An older woman pulled up behind me the other morning as I was pumping gas. She got out, walked straight over with her Bible in her hand, and said she had a verse for me. I smiled, patient. She read Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
“Now, which of those excites you the most? No more death? No more tears? No more pain?” she asked.
“Uhh . . .” I wasn’t sure which answer she thought would be the right one, and it was 7:00 a.m., and I hadn’t had any coffee yet, so I said, “No more tears, I guess.”
“Oh, really? Why’s that?” she said, digging in her purse.
“I don’t know.” Maybe because I have overactive tear ducts. “No, no, no,” I said then, hurriedly, as she tried to hand me a pamphlet. “You can keep your brochure. I’m already a Christian. I am a follower of Christ.” A card-carrying member, lady. For going on fifteen years. Couldn’t you tell? Don’t I have that shiny Christian light in the eyes? “But thanks.”
“Oh,” she said. She walked away, rather dejectedly it seemed to me, got into her car, and drove off. Without pumping gas.
I used to hand out tracts with candy at Halloween. I sat on my front porch with our redbone coonhound dressed up like Scooby Doo and passed out handmade messages about Jesus’s love and God’s plan for your future. I wasn’t going to be one of those people who hand out a slip of paper with no candy, so I think I taped the cards to oversized candy bars. Jesus PLUS diabetes.
I looked for any opportunity to conquer the world for Jesus. I had a bumper sticker that said Every Tribe, Every Tongue, Every Nation. I wore Jesus-themed T-shirts (they will know we are Christians by our T-shirts…). I had a Bible verse in my signature line, something inspirational and evangelical. I don’t remember what now, specifically, but it was clever, I tell you.
I even thought about getting one of those fishes.
I don’t know what happened, exactly, but over time that knee-jerk impulse to save the world one Bible tract at a time faded away into the land of evangelical gimmicks I could no longer stomach. I didn’t want to hand out pieces of paper. I wanted to connect to people.
These days I am skeptical of most street-side, chance-encounter, walking-billboard evangelism. It feels hokey. It feels intrusive. It feels accusatory. Often it lacks theological accuracy or has adopted a very narrow viewpoint of Scripture. It snags one verse and hangs all of God on it. While it’s supposed to draw people to Jesus, it seems to accomplish the opposite. It screams, it threatens eternity in hell, it makes all kinds of assumptions about the people walking by, it shames, it isolates, it excludes. Maybe it’s meant to start a conversation, and maybe sometimes it does. But mostly it makes me uncomfortable.
I think it’s the fervor to convert that triggers my resistance, as if the evangelist has a tally sheet of the people she’s led through the Sinner’s Prayer, and filling up that card is her only motivation, not whether I have any peace or feel any sense of God’s love in my life. When I think about the moments of influence that led me to Christ, not a single one was a chance encounter with a stranger who had a placard or a tract or a verse to read me by the roadside. Those moments of deep growth were intimate conversations with one or two other people, or alone, when the Holy Spirit swayed or quaked or whispered, and nothing was ever the same again.
I think I disappointed the woman at the pump. As a fellow sister in Christ, she disappointed me too.
I went to Key West in 2010 for a literary event. After long and full days of extroverted mingling, the introvert in me was feeling both spiritually and emotionally worn down. On one of the last days, I woke before dawn to take my Bible and my Beth Moore study down to the ocean and watch the sunrise. Also, I needed to charge my cell phone and only had a car charger with me.
After working through the latest lesson on David, I closed my Bible and decided to walk out onto the boardwalk a bit to get a better view of the rising sun. It was a magnificent sunrise after a week of record lows in the Keys. The study of David had made my heart do that swelling thing, where it grows so big that it somehow presses against my tear ducts. My overactive tear ducts.
As I approached the walkway, I saw a man standing there with a giant cross. Oh great, I thought. I almost turned around due to my aforementioned frustrations with random encounters with street corner preachers.
“Good morning,” I said.
“Sure is!” he said with a smile. He said something about the Lord and the sunrise and how he went out there every day because Jesus told him to. I told him I was a believer, and at this his eyes welled up. “Oh Lord, I thought so. I knew there was a reason God dragged me out here this morning!” My eyes welled up too. We talked for ninety minutes.
His faith encouraged me. My faith encouraged him.
So it isn’t the random calling we might feel to speak the words of Christ to people we don’t know that makes me uncomfortable. It’s the spirit of the thing. It’s the heavy handedness of it. It’s the way people are viewed as one-dimensional, needing to be “saved” and handed over to Jesus, and once that’s done, they can be checked off the list. With this form of evangelism in mind, I can deliver my message and then get in my car, drive away without pumping any gas, and feel like I’ve made a difference. Check. Got my witnessing in for the day.
That kind of evangelism removes the weight of love and reduces Jesus to a ticket stub.
And yet, God’s word is a fire in my bones. I can’t help but speak. I’m blogging here, after all, talking about God and love and mercy and forgiveness, for Christ’s sake. As David James Duncan writes in God Laughs & Plays, “Insofar as I believe Jesus is the bee’s knees, and insofar as I speak words that could be seen as spreading the spiritual intent of the gospels, I must confess, with ‘fear and trembling,’ that I am (gulp!) evangelical.”
He continues, “Evangelism as embodied by Jesus does not remotely suggest the close-minded zeal of proselytizers claiming that only their interpretation of scripture prevents eternal punishments and pays eternal rewards: it implies, on the contrary, the kind of all-embracing love evident in Mother Teresa’s prayer, ‘May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.’ Not just her fellow nuns, Catholics, Calcuttans, potential converts. The whole world…I have seen the whole world fall into a few hearts, and nothing has ever struck me as more beautiful.”
I still do not feel called to pull up behind another car and read a random verse of Scripture to the woman in the business suit pumping her gas. I don’t know that I ever will feel that pull. I am compelled to tell you about Jesus and God’s love, nonetheless. I want to have my heart so completely broken that the whole world falls in, that I can’t help but to see, really see people, and love.
And with any luck, they will know we are Christians by our love.