By Rev. Aaron Todd
The other day I'm cruising down the highway listening to the "Frozen" soundtrack (don't judge, my three year old was in the car with me) when I run over something hard and metallic, which, of course, blew out one of my front tires. This was not the first time this has happened since moving to Oklahoma, so my level of frustration was higher than it probably should have been as I maneuvered my poor car off the highway and over to the shoulder.
I had just begun the process of unpacking all the needed items to change out the tire when an old, beat-up minivan pulls up behind me. "Great," I thought, "This is how most horror movies begin." I needn't have been concerned, however, because out of that van stepped an older gentleman who simply needed to know if I needed any help with the car. After thanking him and telling him that I thought I could handle it, we got to talking for a few minutes. Seeing as how I was rather preoccupied with the tire, this man did most of the questioning. "Are you from around here?" (Yes) While pointing to my son in the back seat, "Is this your only child?" (No) And then this question came, "Are you a Christian?" After telling him yes and that my wife and I were in fact, both pastors. He smiled and replied, "Well, I'm glad I stopped." He then got back into his van and drove away. It was an awkward end to an otherwise (given the circumstances) pleasant exchange.
In the few days since that event, I have been thinking more about that conversation and his desire to know if I proclaimed myself as a follower of Jesus. What would his response been had I answered otherwise? Would the same offer to help had been extended if I had professed allegiance to another faith (or no faith at all)? Was there an intention present all along to evangelize a young(ish) broken down traveler? The truth of the matter is, I have no idea and will never have a way of knowing. All I know is that I am grateful for his willingness to stop and help, and now as I continue to think back on that exchange there on the side of the highway, I realize why the ending of that conversation seems so perplexing to me; I never would have thought to inquire about the religious beliefs of a person I had just met.
As I came to that understanding, I also realized that I cannot remember the last time (if ever) I have actually inquired about anyone's religious affiliation, regardless of the circumstances. In my ten-plus years in ministry, I do not think the words, "Are you a Christian" have ever passed through my lips. Once this light dawned on me, I thought to myself, "I might be the world's worst evangelist."
To be fair, I come by my evangelistic inadequacies honestly. As a life-long member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I am part of a tradition that tends to shy away from that sort of on-the-spot questioning. As a tried and true introvert, I tend to prefer to be left to my own devices and assume that most others do as well. Who are you to question me? Who am I to question you? Finally, and this perhaps is the biggest influence concerning my lack of desire in being considered an "evangelist," I have rarely seen evangelism, at least in it's traditional, culturally accepted form, done well. I have memories of being in seminary and having people hand out tracts in downtown Ft. Worth and telling me that my seminary education made me less of a Christian, I can remember people walking around with giant crosses slung over their shoulders, yelling at me to "repent" (again in Ft. Worth), and here in Oklahoma City there is a giant billboard on the side of one of our highways asking us the question, "If you die tonight: Heaven or Hell?" A week or two ago I found a Bible tract strategically placed on the toilet paper dispenser at Starbucks (really?). Even on a more personal level, there have been plenty of times when, in the midst of the conversations with other Christians, the topic of religious beliefs came up, the message I have gotten over and over is that if I don't adhere to their particular flavor of Christianity, then I AM in fact, less of a Christian.
So as I think about how I may in fact hold the title for World's Worst Evangelist, I realize that if I am being compared to some of the methods I just described, than I am perfectly okay with that title. Because, you know what? None of the above methods even come close to describing the path that I followed to get to a place in my life where I proclaim myself as a follower of Jesus. Never after hearing someone yell at me to "repent" have I been moved to go a different direction. Never after seeing a billboard or hearing a talking head on television talk to me about buying into their brand of "fire insurance" have I felt myself drawn closer to Jesus. And there isn't a pamphlet or tract that has ever (or ever will be) printed that will cause my spirit to connect with the Spirit of the Divine.
As a matter of fact, as I think about my own faith journey, I do not have the slightest clue who it was who first told me about Jesus. Honestly, I have no idea who it was who "evangelized" me. It might have been a minister, it might have been my parents or grandparents, I don't know. What I do know is that I have a very clear memory of all those throughout my life who have walked with me and shown me what it means to live like Jesus.
To me, this is what evangelism is anyway. Evangelism cannot be and thankfully is not "peddling" Jesus like we would vacuum cleaners or carpet cleaning services. It is seeking to embody the life Jesus calls us to live. It's doing our best to live in the manner he did and inspiring those around us to attempt to do likewise. Jesus never asked the question, "Are you a Jew?" or told those of a different belief system to change their understanding before he would join them on the journey. It did not matter if the one whom Jesus encountered was a Jew, a Samaritan, or even a Roman, He loved and served unconditionally, with grace, humility, compassion, and perhaps most importantly, respect.
The way of Jesus does not translate well to a billboard or a tract, but that's okay, it was never meant to. It won't sell many books or promote too many political campaigns (but imagine if it did). The way of Jesus is meant to be embodied in and among all God's beautiful creation. I am thankful to all those who have come into my life who have shown me The Way, not through words, but through a listening ear, a hug, a shoulder to cry on, and the demonstrated desire to walk with me on this journey.
This is the kind of evangelism in which I desire to engage. And come to think of it, I'm not all that great at this kind, either. But walking with, loving, respecting, and listening to my fellow human beings sounds like something I'd much prefer to continue to improve.