Mark spoke in chapel every other year, usually in the spring, which was about the time I’d accumulated too many absences to cut. A former college basketball player with an imposing six-foot-seven frame, bald head, and booming voice, Mark travelled the country telling Christian college students about his evangelistic exploits, challenging us to “wake up from our apathy” and start witnessing to people before they died and went to hell.
Mark said his favorite place to witness to someone was on an airplane. “It’s a captive audience!” he shouted from the stage. “I mean, the target is literally strapped in next to you!”
[He probably said “person,” but all I could hear was “target.”]
Mark suggested we begin a conversation with our seatmate by asking if they knew where they would go spend eternity should there be a catastrophic failure in the plane’s hydraulic system and we all went down in flames. If that doesn’t work, he said, we should drill the person on how many of the Ten Commandments they might have broken, revealing their need for a savior—Ever committed adultery? Ever lied? Ever disobeyed your parents? Ever coveted your neighbor’s things? You know, make a little small talk about idolatry and death and then tell them about Jesus.
At the end of chapel, Mark always announced he would be going to the local park that afternoon to evangelize. He would take a group of students with him, but he needed those students to stand up and publicly pledge their commitment to process.
“Who’s going to live for Jesus today?” he asked. “Stand up right now if you’re ready to take the gospel seriously and live for Jesus.”
Mark was an expert at direct-response advertising.
As an introvert, the thought of chasing down a jogger in a public park so I could ask him if he ever committed adultery made me physically ill. So, even though I prided myself on being known on campus as “Bible Girl,” I chose not to live for Jesus on the days Mark spoke in chapel. Instead, I stared at my shoes, flush-faced and ashamed, as a few of my classmates rose reluctantly to their feet. They always came back from those trips looking confused and tired and stressed about whatever class they’d skipped for Jesus. I gathered things didn’t go exactly as planned.
“Well, at least we planted some seeds,” they always said.
But we knew what that meant.
Planted seeds are the consolation prizes of failed evangelists.
I think of Mark every time I fly, which lately, is several times a month.
And I have no doubt Mark would be severely disappointed in my typical airplane conversations, which involve a bit of small talk at takeoff (“where you coming from?” “where you headed?”), followed by blessed silence as soon as we reach cruising altitude and my seatmate and I indulge in our respective books or music or sleep, followed by friendly chatter during the final descent (“you going to make your connection?” “don’t you hate/love American Airlines?” “you fly a lot?”).
Of course, sometimes things get a little more interesting.
Like the time I sat next to a mom and her little girl, probably six or seven. It was the little girl’s first time in an airplane, so everything was exciting and breathtaking and adventurous. I switched seats with her so she could look out the window, and, for the first time in a long time, I too saw unicorns, sea monsters and peacocks in the clouds.
Or the time I sat next to the guy from Milwaukee who needed a drink at 8:30 in the morning, and even after I’d put in headphones, opened my kindle, and scratched my face/shielded my eyes/ propped up my chin/picked my freaking nose so he could CLEARLY see my wedding ring, kept inching closer, and talking louder, and looking me over a bit too carefully.
Or the time I sat next to a young man from Hyderabad, India, who couldn’t believe I had been to his home city and that I even knew a couple words in Telegu. He was easy to talk to, spoke warmly about his wife and kids, and made me feel all travelled and wise. When he said he and his wife had found a good temple in Charlotte, and a community of Indians that helped them preserve their culture and language for their children, I said, “Oh good! That’s so important,” knowing good and well that Mark would not approve.
Or the time I sat next to the very friendly salesman with the very loud voice who was very committed to his work of selling hair transplant equipment, very interested in how much hair my husband had on his head, and very disappointed to see that the inflight magazine included a full-page ad for his competitor. He struck up a conversation with the middle-aged guy across the aisle and had nearly sold him, (and the rest of the plane for that matter), on follicular unit extraction by the time we landed in Charlotte. Later, I walked by a restaurant and could hear his voice booming from the bar—“strip harvesting?! Nobody does strip harvesting anymore!”
Or the elderly woman who clutched her rosary on takeoff and landing, or the kid who looked way too young to be wearing an army uniform, or the Latina woman who didn’t speak a word of English and cried in confusion when they made her change seats because she wasn’t allowed to sit in the exit row, or the lady from New Jersey who, upon learning that I wrote a book about following all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year, declared, “Well it’s a good thing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins so we don’t have to follow any of those old rules anymore!” (Mark would most certainly approve of that.)
But I’ve never “witnessed” to anyone on an airplane. I’ve never asked my seatmate if he’s secured his ticket to heaven, never quizzed the flight attendant on her Ten Commandments record.
For one thing, my faith has changed so much since those days in chapel, I’m not sure I know what it means to “witness” to a person anymore. Somewhere in my mid-twenties, I drifted off the Romans Road and stumbled onto a bigger, wilder Gospel in which salvation is less about individual “sin management” and more about God’s relentless work restoring, redeeming, and remaking the whole world. Salvation isn’t some insurance policy that kicks in after death; it’s the ongoing, daily work of Jesus, who loosens the chains of anger, greed, materialism, and hate around our feet and teaches us to walk in love, joy, and peace instead. It’s good news, not bad news, and I can’t, for the life of me, believe that only evangelical Christians like myself have a monopoly on it.
But what does sharing this good news look like?
I don’t know for sure, but I know it doesn’t look like a sales pitch. I know it doesn’t look like forcing a stranger strapped into the seat next to me to talk about Christianity, like it’s follicular unit extraction, especially if she doesn’t want to.
In The King Jesus Gospel, Scot McKnight wrote, “Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.”
Is it possible to make a disciple in an hour and a half, between the beverage service and final descent? Am I letting my doubts about the existence of hell make me apathetic, lazy? Or am I just a chicken?
I don’t know, but I can’t help but feel a tiny twinge of guilt each time I step off the plane onto the jetway without having made a convert.
“Who’s going to live for Jesus today?”
I know several people who came to faith via some form of direct-response marketing—a televangelist, a tract, a Gideon Bible, a black-and-white billboard signed by God. They tell me this with some embarrassment, like these aren’t sophisticated way to meet Jesus…as if any of us meet Jesus on our terms.
Their stories give me the grace to see that there is a place for people like Mark, that God often uses methods I don’t approve of.
Still, I can’t help but roll my eyes when that guy with the megaphone and white pickup truck pulls into the parking lot at BiLo and starts yelling about the Ten Commandments and the wrath of God, like Jesus is just another product we buy to escape pain.
I’ve never had much luck sharing the Gospel with strangers, but I’ve shared it often around my kitchen table, in the Eucharist, at baby showers, in long summer nights on the back porch talking with friends, at coffee shops, at funeral homes, in living rooms, through tears, through music, through celebrations. At the end of the day, the gospel doesn’t really fit on a billboard or a Facebook status or an elevator pitch; it has to be experienced, in community, through the day-in-and-day-out work of following Jesus. That’s what makes it different from just another product; that’s what makes it better than follicular unit extraction.
A couple of months ago, I sat next to a sixty-something woman on a flight to Newport News. She and her husband of nearly fifty years had retired to the Virginia Coast, she said, because there were so many colleges in the area.
“We can go to a play one night, an art exhibit the next night, and a basketball game the following night,” she said. “It’s wonderful…or at least it used to be.”
Tears gathered in her eyes as she told me about her husband’s recent stroke. His personality changed. He can’t remember words. He gets frustrated easily.
“I’d be frustrated too, if I were him," she said. “Can you imagine? Everything that was once familiar is suddenly…difficult, strange, confusing.”
Her husband sat in the row in front of us, staring ahead. She put her hand on his shoulder.
I listened for a long time, moved by her love for her husband and her daily acts of faithfulness in caring for him. At one point in the conversation, she mentioned with some frustration that her daughter had become a “fundamentalist Christian” and wasn’t helping much. I decided not to venture down the Romans Road.
Instead I told her how sorry I was. I think I may have mentioned an ancient poem that describes certain women as “women of valor,” and that I thought she sounded like one. I told her I hoped I could be as good a wife to my husband as she has been to hers, and that I would pray for her.
I worried that last bit might be pushing it, but she seemed genuinely grateful. She nodded off to sleep for the last 20 minutes of the flight and we didn’t say much to one another after that.
As we filed out of the plane, the thought occurred to me:
Maybe “planting seeds” is all any of us ever do.
Maybe “witnessing” is about the choice we have to plant seeds of unkindness, hurry, hate, and greed in one another’s lives, or to plant seeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. Whether it’s in our closest relationships or our brief encounters with strangers, we always have that choice—to bring life or to bring death, to bring an agenda or to bring love, to bring a product or to bring Jesus.
The woman on the plane planted a good seed in my heart, and I hope I planted a good seed in hers. We might not get to watch as the God of rain and soil and sun makes those seeds grow, but we can trust that God is faithful, that God can take even our clumsiest attempts at witnessing and turn them into something good.
...Or maybe I’m just chicken.
I would love your input on this! As your faith has changed how have your views on evangelism changed? What does it look like to share the good news with other people? What does it mean to “witness” to someone?
As you can see, I’m still struggling with this, and would love to hear your thoughts.