Shut up & fly the plane

Most media were fairly restrained in covering the weekend’s news that an American Airlines pilot asked Christians to raise their hands and share their faith during a flight from Los Angeles to New York — but some headline-writers had fun with it: “Coffee, Tea or Jesus?” (, “God only knows what this pilot was thinking” (The Winnipeg Sun) and the inevitable “On a wing — and a Prayer” (Herald Sun, Australia). was the first to jump to straight-up mockery: “Come, Fly with Us or Burn in Hell.” I’m eager to learn what Salon’s Ask the Pilot will make of this.

More than one passenger claims pilot Rodger K. Findiesen of Annapolis, Md., said passengers were crazy if they weren’t Christians, though the airline disputes that detail. (The Los Angeles Times identified the pilot by name and sought comment from him.)

Passenger Amanda Nelligan told WCBS-TV that the pilot added, after asking Christians to identify themselves, “Well, you have a choice: You can make this trip worthwhile or you can sit back, relax, read a book or watch a movie.”

When I heard passengers Jen Dorsey and Karla Austin describing the pilot’s words on CNN’s American Morning, I winced. With evangelists like this, who needs enemies?

But I also felt a twinge of empathy for the pilot. He had returned recently from a mission trip to Costa Rica, and apparently carried his post-mission zeal onto American Flight 34. Many evangelical Christians would have to admit to feeling similar impulses, though not as numerically ambitious or favoring the words “you’re crazy.”

Lee Buck, an elder statesman among evangelical Episcopalians, says he once had an airborne conversation with anthropologist Margaret Mead that contributed toward her becoming a Christian.

Presbyterian pastor D. James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion International developed two questions that will be familiar to people on either end of door-to-door evangelism: Do you know for sure that you are going to be with God in Heaven and If God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into My Heaven?,” what would you say?

In a brief article for Campus Crusade for Christ’s Worldwide Challenge magazine, Darcy Larson writes of her regrets about not speaking of God to a Russian family she saw in passing at an airport.

At the more bizarre end of the spectrum is the urban legend that a pastor’s wife led a planeload of people in a prayer of salvation before Alaska Airlines 261 plunged into the Pacific Ocean.

In short, some of us feel regret or even guilt if we fly next to someone and do not at least attempt a conversation that mentions God. We do not feel this same pressure about speaking of God in a restaurant or in a line for a movie. No, there’s something about flying — the adventure, the forced intimacy of sitting next to total strangers, the possibility of a sudden, violent death — that makes us confront our faith anew and ask whether we’re telling enough of our neighbors about the God we worship.

But even as evangelicals, we would find any attempt at compulsory evangelism disturbing. We would resent a pilot turning a commercial flight into a pop quiz on whether we’re ashamed of Jesus. We would cringe at the prospect of treating a fellow passenger as a sales prospect. Although we have spoken of God during flights, and have prayed with people who told us about their crises or fears, we feel no longing for a a conversational jump-start.

Ultimately we know that if the Holy Spirit has led us to a moment for sharing the gospel, like Saint Philip’s speaking with an Ethiopian eunuch, then God will open the doors of circumstance for us. Otherwise, we may very well read a book or watch the in-flight movie.

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  • Cindy

    Great blog. As a news director at a Christian radio station, I’ll definitely be visiting here again!

  • Stacy L. Harp

    I’m telling you I love this BLOG!

    Here’s the deal, I’m not saying the pilot used wisdom in saying what he said, but I think the reactions and the way the liberal media is reporting it is absolutely ridiculous.

    Let’s turn the tables and just ponder what would’ve happened if it was a Muslim pilot and he for whatever reason decided to say the same thing – “If you are a follower of Islam on this plane, please turn to your neighbor and share your faith”

    Do you suppose the liberal media elites would’ve painted this guy as a terrorist and reported on the fear that anyone in their right mind would’ve had if they had a brain – given it was Islamic terrorists that flew planes into the towers – OR – do you think the media would’ve painted the Muslim pilot as someone who was just trying to be a peace maker and offer understanding to the other passengers.

    Seriously….we all know that if it was an Islamic religious zealot who did the same thing as this dear Christian man, he would be glorified, painted as a saint and nothing negative would be reported about him….except maybe on the 700 Club.

  • Michael D. Harmon

    As an ordained minister (deacon) who travels in clericals, the collar and shirt provide their own opening. Last Wednesday, flying back from Florida with my wife, we sat next to a man (placed there by God, I’m certain) who was flying back home from visiting his dying mother and experiencing her passing. While he was a Christian, his mother and his sister (with whom she lived) were not, and he was seeking comfort and prayer, which he might never have asked for until my wife, who was sitting next to him, asked some skillful questions and he saw my collar and sought counsel and aid. Once again, I testify that clerical grab makes a difference — as our Patriarch says, it “makes visible a void” that people can relate to when God seems unapproachable or absent.

  • dw

    A polite yet somewhat clueless altar call from an airline pilot is ten times scarier than a Suthun Babtist preacher giving his best fahr ‘n’ brimstone sermon in the middle of an inferno.

    I have sympathy for the guy; he was doing the right thing at the worst possible time.

    And as for the comment on Islam… if people were scared when a lilywhite Christian pilot got on the intercom, how many of them would survive the stampede to the emergency exits if the pilot asked Muslims to share their faith in Allah on the flight? Think before you spew, my sibling.

  • Joe Perez

    “As evangelicals, we would find any attempt at compulsory evangelism disturbing.” Then we are in agreement on that point at least.

    So any thoughts on how to get evangelicals to stop sending me Jesus-loves-you spam?

    Or how to get them to stop sending a blogger of the pagan persuasion your-goddess-is-satan spam?

    Spam me for Jesus — a dangerous new evangelical trend?

  • Tim Smith

    Ms. Harp — I can’t claim to speak for your “liberal media”, but I can assure you that people would still be freaking out. There’s no need for conspiracy theories, here; the context was entirely inappropriate for any sort of religious statements for reasonably obvious reasons. I don’t see any basis for your assumption that an Islamic man would be treated more gently.

    (I will say that I might understand your post better if I was meant to understand that you actually watch The 700 Club.)

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Joe Perez writes:

    So any thoughts on how to get evangelicals to stop sending me Jesus-loves-you spam? Or how to get them to stop sending a blogger of the pagan persuasion your-goddess-is-satan spam?

    Fair questions, and I must admit some evangelicals are far more persistent — or even obnoxious — than others.

    I have found Spamcop worth every penny. It catches just about any piece of spam, most spammers know better than to waste their time sending to it, and — if they send anyway — it helps you complain to their ISPs.

  • Stacy L. Harp

    Hello Everyone,

    Tim – both you and DW – I appreciate both of your comments to me regarding my post and I see your point.

    It never even occurred to me that people might freak out if a Muslim pilot did the same thing – that makes total sense and I think you’re both probably correct.

    My point was that the media would have made sure to paint the Muslim pilot – given the same situation – with a nice, warm fuzzy paint brush. They would’ve made him a hero and would’ve minimized the ‘terror’ that the passengers would’ve felt.

    I guess what I still do not get is how the media made this Christian pilot out to be someone who terrorizes. That does not make sense given the mandate for Christians – to LOVE, One another and to Love God first. And it’s not like any Christian has hijacked an airplane and flown it into a few towers in order to get to Paradise. That’s my issue -

  • Greg Hines

    What the pilot said arguably was not wise given the circumstances he was in and his position of authority in relation to the passengers and the flight crew. However, given the instant coverage by the media, the knee-jerk reaction of the American Airlines CEO, and the fact that the name of the pilot got out to the mainstream press demonstrates the current state of Christian religion in today’s society. Imagine, if you can, the persecution this pilot is currently receiving on a daily basis and the devestating impact on his life. All because he took a stand, a stand that many us us are not willing to make out of fear.

    Under the name of political correctness, Christianity is under attack. This is a daily occurrence and is becoming more and more in vogue. More people must be willing to take the stripes that Christ took before it’s too late and as Christians we should be willing to stand with others who are willing to make a stand. Yes, counsel them when they overstep boundaries but always stand firm with them.

    Given AAs response and what was written by various press agencies we should be horrified that this incident received as much attention as it did. In terms of current management style, what the pilot did was an incorrect approach yet being Spirit-filled probably had much to do with. Therefore a coaching opportunity presents itself and possibly an apology on the part of the pilot to the people for the method that was employed but not the message itself. Instead this man’s career and possibly life will be ruined because he took a stand.

    I’m a northener living in the south but they have a saying here which is applicable. As Christians we are like the frog in the pot of water being heated on the stove. The frog, being cold-blooded, doesn’t realize that he’s being cooked alive until he’s cooked. As Christians we are in the pot and the heat’s on.

    We need to be willing to make a stand before, like the frog, we become cooked. Remember the letter to the Laodicea Church (Rev. 3:15) – ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot: I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth’.

    The pilot may have been a little too hot but he definitely wasn’t lukewarm!

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