One of the last things Jesus told his closest disciples before the Ascension was “You will be my witnesses….” Earlier, he told them “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to all creation.” Ever since, followers of Jesus have sought meaningful ways to accomplish that charge.
In an effort to be an obedient witness, we also must be wise. Unfortunately, many would-be witnesses aren’t. The zeal may be commendable, the desire laudable, but wisdom is found in the method. Let me explain.
The other day I went for a walk, as I often do, at a nearby park/nature preserve that runs along the Rock River. The parking lot is near a playground, and there’s a nice, paved path that meanders through the woods, crosses a creek that feeds the river, and then follows the river for a couple of miles. As I came out of the woods, approaching the bridge that spans the creek, I saw—well before I came to it—the efforts of a would-be witness. There, right next to the path, was a gospel tract impaled upon a small tree branch.
I was miffed. I enjoy pristine natural settings, even in the “dead” seasons of late Autumn and early Spring when everything is some shade of brown or gray. It really aggravates me to see people’s trash left behind in parks, along trails, and in the woods. Litter is bad anywhere, but it’s even more offensive in a nature preserve. The impaled tract was, bluntly, litter.
Now some well-meaning Christians reading this or seeing the impaled tract might quip, “What a good idea! You never know—someone might see that, take it off the tree, read the tract, and get saved!”
But knowing the type of people who enjoy that area as I do, a more likely scenario is that a passerby would notice some idiot stuck a piece of trash on a tree. Then retrieving it to throw in the trash can, he’d see what it is and draw some rather unpleasant conclusions about those crazy religious zealots who could care less about trashing our local park.
I removed the tract and made sure it was disposed of properly.
This isn’t the first time I’ve come across tract folly. Perhaps less egregious, but I think still out of bounds, is finding a tract prominently placed in a public restroom, usually where one might be inclined to read. Now, if you own the establishment with said restroom and want to leave tracts lying around, by all means, do so. It’s your property; your right. However, I’m thinking it’s unwise and does more harm to the cause of Jesus to try to make a convert by leaving a tract behind in someone else’s water closet. And I seriously doubt the custodian appreciates having extra papers lying around that he has to pick up and throw away.
Along those same lines, I’ve discovered tracts left in a locker at the YMCA. Apparently, a previous user thought it prudent to greet the next locker patron with a gospel leaflet left behind. Again, I saved the janitor the trouble of collecting the “trash.”
Years ago, another naïve Christian with commendable zeal raised the ire of a store manager near the church where I served as an assistant pastor. My job description included visitation and outreach ministries, so the receptionist transferred the manager’s call to me.
“This is Pastor Bice, may I help you?”
“What’s the matter with you Baptist people, anyway? Someone from your church is stuffing anti-Catholic literature in the pockets of clothing in my store! Is this what you tell your people to do?!?” She was ticked! By the way, this happened in South Bend, Indiana—you know, home of Notre Dame University?! As I recall, the tract was entitled, “Can the Catholic Church Save?” or something like that, and it had our church name stamped on the back.
“No,” I responded calmly. “This is absolutely not what we tell people to do. In fact, I agree that it’s out of bounds. Please accept our apology. I’ll do what I can to keep it from happening again.” And I did.
Now lest anyone think I’m doubting that someone could pick up such left-behind gospel messages, read them, and be converted, I don’t. I know it could happen. God in His grace can indeed use such well-meaning tactics, and there are stories that He has. Also, please don’t conclude that I’m opposed to the use of gospel tracts altogether, because I’m not.
I am, however, a proponent of the prudent use of the means of sharing with people God’s Word, the gospel, lest the witness is mere “waste.” The above-mentioned illustrations technically qualify as littering. At least, that’s how the average person would view it, and certainly, the property owner would.
Imagine, for example, that instead of the leaflet being “The Romans Road to Heaven,” or some such Christian gospel tract, it was a Watchtower publication or a tract from Salt Lake City. I’m confident 99% of Christians would confiscate it and toss it in the trash without even reading the contents, right?
Why? Well, primarily because we wouldn’t want someone to be duped by false teaching. But doesn’t it also “feel” out of bounds for the JW or Mormon to have just left that lying there? Of course it does. And I contend that the vast majority of people who come across Christian materials left indiscriminately in public restrooms, locker rooms, or on park tree branches feel the same way about our stuff.
Tracts, I believe, are used best when shared personally with someone face to face, or perhaps in a letter or greeting card. Through a personal connection, the recipient can get a feel for your concern, your personal friendliness, and your genuine interest in them. He or she is far less likely to think some unknown religious freak is just out to “proselytize” them into joining their cult or religion or whatever.
So as followers of Jesus, called to be witnesses of Him, let’s be wise as serpents, harmless as doves, lest our witness be wasted.