!

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Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 10:01 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Awesome post Brother Will. You are so right – God can work anywhere, any time, through any adversity!


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