Evangelism a.k.a. Trespassing in Northern Virginia

Evangelism a.k.a. Trespassing in Northern Virginia July 1, 2011

I put up about 600 door-hangers today in townhouse communities around Burke. Townhouses are faster and there’s a classist assumption in my head that people who are “less established” are more open to trying out a new church. I’m really regretting that we didn’t move into a townhouse community. I absolutely hate the concept of townhouses because I want to have a half-acre garden, but there’s so much more community there. There were tons of little kid trikes and bikes out in the front yard. All of the kids were running around, playing, and laughing. And it’s very ethnically diverse. It would have been a great environment for my sons to grow up in, but I wanted to have a garden. Oh well.

Anyhow, it will be interesting to see what kind of return we get (if any). When we door-hanger for Sunday worship, it’s a lot harder to track whether anybody responds. But these door-hangers were for our LifeSign contemporary service where it will be very obvious if we have first-time visitors who don’t come in with a regular. The whole time I was door-hangering, I was asking God, “Just one… even one.” What I’m really hoping is that someone who is going through a hard time will have the courage to give church another chance. The goal is to reach people who are hurting, not to have a relatively full-looking sanctuary so that I can feel like I’m not a failure.

In any case, I had three somewhat paradigmatic conversations today. It always makes me nervous when people are outside while I’m spamming their houses in person. Usually they’re on their phones so I don’t want to interrupt them but it feels like bad form to put the hanger on the knob while they’re standing there so I skip over their house and do the next-door neighbors’, waiting for them to get off the phone but then they often don’t. Sometimes they go inside to hide when they see what I’m doing. So there aren’t too many face-to-face conversations, but today I had three.

The first was a girl with dozens of piercings and boy-cut pink hair. She was wearing headphones. All I said was, “Hey, how’s it going?” She grunted something and moved on. I really wanted to tell her how 9 years ago, I used to spend most of my time with people who looked exactly like her in an anarchist compound in the beautiful urban wasteland of inner-city Detroit, but I didn’t have the tats or piercings to prove that I used to be a wannabe punk. I think the reason I never marked myself is that I’ve never had the guts to drop out of my bourgeois identity completely. But I wanted to tell this girl that if she came to my church, I would feel a little more at home there myself. She was wearing headphones so I moved on.

Then I ran into a group of Latino kids playing outside under the shade of a tree. I started to just put the door-hangers up at their houses without saying anything, but they were staring at me so I went over and struck up a conversation. They were very friendly. This one girl told me about how she was Catholic but hadn’t been to mass since first communion. Then her father drove up and she wanted to introduce me to him, which made me feel creepy since I had been talking to his kids when I was a stranger. I told him that I was from a Methodist church but we were como catolico because we had communion every week, the only difference being that we had an informal worship service con guitaras y todo where kids were allowed to dance in the aisles. I usually tell Spanish-speaking people that my church is evangelico for categorization purposes. I guess Methodism really is como catolico and evangelico at the same time. Not everyone would agree, but I think John Wesley would be okay with that “both-and” definition.

So the third conversation I had was with a guy who told me he was Muslim. I suppose if I were a certain type of evangelical, I would have said in my head, Guess you’re going to hell, but what I said instead was, “Salaam alekum,” and he said back, “Walekum salaam.” I don’t know. I want to believe that somehow through the mystery of God, the need that we have to receive the atonement of Christ can be resolved in a different way through Islam. I don’t know anything about that religion. I’m not particularly interested in studying it in depth. But I didn’t see any point in debating theology with a stranger of another faith so I just exchanged the peace of God with him.

After I was done door-hangering, I decided to try cutting through the woods since my house is very close geographically to the townhouses where I had been, but because there’s a creek and a protected wildlife area, there are no direct roads, so I would have had to walk a couple of miles by road what was several hundred yards through the woods. I walked into what the map said was a public park. There was even a sign describing the park and the park rules, but the drive leading back to the park quickly turned into some redneck’s driveway with signs that said “Warning! Firearms in use. No trespassing.” So I jumped across the creek behind the redneck’s house and started walking through the woods.

Then it hit me that I was really trespassing. The fact that I was dressed in khakis and a polo shirt which had been my badge of legitimacy on the sidewalk became the reason that I would seem suspicious to somebody who came across me. What kind of man dressed up in preacher casual bushwacks through the woods? A homeless guy? A crazy drunk? A burglar? A predator of some kind? So I was hoping that I could quickly find my way to a road. I was using the “locator services” feature on my iphone as my compass. But what I found when I approached the houses on the road that my culdesac feeds off of was that every house had a fence-line behind it. Only in Northern Virginia! I was basically treading through a crack between the walls of suburban legitimacy. There were many thorns which made me very glad I was wearing my khakis. I had on sandals though and there were a lot of beer bottles on the ground, some broken.

I couldn’t jump over a fence because then I would “officially” be trespassing but the longer I stayed in the woods, the more I panicked that somebody would find me. It caused me to wonder if a white man in the woods is as illegitimate and vulnerable to suspicion as a brown man walking on the sidewalk in a white neighborhood (as opposed to doing something socially appropriate like mowing the grass or blowing leaves or spreading mulch). The whiteness that serves as my universal passport loses its legitimacy outside the boundaries of suburban normalcy demarcated by the fence-lines of private property. Forgive the ridiculous presumptuousness of saying this, but I wondered if what I felt was analogous (though certainly not equivalent) to what undocumented immigrants feel or what Palestinians feel on the outside of the gated communities of Israel. After a somewhat distressing twenty minutes of trying to find a yard without a fence to walk briskly through to the safety of the sidewalk, I finally made it to a road, climbed up a steep hill, and emerged back into the freedom of my white bourgeois legitimacy.

Now maybe I’ve just read too much postmodern philosophy but it seems to me that trespassing in the woods behind the backyard fences of suburbia is somehow a metaphor for the timid attempts we make at evangelism here in northern Virginia. I don’t know that the people are necessarily unfriendly, but for a middle-class white boy like me, I see so many fencelines that it’s taboo to cross. Like what do you do about the fact that most doors don’t have doorknobs but latches that won’t hold a door-hanger secure? Do you open the storm door gently and slide the door-hanger inside of it? But it seems like inevitably when you start to do this, then the door sticks and creaks really loudly until five Rottweilers start barking from inside. What do you do when the door inside the storm-door is open and somebody is talking several feet inside the house? I always try to look at the ground and move quickly. I’ve developed a new fondness for doormats. We have card-stock door-hangers in plastic baggies, so you can usually slide them pretty quickly under the mat and run away.

I know that what we’re supposed to be doing is “invitational evangelism” (where you tell the people who go to your church to invite their friends to come). I’ve heard the lectures; I agree with them; I’ve made the lectures myself. But what do you do when you’re a pastor and nobody seems willing to do that? You put up 600 door-hangers and talk about it on facebook in a peppy and hopefully not-too-guilt-trippy kind of way so that somebody in your church might notice and take pity on you or possibly even be inspired to invite one of their friends to church. So as I sit here scratching the poison ivy or whatever my ankles got into during my adventures in the wilderness between the fencelines of suburban legitimacy(maybe that’s too guilt-trippy)… how about YOU invite somebody you know to church? 😀

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