Because I enjoy the finer things in life, I ran into Dollar Tree the other day to grab a few bottles of shower gel. The store is a bright, stale-plastic-smelling establishment specializing in glow bracelets, “chocolatey” Easter candy, and knock-off pregnancy tests. (Why didn’t they carry those during my childbearing years?) While it’s preferable to the more staidly dismal Dollar General, it’s certainly not a place for spiritual awakening.
The young man at the checkout, who probably had already swiped several dozen last-minute gift bags across the scanner by this point in the day, smiled warmly at a sixtyish woman standing in line in front of me.
“Are you having a good day?”
“Why, yes!” she beamed, unfolding a few bills from her coin purse. She thought a bit. “You’re so friendly to everyone here. I really like that.”
“Well,” he said, looking up shyly, “I just like to treat people the way I would like to be treated.”
The woman brightened immediately. “You know, the Gospel of John says Jesus even lays his life down for his friends. And he says we are his friends if we do what he commands.”
My eyes caught his, and in a microsecond, everything was said: I was trying to be nice. I didn’t mean to bring Jesus into it. I’m trapped and embarrassed you’re hearing it too.
But the woman was my sister in Christ (right?), risking her comfort to share the Word. Awkwardness, camaraderie and frustration hit me all at once, and I did the only thing I could to save myself from rejecting my Lord and Savior in public: flash a quick thumbs-up and weak smile that neither of them saw.
She continued, “Whatever you ask in his name…”
“Your total is $6.48,” the young man broke in.
The woman stopped talking, cleared her throat, and gave him exact change.
I understood them both. She took the opportunity to share scripture, obedient to her understanding of God’s call. The young man resisted a brash approach that implied it was acceptable to share beliefs without solicitation. Some would assume the woman is a narrow-minded busybody. Some would assume the young man just needs to “soften his heart.” Most likely, she’s a kind lady with bad timing and he’s a tired kid who just wants to do his job without such personal annoyances.
Evangelicals, especially those who came of age between the 70s and 90s, grew up with the burden of “sharing the gospel” in particular ways. We may have learned how to recite the Four Spiritual Laws, draw a bridge diagram on a napkin, or share our testimony in three minutes or less. After becoming a Christian as a teenager—I indeed “prayed the prayer,” and it stuck—I began attending a fundamentalist church.
My first summer there, I learned how to fingertip-measure the acceptable length for shorts and go door to door with Bibles. It was terrifying, but Romans told me not to be ashamed of the gospel. Telling strangers about Christ was a risk I had to take, slammed doors or not, and if I didn’t like it, all I had to remember were the early believers getting whipped in prison or Christians in communist countries huddling beneath floorboards.
But the reality is that “cold call” evangelism rarely works. Even if Paul spoke to a crowd at Areopagus. Even if the Spirit seems to direct us to the street corners.
We’ve broken trust. The stranger sharing verses out of relational context carries the baggage of flame-painted signs, vitriolic anti-gay rhetoric, and all manner of extreme biblical literalism. Even the compassionate, open-minded believer has taken on the sins of the fathers and can get only so far. “That’s not our fault,” we may say. “Truth is truth.” But what good is the truth if no one actually hears it?I know that the Spirit can speak through anyone, that the Word has the power to heal. I also know that it is impossible for me to judge the inner workings of another person’s soul. Maybe the young man went home, thought about Christ laying down his life, and experienced a sense of hope. But on this day, the Dollar Store didn’t seem to be the right time or place. In fact, I suspect the woman’s cash register preaching worked in reverse.
Because of these complications, many Christians don’t believe in practicing an intentional act of “evangelism.” But what if you do believe that witnessing is an important part of the Christian life, even your spiritual gift or ministry?
When I left for college and became involved with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, I learned about a more personal, relational evangelism. I read Rebecca Manley Pippert’s book Out of the Saltshaker and Into the World with relief: I could reach others for Christ by making friends with them and looking for opportunities to share. I didn’t have to talk to strangers. After college, I took courses that taught me how to communicate the gospel naturally (or so the books claimed) to a variety of personalities.
While I appreciated the more personal focus in these approaches, the end result was always the same: get them to pray the “sinner’s prayer” to accept Christ as savior. I led investigative Bible studies in my dorm room in order to convince people to make that decision.
I’m not discounting the potential power of these prayers. When I prayed with my sister in high school, I didn’t quite understand everything, but I meant the words. It was the beginning of my faith journey, though not the finish line that so many of us once believed it to be. I began to watch people repeat these words, almost like a magic spell, without changing their lives, and, truth be told, lost motivation to participate.
But if we don’t share the love of God, who will? If I can’t confess Jesus at a discount store amidst Mentos and Wiffle balls, can I stand before the swords of ISIS?
Maybe we don’t need to worry so much about sharing. Or, more likely, we should do first things first. Paul told the Philippians that if they did all things “without grumbling or disputing,” they would shine like stars amidst a crooked generation.
I’m wondering what would happen if evangelicals from my generation were trained in solving conflict as much as in describing their testimonies. Or if we took courses on caring about the poor and marginalized, focusing more on their rights than protecting our own. Maybe after doing so, just maybe, we’d earn a little more cred to chat Bible in the checkout line and, as a natural result, not feel so awkward doing it. Perhaps we would rarely even have to say a word.
Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky (Cascade Poiema Series), A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was recently released by T.S. Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Books & Culture, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011.
Photograph above by Taber Andrew Bain, used under a Creative Commons license.