Before the plane even made it to the tarmac, Ted introduced himself, made some small talk and asked what I did for a living. “What do I tell him?” I thought, “PhD Candidate or Pastor,” because whichever route I went down would determine the rest of my flight. If I’m a PhD Candidate, he’ll want to talk about what I’m studying… if I’m a Pastor, well: conversation over! (At least that’s been my experience in my nearly 20 years of ministry.)
“I’m a pastor.” I said.
Conversation over. I can sit and listen to Radiohead’s new album for the millionth time or James Blake’s brilliant new album, (I Need a Forest Fire anyone?!) catch a quick nap, do a little reading, nice and peaceful… this is a 6 am flight, mind you!
“Really?” Ted said. “That’s interesting!” His eyes lit up.
“What have I done?!,” I thought as my shoulders dropped and the slew of questions began: “Tell me about your congregation! What is a church plant? What is truth? What is your stance on homosexuality or the bathroom issue with transgendered people? How can you trust the Bible? How do you understand the Trinity? What about the apocalypse? What’s your training? Why are there so many denominations if Truth is unified? Isn’t seminary pointless in this day and age?, Isn’t God really a genocidal maniac?, etc, etc, etc.” It was an absolute onslaught of questions each from a completely different direction and in no way connected one to the other, in some ways feeling more like an inquisition.
I hadn’t had enough coffee for this! I was caught off guard, discombobulated and left wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into. Why didn’t I say PhD? Why?! We could have talked about racism, lynching, and white privilege, which would’ve lasted for only a few minutes before I could’ve made him uncomfortable enough to retire to the window.
Recognizing that I was completely off balance, Ted began to tell me his story: “I have a lot of Christian friends who don’t consider me to be a Christian… I grew up in an agnostic home before eventually joining the church.” Wait, what? Say that again? Now I’m really confused.
Ted continued his story integrating some of my fragmented responses to solidify the position of his church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For the majority of our flight I was being slowly reeled into an evangelistic conversation with a Mormon; I had no clue. Ted presented himself as a person seeking understanding, looking for answers to some of life’s hardest questions before spinning on a dime and presenting Mormon Doctrine and belief as the ultimate answer to each and every one of these questions. Everything was now starting to make sense.
Ted was bold. But perhaps beyond his boldness was an amazing commitment to his faith, a commitment that even at 6am on a long flight he wanted to share with me, a stranger. Once I moved passed the annoyance, I was honored. I could feel his sincerity, his conviction, the urgency for me to believe in his god.
This commitment to evangelism is one of the marks of Mormonism, something ingrained early in their faith journey and not culminated but formulated deeply in a 2-year missionary experience. With a commitment like this, it’s not hard to see why it is one of the fastest growing religions.
It made me wonder, “Why aren’t Christians like this?”
I read an article in The Atlantic a few years back where those who don’t believe in Christianity said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.” Which makes me wonder pessimistically, “Have we really been transformed by the Gospel?” Do we really believe what Jesus said about the Good News of the incarnation, his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension–you know the Gospel that Peter preached in Acts 2… or that Paul preached in 1 Corinthians 15? Do we really believe that the Gospel changes everything, that it brings wholeness, peace shalom? Or are we, as Americans specifically, continuing to allow Christianity to devolve into an American civil religion, a political platform or voting bloc?
According to Lifeway research, while we believe that sharing our faith is important, we really only pay it lip service. The reality is the vast majority of Christians never actually act on that belief. They never share their faith or do so once or twice in their lifetime.
Penn Jillette famously said a few years back:
I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
We could have a conversation all day about the proper tactics and strategies for sharing your faith, the right way, the wrong way, the insensitive way, the judgmental way, the sales pitch way, etc, etc, etc. And maybe that’s part of the problem. We have turned evangelism into nothing more than a bevy of criticized strategies, castigating each other for how they have chosen to share their faith (missional, evangelism explosion, relational evangelism, Romans Road, etc, etc, etc). The reality of the matter is that evangelism stems not only out of our transformation, but out of our transformed love for others. It is in our ability to see others as human beings, to see the Imago Dei in one another, and to love our neighbor as ourself.
As we parted ways in the airport, he put his hand on my shoulder and implored me to pray to his god… to feel the warmth in my heart of the truth of his gospel message. I was honored by his commitment to me. I was honored by the value he saw in me. How is it that the Mormons are better at showing this form of love and commitment than we are?