Are These Helpful?

Last week I went on a little road trip to Buffalo to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Buffalo Sabres. On the walk from where we parked to the HSBC Arena I could see some young men in their twenties handing out some sort of flier. Thinking of the kind of crowd that gathers for a hockey game, I assumed this would be a flier advertising for a nearby pub.

My insatiably curious nature led me to extend my hand to see what was being handed out. To my surprise, it was a ‘Gospel Tract’, which read ‘Eternal Life is a FREE Gift.’

I no sooner had put the tract in my pocket for future inspection when I noticed that one of the young men was wearing a sign (with an Old Testament reference that I didn’t quite catch on the walk by) and was preaching about the coming judgment and our need to repent.

In the two sentences I heard while passing by, I didn’t hear anything that was out of step with what the Bible teaches. To their credit, the guys handing out the tracts were quite pleasant, and weren’t the least bit aggressive. Part of me was impressed by the courage of these young men. But, quite honestly, another part of me was a bit embarrassed by their approach.

Perhaps those reading this blog post will tell me I’m just a coward when it comes to boldly sharing my faith. Hey, that’s what blogs are about–you get to tell me when you think I’m offside, nuts, or just plain wrong (just do so lovingly please).

I certainly do not want to be unkind by referencing these audacious young lads. But I am eager to hear what you think–are ‘Gospel Tracts’ a helpful way to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ?

Of course, I realize that open air preaching is not some new phenomenon. The call from the young man to ‘repent’ belongs to a rich history of preachers from George Whitefield to John the Baptist to the ancient prophets of Israel. My question then, isn’t so much about what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, as it is about the helpfulness of such an approach in our day.

Some might say that the spiritual need of our day is no different than any other day. I would concur with that. But our day is different. Bibles are more readily available today than at any other time in history. The Scriptures are available in more languages today than at any other point in history. The internet puts over a billion people a Google search away from learning something about Christianity. In North America, at least in Buffalo, NY, there are hundreds of local congregations for citizens interested in Christianity to choose from.

So, I think it’s worth asking: Does street preaching attract or repel people? I don’t doubt that God could use such means to transform lives. Most Christians I know appreciate that the Message has power (Romans 1:16). But is there a better way, a better context, a better backdrop, for sharing the Christian message with others?

That’s what I’m looking for–a better way–not a formula, but an approach that honours the person I’m seeking to reach. I worry that those who passed by the young men felt little else but condescension.

I wouldn’t want anyone to regard me as being condescending to them. It’s possible that I’ve made people feel that way in the past. That’s not good. And so here I am asking you: Are there things we do or say in error, or in haste, that contributes to the hardening of an individual’s heart towards Christianity? Can we mess up, at least temporarily, someone’s approach to Christ?

I realize that God can work through my errors. I recognize that God’s plan is not thwarted by my shortcomings. I’m so glad about that!

I just don’t want to cite God’s sovereignty in salvation (Romans 9) as my justification for being reckless in how I present Christianity to others. I want to be respectful. I want to be compassionate. I want to be patient. Those who shared the Good News with me modeled all of those qualities. I don’t think the ways and manner of the messenger is irrelevant here. I’d love to hear how you are working this out in your life.

Back to the ‘Gospel tracts’—most of the ones I’ve read present a rather awkward string of Scripture references. And in such a limited medium, some essential truths are invariably omitted. I do appreciate, however, the pragmatic advantage of placing something small, concise, and coherent in the hands of those willing to entertain what Christianity teaches. If you’re interested in such a resource, the best I’ve seen is by John Piper. The pamphlet is called ‘Quest For Joy‘. I love that title. We all want joy. John Piper gets us heading in the right direction.

7 thoughts on “Are These Helpful?

  1. Wonder if we should invite them to “Scarberia” and get them to stand outside Gretta Vosper’s West Hill United church on a Sunday, or perhaps at a book signing…..

  2. So this is an interesting read for me… when I was about 13 years old my Youth Pastor at the time had a “surprise event” set-up for our youth group. The surprise was that we were gonna go down to Yonge and Bay on Saturday afternoon and… you guessed it, hand out tracts and witness to the lost. You better believe at 13 yrs old it scared the shit out of me! (actually to do it now would do the same) So I have a certain level of respect for those that can do it. As far as being relevant…? That’s a good question. Do we meet people where they are, regardless of whether it’s in the ACC parking lot… is it the media or the message? Or both? You don’t answer these questions in one blog!
    I found an interesting article in Relevant Magazine the other day that relates well to this – – it’s basically about “Pub Ministry”. The ministering over hops. Defintely my kind of witnessing but the reactions to it are strong – it’s a good read that raises more questions than answers – again about relevance and meeting people where they are which is not always in the Church sanctuary – check it out.

    Peace brother Bryn – sorry about your Leafs by the way – I’ve jumped off the bandwagon.

  3. I applaud their bravery, I really do. I would like to be considered so bold with my faith. My problem with their method is simple though, how does a stranger simply handing a tract influence the life of a passer by? We do not know his “day job” or his ” real life”. What people are looking for today is faith in action, not just on paper. We need to show those we want to impact what happens when the supernatural (God) meets the natural (me). Real life and real faith is not something that can be condensed and placed into words. I know I will not come close to impacting the number of people as those on the street corner, I will not look as bold. But what I want to accomplish is sincere living out of faith in front of the few people who are willing to look deeper at the reason I live.

  4. It seems natural for The Bible Society Guy to weigh in on a post about tracts. In 2007, Central Ontario District of the Canadian Bible Society gave away or sold some portion of Scripture every 5 minutes of every day. Large numbers of those portions were what we call Scripture Selections – some call them tracts.

    Many gospel tracts are written in such a way that they are not really gospel at all; in their choice of wording, they are almost anti-gospel – the ‘turn or burn’ variety. Not all are like that, of course, but I think society’s stereotype of tracts looks quite like that. (And we all know that stereotypes exist for a reason.)

    What we produce at CBS, as part of our mandate to do what we do “without doctrinal note or comment”, is Scripture selections/tracts that are 100% Scripture. Each one is based on some relevant, helpful theme. We don’t comment on the Word, but let the Word speak for itself – something God tells us in the Bible that he will do (Isaiah 55.8-11). I think these are more effective, personally, because they don’t pretend to prejudge the reader.

    What the fellas were doing outside the HSBC Center was probably very commendable. God knows that if the Christian Church can learn something from the JWs and the Mormons, it’s sharing our faith without shame. We have nothing to be ashamed of.

    Street preaching can reach some people. I think an important aspect to this is the countenance of the preacher. Two preachers might both preach that someone is going to hell, but if one of them feels genuinely sad about it, that person is going to get a better hearing than the other.

    In his sovereignty, God can use just about any means to draw people to himself. Our prayer is that we (and those things that we do) don’t get in the way!

  5. I’m all for putting scripture into people’s hands, but I have been on the receiving end of some frighteningly bad tracts. As you noted, Bryn, they didn’t say anything Biblically untrue, but they said it in a way that turned ME off, and I consider myself a passionate follower of Jesus Christ. (This is not, at all, the type of thing that Jeff is talking about the CBS doing in his comment.) It was the media that blocked the message and all I could hear was the grating voice of a street preacher I used to run into down at the Eaton’s Centre. That dude creeped me right out, and I was a little sad that for some people he would be all the exposure they ever had to Jesus.

    I think we do need to be bold in sharing our faith, but I think that can only happen if we’re living incarnationally. That is, being in deep relationship with folks who don’t know Christ. Being friendship and love and concern to them. Listening to them. Sharing life with them. Not in a ‘I’m going to win you for Jesus’ way, but in a ‘Jesus has done so much for me, and I want to spill some of that out into this world’ way. I agree that God can use anything to lead someone to Him, but I wonder if these folks would have done better to have a few deep conversations rather than talking at people they do not know…

    While there’s a certain courage in street preaching, there’s also a certain lack of courage. It is much more difficult to be in relationship with a few than to talk at many, I think. There’s a certain distance one can keep up in street preaching. That distance doesn’t exist when folks are sharing their messy lives with you, and you are trying to show the love of Christ to them.


  6. I often wonder, too, about the effectiveness of these. I think it’s much easier to love people into the kingdom, rather than scare them. I know a gentleman (in every sense of the word), who is a street preacher – after a fashion.
    He is so passionate about seeing people have a bible in thier heart language that he distributes them on the corners of downtown Toronto. He works at a high paying job until he has enough money saved up, then he quits his job, and begins to buy bibles to give away. He then goes to the downtown, and looks to have conversation with people. He talks to them about life, and then asks if they have ever read the Bible, in their own language. If they say no, he gives, yes gives them one, and helps them to effectively do so.
    I agree that we need to be much more vocal about our faith, and the amazing God we serve, but handing out hell-fire and brimstone tracts seem to turn more people off of the Message we seek to share.

  7. Loving these comments—thanks! Really appreciated Biff sharing his youth group experience. Nice to get challenged a bit by Jeff’s post. And Rebekah, I take some comfort in your post sensing that we’re on the same wave-length on this one. Al, Allie, D.L. — thanks for weighing in on this!

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