While doing some spring cleaning recently, I found an old tract in one of my suitcases. I didn’t look at it too carefully; I suspect that there’s something on there about salvation, or John 3:16, or maybe that diagram of an abyss bridged by a cross. What did catch my attention was what was written on the back – a name and phone number.
I remember that day only vaguely. I was hanging out with some friends on Ocean City’s boardwalk, near the entrance to Gillian’s Pier (i.e., the place of childhood wonder and cotton candy-induced sugar rushes). My friends and I had recently graduated high school and were spending some time down the shore together before heading off to college. For whatever reason, we were approached by a couple of tract-bearing evangelists. They were both young women, probably in college, probably on a summer missions trip. Ocean City was their mission field (lucky).
The conversation went something like this:
Bright-eyed evangelists: Do you have a relationship with God?
High school me: Yeah, I guess, maybe.
Bright-eyed evangelists: Well, do you go to church?
High school me: It’s been a while, kind of.
Bright-eyed evangelists: Are you a Christian?
High School me: I don’t know. I’m working through some stuff.
Meanwhile, my friends are there, muttering answers. We’re all extremely uncomfortable, but trying to be polite.
And then one of them gave me her number and said that I could call her and maybe we could meet up and talk about that stuff I was working through. As far as boardwalk evangelists go, these women weren’t so bad. They were earnest and genuine, not terribly obnoxious, and actually seemed somewhat interested in having an extended conversation and forming something of a relationship.
By the tender age of 18, I had already been through what I now fondly refer to as my Evangelical Phase, and had moved onto my Cynical Phase. This was the time of life where I realized that I didn’t buy creationism, legalism, sola scriptura, or the far right. Somehow I still believed in the Risen Christ, but I was embarrassed by the family name and didn’t quite call myself a Christian. I was also bothered by some of those unanswerable questions that have bothered skeptics and believers alike through the ages. But I knew where that bright eyed evangelist who gave me her number was coming from, because I had been there. I thought about calling her, not because it would be helpful, but because I thought it would be fun to mess with her, to ask her some of the questions that were keeping me up at night, to see what she had to say. (I’m glad I didn’t, because that would have been really mean).
What I needed – to call myself a Christian again, to regain some of those healthy elements of my Evangelical Phase – was not a tract, and not a conversation with an eager evangelist. I knew that. And I knew what I needed was something more stable, substantial, and lasting. That’s why I didn’t engage too much with those evangelists. I was about to leave for college, and I had a feeling that through that experience my faith would be restored.
Over time, it was. I was not re-converted through tracts or brief boardwalk conversations, but through caring professors, excellent curricula, the Great Books, tradition, theology, philosophy, good friends who were asking the same questions, and a church that was designed to preach the gospel to people like me. It was not a simple process, nor a quick one. There were lots of papers written, classes taken, questions asked, late night conversations had, and books read, over the course of months, possibly years.
That’s the kind of evangelism that convinces, or at least converts, me. I’m sure that tracts and boardwalk conversations are helpful for some people – and I’m grateful for that – but is it good evangelism?