Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Fish In Her Water

Written by: on October 2, 2023

In Oxford, I heard the phrase “a fish doesn’t know it’s in water” referenced at least twice, and it came to mind again as I was reading our assignment for this week. Attributed to Chinese philosophy, this idea of a creature being unaware of their surroundings and somewhat oblivious to its idiosyncrasies strikes a chord for me in reference to this week’s discussion of Evangelicalism. Consequently, I desire more time to dig deeper into this topic. It ties directly into my NPO area of focus, and there is much to unpack. I find myself asking questions about movements that have shaped the forces that are at play in the faith community that I have been a part of my entire life. I want to be able to chart the influences of the churches I see in my travels, and the context in which they were formed. Finally, I want to know the interplay between the practice of faith and the political realities we are in today.

I believe that the better I understand these dynamics, the more effectively in my own faith I can separate what  is contextualized to my culture as opposed to what is really getting me closer to a “friendship with God” or “zoe life” that Trevor Hudson investigates in his work: Seeking God: Finding Another Kind of Life with St. Ignatius and Dallas Willard.[1] As a mother, it is compelling to me that with this better understanding, I can reflect that clarity to my family through the current culture wars we are facing. Furthermore, I can reflect it back to those In my sphere.

In essence, if I can successfully separate what is contextual about by faith from what is essential, then Christ will be at the focus, rather than my culture.

Early in his book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, David Bebbington goes to work in defining Evangelicalism:

“There are the four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion:

  1. Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be changed
  2. Activism: the expression of the gospel in effort
  3. Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible
  4. may be called Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross”[2]

What is compelling to me about this list is that it indicates a set of shared values- which is what we heard Will Foster in our Oxford visit use to define culture. I want to be clear here that I am not challenging the theology of these values. I think they are good, solid, values. But perhaps they are not the only values? Following this thought, I then find myself asking if as a member of an evangelical community, have my values led me to a sort of tunnel vision that then is misapplied to defining a “friendship with God?” Are these qualities required for such a friendship to exist?

Bebbington sets the stage for a set of cultural values that will then flavor the way that we subconsciously approach God. Then, in reading Jason Clark’s dissertation we are moved to consider the inter-connectedness of our relating to God and how we as a church engage with the world. He highlights that this focus on a personal conversion creates a focus on the individual.[3] This personal approach creates a doctrine: I am required to approach Christ directly (and no one gets to dictate to me how to do that), which makes me somewhat of an individual contributor.  I don’t need you to connect to God… it’s all on me.

Obviously, I am overstating this a bit, and if I spoke to my Christian community, they would argue that it is not that simple. and I agree. But I am like the fish that is beginning to feel a bit of the water.  Over the past few years, I have felt a niggling dissatisfaction with aspects of my church life. It has been disruptive, upsetting. As I type these words, I am struck with the fact that when I teach on culture, I use those same words- disruptive and upsetting- to talk about what happens when we mess with culture. Perhaps because of what I have personally experienced in this area, I appreciated reading Jason’s assertion in his dissertation: “I know that I do not want to end up within a post-ecclesial existence, a place that seemingly makes nothing of church and capitulates completely to anomic imaginations for life.”[4] A fish needs her water, after all.

Finally, in my ramblings on this week’s study, I have come to how I might apply my learnings to my NPO. I believe that in scratching the surface of the Evangelical worldview, I am starting to craft a strategy for guiding my ability to help Christians who are seeking a “friendship with God” to have meaningful conversations with others in areas of disagreement.  I am looking forward to uncovering more.


[1] Hudson, Trevor. Seeking God: Finding Another Kind of Life with St. Ignatius and Dallas Willard. 1st ed. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing Group, 2022.  Special thanks to Pam Lau for connecting me to this work.

[2] Bebbington, David. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain : a History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Routledge, 1993, p3.

[3] Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” n.d., 65.

[4] Clark, 8.

About the Author

Jennifer Vernam

8 responses to “A Fish In Her Water”

  1. Travis Vaughn says:

    From a leadership standpoint, and maybe this isn’t the right question….but I wonder how the pursuit of our “friendship with God” and the importance of hearing from others for our own formation involves listening to and coming alongside / embracing solidarity with those who are marginalized within disagreements among Christians vs. taking a neutral posture to give equal space for “opposing” ends in a disagreement? Wow, that was a long sentence. I’m thinking about this question, as today I had a conversation with a pastor in our denomination who doesn’t believe that pastors in our denomination actually want to have a conversation — a conversation about some topics in which there is great disagreement. I thought to myself — how much do I promote the importance of having these conversations where we disagree while at the same time (possibly) arguing for a particular position? I’m still processing this. I think your findings as your NPO comes together will be a huge help.

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      First, I would like to say that I chuckled as I read YOUR post and noted that we both connected with the fish analogy! You know what they say about great minds!

      Second, this focus on individualism has been a slow-motion revelation for me over the past several months and I am still wrestling with it. And, I think that the reluctance to have a meaningful but difficult conversation is one of a few symptoms we can point to that show the nature of the problem. Do you think that this Evangelical focus on individual conversion could use some reframing? Or, am I over-analyzing it?

  2. mm Kim Sanford says:

    I really appreciate these reflections on fish, water and culture (and who knew that fish-water metaphor came from Chinese philosophy? Nothing new under the sun, I guess.)

    My question for you is this: I know you travel quite a bit. Do you have the opportunity to worship in evangelical churches in a variety of cultures? Or interact with evangelicals around the world? I’d be curious if that has helped you identify any values or practices that might seem “Christian” but are actually cultural?

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      I am not sure that I have THAT much experience in fellowshipping with evangelicals from varying cultures, especially compared to you! Your question did make me think of a recent experience this summer where I was able to fellowship with believers from all over the Globe. I was intrigued to notice that issues and controversies around gender, reproductive rights and diversity did not come up whereas in more westernized venues, it seems to inevitably surface. Not sure what to do with that little tidbit…

  3. mm Tim Clark says:

    “If I can successfully separate what is contextual about by faith from what is essential, then Christ will be at the focus, rather than my culture”

    I loved the statement “a fish needs her water”. I’ve always thought of the ‘fish doesn’t know it’s in water’ analogy as a dig on the fish, but the reality is a fish is created to live in the water.

    If we can learn to recognize the water and differentiate it from ourselves, we can still live and thrive in it. That’s why I posted your quote at the beginning of this reply. I think we can separate context from faith, but understand that the context will still be a part of it.

  4. mm John Fehlen says:

    I remember first hearing the analogy of a “fish in water” from a 2005 graduating speech that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College. His speech went on to be one of his most read pieces.

    He told the parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

    Martyn Pearcy, in his new book “Others” said, “Like the fish in water, it takes a creative energy, curiosity and even some dissent to begin to open the frames of reference and social constructions of reality that unconsciously or consciously govern paradigms of living. Until they are called out, they remain utterly pervasive, and can be patronising, paternalistic, problematic and oppressive. Being an other’ (or another) is costly: just ask anyone else who is.” (pg. 48).

    Some times, as we swim in the waters of evangelicalism, we need to approach is with a “what the hell is water” mindset. A mindset of dissent. Questioning established constructs and pushing against long-time held understandings.

    I appreciated how your post does that, Jennifer!

  5. Esther Edwards says:

    I so enjoyed your post and the thread of comments. I thought of you as I read Bebbington wondering how this might fuel your NPO. The need for conversation around so many crucial points is challenging the church on many levels. Using the analogy again of a fish in water…when the water gets murky and in need of change, what is needed to bring clarity and change when the fish are oblivious?
    I will be interested to see how your NPO and its design phase unfold. Your personal narrative, curiosity, and research infused with God’s guidance and insight…so needed.

  6. mm Russell Chun says:


    You wrote, “Finally, I want to know the interplay between the practice of faith and the political realities we are in today.”

    I harken back to Walkers brief comment (I am sure he could have said more) on “Holy violence.”

    In the face of evil (i.e. Hitler) I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In the face of Putin…hmmm…who is our Bonhoeffer?

    How will the practices of our faith respond to the Ukrainian conflict? Our responses to the new Israeli war?

    I think Jonita asked, “who is our neighbor?” I thought about it for a while, anyone who has a need is my neighbor. Those who wish to harm others in a grasp for power are my enemies.

    Cut from a simpler cloth I added scripture to the “Quad” and called it good.

    • Crucicentrism (or Christocentrism) – Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” & Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” & Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
    • Conversionism – Romans 10:9: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” & Romans 10:13: “For ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'”
    • Biblicism – 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
    • Activism – Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”


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