Riding the bus the other day, I spied a bit of green in the seat back pocket in front of me. Peering closer, I saw what looked to be currency of a very high denomination. But I didn’t leap up to grab it. Being both a trivia buff and an exile from the Christian sub-culture, I knew two things: #1, this was almost certainly a Christian “tract” cleverly designed to look like a million dollar bill. Because #2, there is no such thing as a one million dollar bill (at least not one you can spend).
A quick examination confirmed my suspicions. Inside, it said: “The one million dollar question: will you go to heaven when you die?”
Tracts are a dubious thing. On the one hand, there is no missionary less able to track results than the random tract-leaver. Unless these things have GPS chips now. I’m not going to argue that scriptures in written form printed in a clever way and left as litter on bus seats, park benches, and neighbors front porches are completely ineffective. They’re just mostly ineffective. In some countries around the globe, printed material is rare enough to evoke interest, so printed materials are a very effective way to spread the message of Jesus. It’s not a total waste of time here, but in America we have become so sales-resistant that flyers, pamphlets, and leaflets lack their former punch. Facebook ads might be a better use of the dollars spent on fake million dollar bills.
For my money, I like the Gideons, who are responsible for the bibles in hotel room bedside tables. Be it motel, hotel, high class or seedy, stuff goes on in hotel rooms that can make you want to search the Scripture for answers.
The problem with tract-dropping and even Bible-placing sometimes is the lack of interaction. Beyond the need for human contact, sometimes people with spiritual questions could really use someone to talk them through with. In Acts, one such person was traveling from Jerusalem to Gaza. He happened to be an important Ethiopian official. And he happened to be reading Isaiah. Rather than dropping a few leaflets from the sky (the man did, after all, already have his own copy of Isaiah), an angel had told the Apostle Philip to head to that road,where he ran into this prophecy-pondering Ethiopian eunuch, who had questions (Acts 8):
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him…
The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
The issue in American culture is usually not access to information. We have more information available via smart phone than anyone in the history of the world. What we lack is not content – it’s context. We share that problem with our eunuch friend – “how can I understand unless someone explains it to me?”
It is vital, then, that we be able to do what Philip did – start from Scripture and explain the good news about Jesus. That requires that we first read and understand the Bible ourselves; that we meditate on it, that we study and ask questions, that we pray for insight and understanding. It also requires that we live in a manner consistent with the actions, attitudes, and commands of Jesus, so that our life and our words are consistent.
It might not be through an angelic visit, but Jesus sends us out every day to streets, schools, jobs, and even desert roads where people have questions and need someone to talk it over with. Best thing I can say – do what it takes to be ready for that dialog when next you meet an Ethiopian reading Isaiah – or however it happens in your world.
Last week at the table we talked about questions. This week we’ll continue to dive into the actions, attitudes, and commands of Jesus. Swing by if you’ve got the time – or check out the podcast later.