Monday, April 11, 2011

What does a Christian look like?

The other day on my way to work, I had to stop at the gas station by my house to fill my car up.  (Off-topic, but $40 to fill up the 12-gallon tank of a sub-compact?  Really?)

Now, this gas station is at a strange juxtaposition of subdivision, bus stop, Mexican grocery mart, and downtown.  You get a very broad range of customers patronizing the gas station and attached convenience store.

I normally stop there early in the morning, and I like watching the different types of people that mill around there.  There's a homeless guy who rides a bike around my neighborhood, and he often stops there to pick up a Fuze brand sports drink that he carries around in a basket on the front of his bicycle.

Early in the morning, the delivery guys are normally there, too, dropping off the shipments of soft drinks and beers.  Construction workers and contractors gas up their big, heavy-duty pickups and grab some of the cheap kwik-e-mart coffee.  I see other office workers, women pumping gas in high heels and pant suits.

This morning, there was a big American sedan at the pump next to me.  It was full of older ladies, dressed like they were on their way to a fancy Easter service (fabulous hats with silk flowers and all).  I wondered if maybe they were going to a convention, since it was 7:00 am on a weekday morning.

I set the nozzle to automatic fill, and sat back down in my car to start on my day's Bible reading.  (I like to do my reading before work in the morning.)  A few moments later, I heard a tap on my window.

"Excuse me, excuse me miss."  It was one of the nicely-dressed older ladies in a fancy hat.  "Can I tell you about Jesus and where he comes from?"

She was carrying pamphlets and a copy of "The Watchtower", the Jehovah's Witnesses' publication.  I smiled and told her, "I've been saved 18 years, but thank you very much for asking."  I'd barely finished speaking before the lady turned on her heel and slumped back to her car, even the silk flowers on her hat seeming to bob along forlornly.

Driving off, I began to feel a strange mix of irritation and the old guilt.  What about me looked so in need of salvation?  I was sitting in my inoffensive little car with a single bumper sticker (the one for my church), reading my Bible.  I was dressed nicely for work, not even my tattoos showing.  It's been years since I took out my lip ring and eyebrow ring, and my hair is even a relatively natural shade at the moment.  What about me suggested to this woman that I might be lost and broken?

If I was at my childhood church, I knew the answer.  I wasn't filled with the Holy Spirit.  I wasn't shining with that otherworldly glow that should scream to the whole world that I was one of the chosen.  If someone can't tell at first glance that I'm a Christian, then there's something wrong with me.

Logically, I know that the most likely answer is that Jehovah's Witnesses are such a fringe group that it's easy for them to assume every stranger they meet is unreached by their mission.  Plus, they're well-known for their endless evangelism (and odd stances on issues like blood tranfusions).  A woman sitting in her car at the gas station is just another opportunity to spread their doctrine.

But I can't help thinking back to a friend I had a few years ago.  He was the screaming and growling lead singer in a Christian rock band, and also sang on the Youth Group's praise and worship team.  If you just saw him onstage, you would think he was a scary dude.  He was covered in black clothing and tattoos, from his wrist to his neck.  He had a gleaming silver spike through one eyebrow, and had played baseball in college as a power-hitter, so he was a bit on the massive side.

The side of him most people didn't see was the person he was offstage:  shy and sensitive and stuttering, and a really awesome cook.  He also adored little kids, and the church kids would often swarm him, jumping on his back and shoulders.  It wasn't uncommon to see him carrying a kid in each arm, and one hanging in a chokehold on his neck.

But, because he looked scary, anytime we were out somewhere, it was almost a guarantee that someone would try to witness to us.  A group of us youth leaders were out at Waffle House late one night after a lock-in.  The waitress had just brought back our check and we were getting up to leave when a couple of blue-haired little old ladies came over to us.

They zeroed in on my friend first, I guess assuming that he was the leader they had to crack to get to the rest of us.  "Son, have you ever considered accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior?"

He tried to respond that he had, and tell them where we had just come from, but it was an awkward situation, and his tongue knotted on itself and tripped him up.  He'd always been embarrassed by his stutter, and the more he tried to break through it, the worse it got.  My boyfriend at the time, the pastor-in-training who made Opie Taylor look like James Dean, took over and told the ladies why, thank you so much, but we just came from our church down the street a little ways, and say, we had just an awesome service planned for Sunday, and maybe they'd like to come visit?

The women scuttled away, looking confused and a little put-out.

I think situations like this are what have turned me so against "witnessing" (in this sense) as an adult.  It just seems so unnatural and self-serving.  I certainly believe in being a living witness, through your behavior and your actions.  And I certainly believe in sharing the Gospel and telling people that it was Jesus who made this wonderful change in your life.

But I no longer believe in the likelihood of leading a stranger on a street corner in the Sinner's Prayer.  Maybe these things happen, but I feel what occurs far more often is the sort of awkward encounters I've described.  I feel relationships are required to effectively evangelize.

Or at least start conversations with, "Hey, how are you doing?" instead of launching straight into the God-sell.

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