You know you’ve been there—you’re sitting on the train or in an airplane (or perhaps in a waiting room or at a park) and you find yourself briefly in conversation with a stranger nearby. So you make smalltalk. Jerry Root, an evangelical professor, wants his readers to turn this smalltalk into evangelization.
Root’s call to everyday evangelism is in itself is perhaps not surprising—after all, evangelicals have long placed significant emphasis on evangelism—but his detailed discussion of this process is striking nonetheless. Root tells his evangelical audience that when strangers share bits of information about their lives while making smalltalk they are “giving permission” for them to keep asking questions in an effort to pry into their spiritual state and, ultimately, evangelize them.
We do not take Jesus to anyone. He is already present, at some level, in everyone’s life.
How could it not be so given the omnipresence of God? Furthermore, because He is a God of love, He is near every person you meet, loving and wooing him or her.
We do not go to bring Jesus to anyone; instead, we go to make explicit what He is already doing implicitly.
Jesus Himself said, “The fields are white unto harvest.” The problem is not that people will not respond to Christ, but rather that Christians seem unwilling to go. How can we enter into the work that God is doing already?
I think we can begin by asking more ‘public’ questions: What is your name? Are you from here? Listen to the answers, and in those answers come permission to ask new questions based on the information that is given. Let me share a few examples.
There is a certain logic to this.
Say you’re at a highway rest area watching your children tear across the grass in the picnic area and there’s another parent watching their kids do the same five feet away—you might ask where they’re traveling. Or if you’re sitting at a park by another parent and your children are interacting on the play equipment, you might ask the other parent where their kids go to school. In either case, a longer answer likely does signal a desire to chat further while a shorter answer signals a lack of interest.
But there’s a big difference between being up comparing destinations or talking about your children’s schools, and being up for being evangelized—a very big difference.
What would this look like? Root explains:
Not long ago, circumstances put me alongside a man in Chicago. I asked him, “What’s your name?” He answered, “Peter.” I asked, “Peter, are you from Chicago?”
These were public questions, unthreatening and neighborly.
Yes, except that they were a fishing exercise. These questions are ordinary and innocuous when asked in an ordinary and innocuous manner, which this isn’t.
This is lead-up to a sales pitch.
Under my breath, I whispered a prayer for Peter that I might enter into God’s love for him and that I might listen well. Peter said, “No, I was born and raised in Albuquerque, but when I was 12, my parents divorced and I moved to Chicago with my mother.”
Peter did not have to confide all of that to me. He could have said, “I grew up in Albuquerque and moved to Chicago when I was 12.” That would have given me plenty of information and with it, permission to inquire further along the lines he disclosed.
If he would have said nothing about the divorce, I would have had enough to ask, “Wow, how was that to move across the country when you were on the very threshold of adolescence, leaving behind the secure environment of your boyhood friends and familiar haunts?”
That would have been plenty to open up the conversation on non-threatening lines, going deep with each answer in the hopes of discovering where God was already tugging in Peter’s heart.
But he told me he moved when his parents divorced.
This just feels so predatory. It’s as though the only reason Root cares to ask any questions or talk to Peter at all is to find an angle, a hook or opening to share the gospel with an eye toward conversion. It’s treating other human beings not as fellow human beings but as targets.
Root’s approach reminds me of the “pick-up artist” phenomenon. Pick-up artists treat women as targets and approach their interaction with women as such. Like Root, they look for an angle or opening, and like Root, they look for ways to turn ordinary smalltalk into an opening for a sales pitch. Root wants to convert his targets, while pick-up artists want to bed them, but the framework is similar on a fundamental level.
Locate target. Find opening. Make pitch.
Root goes on, writing further about his conversation with Peter:
In time, he told me that he struggled with bitterness towards his father and he didn’t like what that was doing to his own outlook and attitudes.
I began to see where God was wooing him and eventually interjected, “The power to forgive in order to untether from past wounds and sorrows is a precious commodity.” Peter agreed, and asked, “Yes, but how can we do it?”
It was at that point in the conversation that he gave me permission to discuss where the power to forgive comes from. In fact, the conversation opened up and I was able to share the gospel with ears not merely willing, but eager to listen.
Root does not say that Peter was converted. Root claims Peter was “eager to listen” to his presentation of the gospel, but he also interprets Peter’s comment about the difficulty of forgiveness as Peter giving Root “permission” to evangelize him, so I’m not entirely sure he’s a reliable narrator.
Root shares a second story; in this one, he evangelized a young woman conducting customer service surveys in the Vienna airport.
I asked what her name was. It was a public question, and she answered, “Allegra.” I asked, “Allegra, are you from Vienna?” She answered, “No, I grew up in southern Austria.”
With that answer came the permission to ask, “What brought you to Vienna?” She said she was a student. This opened the door to more questions. Where did she go to school? What was she studying?
This is literally identical to pick-up artist materials. Literally.
After 20 minutes or so I knew a good deal about Allegra. I knew her mother abandoned the family to go to Canada with her lover. I learned her father’s bitterness was toxic. I learned her brother also attended the University of Vienna, but that they were estranged.
When I expressed my sadness for what seemed to be a good deal of isolation and estrangement from the people closest to her, she said it was far worse than she confided. I asked, with her permission to do so, “How was it worse?” She told she had a boyfriend who went to study art in Florence for six months. He asked her to wait for him, and she did so. Her boyfriend returned the very day before I met Allegra only to inform her he met somebody better in Florence.
Knowing that Allegra felt abandoned and betrayed, I said to her, “Allegra, the God of the universe knows you and loves you; He would never abandon you or forsake you.” I said it to her again: “Allegra, He loves you!”
Sometimes, it takes three times before the words sink in, so I said it again: “Allegra, He loves you!”
After the third time she burst into loud sobs.
Interestingly—and perhaps not coincidentally—looking for and exploiting vulnerabilities is also a staple of pick-up artists methodology.
The central problem with both Root’s evangelization method and pick-up artist tactics is that they approach people as targets rather than simply as fellow human beings. Both engage in smalltalk as a means to find an angle or locate a vulnerability, rather than out of a simple desire to engage in conversation with another human being. It’s calculated, it’s manipulative, and it’s uncomfortable—to say the least.
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