“Two people just died.”
“And another two people just died.”
“And another two people just died.”
“And you know what?”
“Most of them are going…”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
With this ominous message still reverberating in my ears, I and sixty other fifteen-year-olds, half-panicked at the responsibility of millions of unbelieving souls weighing down on our shoulders, hopped into vans headed for downtown Dayton, Tennessee. Evangelizin’ time.
The speaker had handed out numerous tracts that we could use to witness to people. Not just simple presentations of the gospel, either. No, we had The Atheist Test, and The Million Dollar Bill (This was before thousands of the fake $1,000,000 bills were rounded up by the Secret Service because of legal confusions), and other colorful, unusual ways to “spread the good news”.
One of them featured a number of different optical illusions. The last page showed a strange drawing of a man. “Do you know who this is?” the tract asked.
“If you think you’re not a sinner,” it said, “Turn the picture sideways to see who you are.”
“The other way, genius.”
We had heard stories about something called ‘tact’, but we didn’t hold with such rubbish.
* * *
The bus pulled to a stop and we all piled out in a public park area. “Go and spread the good news!” they told us.
We turned around and saw heathens. SO. MANY. HEATHENS.
The speakers snapped his fingers again. Two more people just died, we all thought.
Someone raised a battle cry of “REDEMPTION!”, and we charged into the fray, two by two. Evangelism must be done in pairs, so the pagans cannot work their wicked ways upon ye.
First, we lost five minutes with one person, only to realize that he was already a Christian! By our speaker’s reckoning, another five or six hundred people were now taking fire and brimstone baths in H-E-Double Hockey Sticks, and we were wasting time trying to cure the healthy!
“Unbelievers!” I cried, and pointed to a likely-looking group. They had piercings and ripped jeans…clearly they were desperate for Jesus’ intervention! But as we ran toward them shouting Bible verses, they turned and fled. Furiously, we shook our fists at Satan, who clearly had a hand in these proceedings.
Our next encounter, a theological discussion with a hot-dog vendor, was not much more successful. However, we did convince him that his personal philosophy logically led to the conclusion that missionaries send people to Hell. Don’t try to solve the problem of pluralism in three minutes or less.
The last person we met was sitting on a bench. And by sitting, I mean that he probably slept there as well. Drugs or drink had a firm hold on his mental state, and he sat there, staring with rapt attention at one of the optical illusion tracts that our group had been handing out.
“What did you think of what the tract said?” we asked.
He turned to us with his pupils dilated wide as dinner plates, and said, “Yeah, man, it’s all true. Heaven and Hell, it’s all the same thing. Life’s nothing but an illusion.“
* * *
Joking and slight exaggeration aside, all the parts of that story actually happen: the finger-snapping speaker, the god-awful tracts, and the various awkward encounters in the park. Despite being much younger then, I still look back on that day with embarrassment.
As Christians, we often do a shoddy job of telling other people about what we believe. We approach people as spiritual salesmen, showcasing faith with eye-catching gimmicks and using every trick of propaganda we can come up with. And if we can’t close the sale in a couple minutes, it’s time to cut our losses and move on to the next customer.
It’s not as if we personally have anything to gain by convincing someone else to become a Christian. So why do we take such an consumer-centric approach?
Fear is a powerful motivator, and one that has pervaded Christian doctrine and practices. Many of us first choose to become Christians because we are afraid of going to Hell. We follow the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the teachings of Jesus because, in some way, we fear we will be punished if we don’t. And we evangelize like television ads because we feel that we are somehow responsible for the salvation of others.
The problem is, fear is a paralytic.
Fear does not encourage bold, ambitious action. Fear recommends a cautious course: plan everything to the minutest detail, be ready to cut and run if something goes awry, and never get too close to anything or anybody.
I’m a very fearful person. Perhaps not of hurricanes or snakes or madmen with guns…but I have many fears, ones that are easier to hide.
I fear failure. I fear being wrong. I fear being ridiculed and mocked. I’m afraid of the person I could become, and I’m afraid of being abandoned and alone for the rest of my life. I worry that most of my friends don’t actually like me, and are just too polite to say anything…that I’ll be gradually ignored and forgotten until I disappear from everyone’s plane of view.
And house centipedes. Those things are frickin’ terrifying.
But perhaps most of all, I fear rejection, and in almost equal measure, commitment.
It can be difficult to fully commit to a friendship when you know that you must, at some point, part ways. It’s easy to only open up halfway with them–to share some things, but not everything. The more you share, the more it hurts when you are separated. And for Christians who are friends with non-Christians, there is often a fear that the separation will be permanent.
1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.”
Mark Schultz wrote a song a few years ago called What It Means To Be Loved, a song which exemplifies this kind of love. It tells a story about a couple who find out that their unborn child has a birth defect that may keep it from living more than a year. When asked what they want to do, the mother replies, “I want to give her the world, I want to hold her hand. I want to be her mom for as long as I can. And I want to live every moment until that day comes. I want to show her what it means to be loved.”
I encourage you to love without fear. Give of yourself. Trust people who may disappear forever.
Evangelism doesn’t happen in five minutes. It doesn’t happen through manipulation, propaganda, or gospel tracts. It happens through demonstrating Christ-like love with reckless abandon, regardless of whether or not the recipients seem inclined to follow the same faith. Evangelism is friendship without strings.
Good luck, and God bless.