When I first started writing this column, I tried to stay away from politics for fear that my opinions would get me into trouble. My abstinence didn’t last very long, but I have yet to receive any major complaints, so I thought I might push my luck and stick my toe into holy waters.
I was raised as a Southern Baptist. From as far back as I can remember I was taught that the word of God was to be taken to all corners of the earth so that everyone would have the chance to hear it. As a youth I attended Christian camps like Centrifuge, that were centered on Bible study, worship, mission work and recreational activities. These programs were a great success in getting kids “fired up,” and raising armies for God. We were trained to proselytize, given neat little tools such as bracelets with different colored beads, each representing an element of our faith. We were taught that all we needed to do was share our testimony with people and the Holy Spirit would work through us to convert them.
I went on several mission trips around the country applying the prescribed techniques. One trip in particular stands out in my memory, where we went to a beach community. We were instructed to approach people walking on the beach to ask them something along the lines of “excuse me, do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” Which is sort of like rushing up to pet a strange dog. Invariably this approach did not work, and for good reason – nobody wants to hear that.
Mission trips are great, but the strategies they employ are based on short term goals. You’ve only got a certain amount of time to get in and sell your message. And that’s exactly how people perceive weekend warrior-type missionaries, as holy vacuum cleaner salesmen, which is a huge turnoff. All the good works that Christians do on these trips are overshadowed by the realization from people that you want something from them in return. You want them to come to a Bible study or to church or to listen to your presentation, in hopes that they will have some miraculous conversion. Perhaps that’s where the old proverb comes from, “hell is full of good intentions, but heaven is full of good works.”
The good news is that the solution to the problem is very simple. Christianity has the right message, but the marketing is all wrong. If Christians want to increase the number of people in the flock, all they need to do is act more Christ-like. Jesus acted with no pretense of reciprocation. He identified people’s needs and fulfilled them.
In 2008 I traveled to Macon County, TN with a church group to help with disaster relief after a tornado ravaged the area. The damage was incredible. Homes were reduced to rubble and people’s lives were destroyed. We had around 50 volunteers in our group and we were split up into teams. My team leader evidently had no organizational skills, as we spent several hours picking up debris out of a hayfield. Looking around at all of the damage, it was obvious there was more pressing work that needed to be done. I brought this up to him, noting the waste in man-hours that could be better utilized. His response was that he was only there to talk to people about God. I became furious. Those people had just had their lives destroyed, they didn’t need a bunch of traveling salesmen, they needed help.
If Christians really want to show people God’s love, the way to do so is without pretense. People listen better with their eyes. When they see someone come to offer them genuine help, with no strings attached, they begin to wonder what the ulterior motive is. They begin to ask questions, “why are you doing this for me?” If they find that person truly wants to help them they will let their guard down, but if they discover that person wants something from them their trust is immediately lost. That’s where the majority of mission trips fail, they are short sighted. They try to rush through the process as if there is a quota system. Their strategy looks more like checkers when they should be playing chess. Developing trust and relationships takes time. The best way to do so is to stretch out your hand in friendship and let people approach you when they are ready, not when you are.
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Clinton Gill is editor of the Glade Sun. His column is published weekly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.