Standing on a crowded street corner in Charlotte, N.C., I watched as some of my friends tried to “evangelize” to commuting city workers. They walked up to men in expensive suits and women with designer bags and said, “Do you know where you’re going when you die?” If they could get the person to say even one word, it was time to break out the salvation bracelets. All my friends were rejected and defeated. People blew up, walked away and completely ignored them.
When asked the big salvation question, one woman looked at her watch and said, “You don’t even know me.” Seeing this type of evangelism go horribly wrong made me wonder: Is there a better way to do this? And if there is, why aren’t we doing it?
I continued to think on the woman’s comment: “You don’t even know me” and got wondering, what would happen if we did know people? What would happen if we truly took an interest in others without simply wanting to save them? That day I made a decision. I would begin to listen to people. I would hear their stories. I would ask them questions. I would learn from them. If God and spirituality came up, we would talk. If it didn’t, then we wouldn’t. But the thing was, it always came up.
I started a document on my computer entitled, “What Strangers Say To Me.” Through my conversations with people, I would write down what they said to me, whether it was silly or serious, sacrilegious or meaningful. I talked to everyone: soldiers and construction workers, waitresses and bankers. Two years later, my document is now filled with hundreds of quotes. Each one by a real person, through a real conversation.
At Starbucks, a woman told me about her experience with cancer. She said: “Yeah, I almost died. But you know what I thought to myself? I am 53 years old. I’ve lived more than most people. Those 53 years were given to me by Someone or Something, right? I’ve been blessed.”
Some of my collected quotes are horribly sad, like when a waiter at Ruby Tuesday told me he was on break from the Iraq war and had seen his best friend blown up just a month ago. He asked me if I thought God was in Iraq, or just in America. Meanwhile, some quotes were odd, like when a woman randomly told me she keeps having dreams she is swimming in food. She said, “How wonderful would it be to swim through gravy? With biscuits on the side!”
My pastor once said that we need to interact with the world instead of react. There was a reason why Jesus simply hung out with people. He wanted to get to know them, to see who they were and interact with their stories. His heart was for people to follow Him, but He knew that in order for people to follow, they had to know what they were following.
It would be a lie if I said that every conservation I’ve had with people led to a miraculous conversion experience. However, it is true that relational evangelism works. Talking to people, hearing them, laughing with them, listening to them and crying with them is the way to know them. Through these little discussions, these small conversations in the restaurant or pharmacy, people open up.
We think that people won’t open up, that we have to walk up to them with outrageous questions about heaven, hell and the Bible. The truth is though that “God’s invisible qualities are clearly seen” (Romans 1:20). People are longing to talk about real things. And when they do, God comes up. God always comes up. It’s just like what a cafeteria worker at a hospital said to me: “I hate that God’s lack of existence could mean just as much as His existence. It’s like either way He gets the final word.” People are longing to have real conversations. Sometimes they just don’t know how to start them.
And even if they’re not looking for a real conversation, you could still walk away with a pearl of wisdom. Mine came through a woman named Lori at a McDonald’s in New York City. She said: “I’m not interested in traveling or education. All I really want is to win the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes so I can take all my girlfriend co-workers to get manicures.”
I walked away that day hoping that Lori could have seen God in my smile and my willingness to talk with her. Part of me also secretly hoped that she’d win that Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes, because anyone who can serve burgers all day and keep such a good attitude does deserve a weekly manicure.