February 23, 2009

Tract Evangelism at the Gas Station

On my way home from work, I stopped by the gas station because my car was quite hungry. As I was pumping the gas, I noticed a folded-up piece of paper stuck into a grove in the pump. On it I could partly make out the title. I could catch, "The Ultimate... Eternal".

Then I thought to myself, "Self, you know what this could mean."

To which myself replied, "Hmmm... it appears to be tract evangelism, though this seems to me more of a flier."

"Indeed. Unfortunately, I feel rather skeptical about this kind of technique."

"Well, with some of the ridiculous tracts out there, why wouldn't you? Especially when they are left as a tip in a restaurant! However, there is nothing unethical about leaving it here. As long as the content is OK, then you should leave it alone."

I replied, "That's good thinking self, though that would require an examination of said content. Hmmmm... "

These are the kinds of conversations I have with myself. We have a great deal of respect for one another. Upon the conclusion of these thoughts, I proceeded to pick up the flier.

The title in fact read:
The Ultimate Question
Eternal Life - Is It Real?

I was not shocked to find the flier to answer this in the affirmative. Indeed, I expect that few would be. I then proceeded to skim the flier for any mention of works, Hell, reprobate, salvation, committment, relationship, or any other key words that would tell me the theology behind the flyer. I quickly found "living by God's standard's" which worried me, but shortly there after I found "Do you know the 10 Commandments?" Ah, Ray Comfort, we meet again!

After skimming a bit more to confirm that this was the Ray Comfort method (which ended up including a colorful presentation of the 10 Commandments on the back in KJV) also known as the Way of the Master, I then gave the flier a C (just passing), returned it to its position, got into my car, and drove off.


I am indeed one of those Christians that believes that evangelism is a moral prerogative of the Christian faith. I believe this is quite evident in Scripture. However, I recognize that it is not always wise to evangelize simply for the sake of doing it. I believe doing the right thing the wrong way is always the wrong thing to do.

One thing that really annoys me sometimes is tract evangelism. Leaving a simple document for an unbeliever to find isn't really wrong mind you. It allows you reach people you never meet. This has some obvious benefits.

However, for many, it is merely laziness. It is a way of saying that you have evangelized without the messy business of meeting people, or being isolated at school. Evangelism without risk isn't really evangelism. It is especially bad if you give a tract to someone who you know! And the worst, is the tip technique mentioned above, which is also an excuse to be cheap. (Now leaving a tract with a 50% tip: that's evangelism!)

It is also not very effective. Most people will not notice the tract. Out of the few who do, most of them will ignore it, or even throw it out. Additionally, written text is less persuasive then spoken word. One reason is spoken word has far more nuance. Additionally, in a conversation, one has the ability to qualify a misunderstood statement.

Then there are the actual content. Some of the tracts that people actually think would be affective is absolutely astounding! There is one brand, which I won't mention here, that really annoys me since it often insults the person it is supposed to be reaching.

Evangelism isn't just about "getting the message out there" or something like that. It is about changing someone's life. It is about actually convincing them. The rhetorical incompetence that I find in most "evangelists" that I meet is staggering. This is because they are not concerned about changing someone's heart, but in acting out there inner desire to be important. It frustrates me.

OK, done ranting.


Mason said...

JC, you might feel like you're ranting, but I thought you were pretty balanced and open, all things considered.
I tend to be a bit more cynical about tracts, and usually feel like they are doing more harm than good. The content is usually poor, and I find the approach off-putting.
One glaring example for me, a church about a half hour away that has done extensive tract distribution. Their tracts are multi page expositions of all the reasons you are a horrible person who is going to Hell (things like lust, greed, fighting, rock music, and using the NIV... no, I'm not kidding, the NIV is AIDS for the church apparently). I always take them when I see them because they're bad enough where reading them might make me not want to be a Christian, let alone someone reading them who doesn't know we're not all like that.

Jc_Freak: said...

Mason, do me a favor. Next time you find one of those, burn it.

I'm actually very cynical about tracts. I never use them. However, I recognize that they can work and have in the past. Like all things, if it is down in the right spirit its fine. The problem is that it is a rarity.

Pizza Man said...

Ah, you've hit home with something that irritates me too. :)

Particular irritations:

#1 The tract that looks like money. I've found these before, and have been more than a little irritated that it wasn't really cash.

#2 Public restroom tract. Let people take care of their business in peace.

#3 Tract that bashes some other group like Catholics or Mormons.

#4 Handing out tracts at Halloween. If someone does this, they better be handing out some good treats too.

#5 Your tip example. I've heard before that the worse tip time in a restaurant is Sunday afternoon. It should be the best.

#6 Those comic book tracts, the ones that try to scare the devil out of you.

Thanks for listening. ;)

Jc_Freak: said...

Yes Kevin. Those comic book tracts are the brand I didn't mention ;)

bethyada said...

I believe doing the right thing the wrong way is always the wrong thing to do.

Hmmm. Philippians comes to mind.

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

It may be wrong for the person doing it but it may not be the wrong thing to be done.


pchurcher87 said...

Rants can be good. I find they are a good way, if done well, to get all out thoughts out in the open so we can address them and have them brought into public scrutiny.

Please excuse my Englishness but what is a comic book tract and why are they so bad?

Mason's local church tract sounds dire. Sorry you have to deal with that!

I find the best way to use tracts is as a talking point. As you're talking to people they are sometime good to either work through with people or to leave them to ponder over after a relational conversation. Just leaving them is indeed cowardace.

Coming from England and presently living in Wales I can tell you that tracts have a long history here of working extremely well. However I feel that because of this effective history Christians can so often become lazy and use them as thier complete evangelism.

Perhaps the answer is reformed use instead of prohibition?

Thanks for your thoughts

Jc_Freak: said...


That's a good point. I still think though that it is wrong to do things the wrong way, but I recognize that God often blesses our foolishness.

I remember one time I came across a Fundie with a sign on a street corner. This is an evangelistic method that I am really against, especially considering the content of the signs. But I simply stopped and talked with him. Afterwards, I prayed with him that God would bless his efforts. Even so, I saw it as God blessing his efforts despite his actions, not because of them.

Still, you might be right that I let it get to me too much. I'll have to meditate on that passage a bit.

Jc_Freak: said...


Actually, comic book tracts are not bad in of themselves. There is just one particular company here in America who publishes these black and white comic tracts which are really unchristian. I don't want to mention the brand here, though I think they've been described enough that anyone who's seen them knows what I'm talking about. If you don't, then I'm glad they're still in America.

I also agree that it is a matter of methodology. I'm not 100% against tracts, hence me still leaving the flier behind. Simply my experience has made me very skeptical. If it works though, don't fix it ;)

Pizza Man said...

Pchurcher's comments remind me that tracts do have a long history. Wesley used them to publish his sermons. And abolitionists utilized them as well. I wonder if they had salvation tracts back then also. My impression (which may be incorrect) is that the historical tracts were more detailed and oriented to a specific issue.

I suppose that some of the "shocking" pro-life tracts put out by folks like Operation Rescue have something in common with the old abolitionist tracts (that showed the way slaves were stored on ships, etc). Still, the modern tracts seem less necessary than the old ones. But perhaps this is an inconsistency on my part.

Jc_Freak: said...

Well, it is also because in today's day and age the primary media isn't paper. People just don't read the way they used to. It's like people who preach on street corners because that's what Paul did in Athens. Paul did that in Athens because he was imitating the Athenian philosophers. In other towns he was imitating heralds. You interact with people based off of the media they understand.

A long detailed tract simply will not work today. In that sense, the comic ones work much better. But it is more important to use a method that works, not one that is convenient, or has a history.

If tracts work for you, keep using them, by all means. But in America today, I think they are outdated.

Tom said...

What's your view of cold-contact evangelism in general (i.e. walking up to strangers and attempting to engage in conversation)?

Jc_Freak: said...


Cold-contact evangelism is personality based. Out going personalities often know how to approach strangers in a way that isn't offensive. I have no problem with these people doing cold-contact evangelism. For instance, my evangelism professor at seminary practiced the Sherlock Holmes game so that he would have something to go on when he walked up to strangers.

However, there are lots of people who insist on the practice. I disapprove of that since it is a personality sensitive technique.

I have a technique myself which you may call cold contact. I'm quite good at striking up in-depth discussions with strangers, but I'm not good at cutting to the quick with a stranger though, which is what most cold-contact methods require. So what I did was a made up a sign that said "Ask Me" on it, went to a coffee shop, and just sat there, waiting for people to come up. I only had medium success, but my schedule changed, and I stopped having enough time to do it.

In the end though, I approve of cold-contact evangelism, but I don't think it is for everyone.