I’m a high school kid in 1990, the height of enthusiasm for short-term missions, with youth group buddies in Mexico City. We’re passing out tracts in a town square, speaking irreparably broken Spanish. Our career missionary host sees the evangelistic tracts we’re distributing and quickly curtails the day’s activity. Very patiently, she explains that deceiving passersby with tracts that look like US $100 bills may do more to harden hearts than to make disciples.
A few years later, I’m an eager college student, hoping to win souls for Jesus by the old Chicago Water Tower. No tracts this time. Just friendly conversations starting with, “Can I talk to you for a moment about Jesus?” After several freezing nights, it becomes clear that the only folks willing to chat are Moody Bible Institute students curious about life at Wheaton College.
Next it’s knocking on doors in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, trying “friendship evangelism” in an apartment complex full of refugees and other immigrants. After months, as we’re about to knock on another door, my partner turns to me and sighs. “This feels wrong,” she says. “We’re interrupting more than we’re serving, taking more than we’re giving. I’m out.” We leave.
Suddenly I’m 45 and in line at the grocery when the guy in front of me very loudly starts a “conversation” with the cashier. “Do you know Jesus?” Yes, in fact I do, she politely responds. He’s skeptical. “Do you have a saving relationship with Jesus as Lord?” he insists. I can’t hear her response, but I can see she’s working very hard to be polite. I’m embarrassed by his presumption. But also by his boldness. I remember that old story about the revivalist preacher who responds to a critic with the rejoinder, “I like my way of preaching the gospel better than your way of not preaching it.”
I offer a quick silent prayer for the cashier and keep wondering: In my frustration with the evangelistic methods of my youth, have I lost my evangelistic nerve? Am I supposed to be proclaiming the gospel to this cashier? How? By smiling and engaging her in conversation? By lobbying Congress for better working conditions for her? By saying, “God bless”? What is God calling me to in this moment? When I get to the front of the line, what am I going to do?
This month’s cover story (p. 32) looks at the way those questions are being asked on a much broader scale—agencies, organizations, and churches that have wrestled with the shortcomings of old short-term missions models and are starting to come up with more creative ways to make disciples. But there’s angst, too. Is “creating a heart for the world” really more faithful than passing out tracts in the town square? We’re still traveling—probably in greater numbers than ever. But as we are going, what are we going to do?
Ted Olsen is editorial director of Christianity Today.