Evangelism a.k.a. Trespassing in Northern Virginia

I put up about 600 door-hangers today in townhouse communities around Burke. Townhouses are faster and there’s a classist assumption in my head that people who are “less established” are more open to trying out a new church. I’m really regretting that we didn’t move into a townhouse community. I absolutely hate the concept of townhouses because I want to have a half-acre garden, but there’s so much more community there. There were tons of little kid trikes and bikes out in the front yard. All of the kids were running around, playing, and laughing. And it’s very ethnically diverse. It would have been a great environment for my sons to grow up in, but I wanted to have a garden. Oh well.

Anyhow, it will be interesting to see what kind of return we get (if any). When we door-hanger for Sunday worship, it’s a lot harder to track whether anybody responds. But these door-hangers were for our LifeSign contemporary service where it will be very obvious if we have first-time visitors who don’t come in with a regular. The whole time I was door-hangering, I was asking God, “Just one… even one.” What I’m really hoping is that someone who is going through a hard time will have the courage to give church another chance. The goal is to reach people who are hurting, not to have a relatively full-looking sanctuary so that I can feel like I’m not a failure.

In any case, I had three somewhat paradigmatic conversations today. It always makes me nervous when people are outside while I’m spamming their houses in person. Usually they’re on their phones so I don’t want to interrupt them but it feels like bad form to put the hanger on the knob while they’re standing there so I skip over their house and do the next-door neighbors’, waiting for them to get off the phone but then they often don’t. Sometimes they go inside to hide when they see what I’m doing. So there aren’t too many face-to-face conversations, but today I had three.

The first was a girl with dozens of piercings and boy-cut pink hair. She was wearing headphones. All I said was, “Hey, how’s it going?” She grunted something and moved on. I really wanted to tell her how 9 years ago, I used to spend most of my time with people who looked exactly like her in an anarchist compound in the beautiful urban wasteland of inner-city Detroit, but I didn’t have the tats or piercings to prove that I used to be a wannabe punk. I think the reason I never marked myself is that I’ve never had the guts to drop out of my bourgeois identity completely. But I wanted to tell this girl that if she came to my church, I would feel a little more at home there myself. She was wearing headphones so I moved on.

Then I ran into a group of Latino kids playing outside under the shade of a tree. I started to just put the door-hangers up at their houses without saying anything, but they were staring at me so I went over and struck up a conversation. They were very friendly. This one girl told me about how she was Catholic but hadn’t been to mass since first communion. Then her father drove up and she wanted to introduce me to him, which made me feel creepy since I had been talking to his kids when I was a stranger. I told him that I was from a Methodist church but we were como catolico because we had communion every week, the only difference being that we had an informal worship service con guitaras y todo where kids were allowed to dance in the aisles. I usually tell Spanish-speaking people that my church is evangelico for categorization purposes. I guess Methodism really is como catolico and evangelico at the same time. Not everyone would agree, but I think John Wesley would be okay with that “both-and” definition.

So the third conversation I had was with a guy who told me he was Muslim. I suppose if I were a certain type of evangelical, I would have said in my head, Guess you’re going to hell, but what I said instead was, “Salaam alekum,” and he said back, “Walekum salaam.” I don’t know. I want to believe that somehow through the mystery of God, the need that we have to receive the atonement of Christ can be resolved in a different way through Islam. I don’t know anything about that religion. I’m not particularly interested in studying it in depth. But I didn’t see any point in debating theology with a stranger of another faith so I just exchanged the peace of God with him.

After I was done door-hangering, I decided to try cutting through the woods since my house is very close geographically to the townhouses where I had been, but because there’s a creek and a protected wildlife area, there are no direct roads, so I would have had to walk a couple of miles by road what was several hundred yards through the woods. I walked into what the map said was a public park. There was even a sign describing the park and the park rules, but the drive leading back to the park quickly turned into some redneck’s driveway with signs that said “Warning! Firearms in use. No trespassing.” So I jumped across the creek behind the redneck’s house and started walking through the woods.

Then it hit me that I was really trespassing. The fact that I was dressed in khakis and a polo shirt which had been my badge of legitimacy on the sidewalk became the reason that I would seem suspicious to somebody who came across me. What kind of man dressed up in preacher casual bushwacks through the woods? A homeless guy? A crazy drunk? A burglar? A predator of some kind? So I was hoping that I could quickly find my way to a road. I was using the “locator services” feature on my iphone as my compass. But what I found when I approached the houses on the road that my culdesac feeds off of was that every house had a fence-line behind it. Only in Northern Virginia! I was basically treading through a crack between the walls of suburban legitimacy. There were many thorns which made me very glad I was wearing my khakis. I had on sandals though and there were a lot of beer bottles on the ground, some broken.

I couldn’t jump over a fence because then I would “officially” be trespassing but the longer I stayed in the woods, the more I panicked that somebody would find me. It caused me to wonder if a white man in the woods is as illegitimate and vulnerable to suspicion as a brown man walking on the sidewalk in a white neighborhood (as opposed to doing something socially appropriate like mowing the grass or blowing leaves or spreading mulch). The whiteness that serves as my universal passport loses its legitimacy outside the boundaries of suburban normalcy demarcated by the fence-lines of private property. Forgive the ridiculous presumptuousness of saying this, but I wondered if what I felt was analogous (though certainly not equivalent) to what undocumented immigrants feel or what Palestinians feel on the outside of the gated communities of Israel. After a somewhat distressing twenty minutes of trying to find a yard without a fence to walk briskly through to the safety of the sidewalk, I finally made it to a road, climbed up a steep hill, and emerged back into the freedom of my white bourgeois legitimacy.

Now maybe I’ve just read too much postmodern philosophy but it seems to me that trespassing in the woods behind the backyard fences of suburbia is somehow a metaphor for the timid attempts we make at evangelism here in northern Virginia. I don’t know that the people are necessarily unfriendly, but for a middle-class white boy like me, I see so many fencelines that it’s taboo to cross. Like what do you do about the fact that most doors don’t have doorknobs but latches that won’t hold a door-hanger secure? Do you open the storm door gently and slide the door-hanger inside of it? But it seems like inevitably when you start to do this, then the door sticks and creaks really loudly until five Rottweilers start barking from inside. What do you do when the door inside the storm-door is open and somebody is talking several feet inside the house? I always try to look at the ground and move quickly. I’ve developed a new fondness for doormats. We have card-stock door-hangers in plastic baggies, so you can usually slide them pretty quickly under the mat and run away.

I know that what we’re supposed to be doing is “invitational evangelism” (where you tell the people who go to your church to invite their friends to come). I’ve heard the lectures; I agree with them; I’ve made the lectures myself. But what do you do when you’re a pastor and nobody seems willing to do that? You put up 600 door-hangers and talk about it on facebook in a peppy and hopefully not-too-guilt-trippy kind of way so that somebody in your church might notice and take pity on you or possibly even be inspired to invite one of their friends to church. So as I sit here scratching the poison ivy or whatever my ankles got into during my adventures in the wilderness between the fencelines of suburban legitimacy(maybe that’s too guilt-trippy)… how about YOU invite somebody you know to church? 😀

8 thoughts on “Evangelism a.k.a. Trespassing in Northern Virginia

  1. I love your comments on feeling vulnerable! I’m currently in a “place” of vulnerability myself; an American English teacher serving a secondary school in rural Thailand. God is definitely using this experience to expose and burn away my concern for personal appearance as I attempt to carry the cross and let Him live through me. I laugh when I think about the things God does to us in order to make Himself known!


  2. Morgan, It really is a both/and, rather than an either/or kind of thing, and it takes a long time to cultivate the invitational evangelism sentiment in today’s church. But if you can get the energy flowing in the right way, it has the potential to go viral. People invite other people to the things they love and enjoy. In growing churches, there are people who can’t wait to tell their friends about how great their church is. If you can connect with just a few people who truly love their church and encourage and equip them to talk about it to others, it can make a world of difference. And it just may be a response from the doorhangers that produces someone on fire for the church.

  3. Hi Morgan! I think it’s awesome that you put out 600 door hangars today. I totally understand your frustration at getting others to join you in this quest. I too find the same road block in my churches.

    I have to comment on your encounters. For the girl with the piercings and pink hair. I think you missed your chance there. Your ‘in’ was the opportunity to chat about those piercings and her choice of hair color. Then you could have shared with her your experiences in Detroit. Evangelism doesn’t have to begin with Jesus, but it certainly ends with Jesus. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the piercings or colored hair, what matters is your interest in her vs. judgement. Tats were just how a colleague and I started a conversation with a young man who it turns out feels called to be a pastor but has many obstacles in his way.

    On your second encounter. Don’t make excuses. You’re out there representing Jesus Christ. Be proud to share about your church and it’s services. Show your excitement. Invite them. Just because they’re Catholic doesn’t mean they might not be interested in what we’re doing.

    And your third encounter. You don’t have to know a lot about the Muslim religion. You don’t have to study it in depth. You don’t have to have a theological encounter. Again, show interest, ask questions, let him share with you. You will be blessed by the conversation that ensues.

    I consider myself ‘the common man’s pastor.’ I haven’t been to seminary, I don’t use the ‘big’ words. I just say it how I feel it, ask questions, and learn from those I encounter. Just recently, while at conference here in WI, a colleague and I happened into a t-shirt shop. There we encountered George. George is from Bulgaria. He asked us why we were in town and we told him. His next statement was, ‘oh, you believe in Jesus. Tell me why you believe in Jesus and I’ll tell you why I don’t.” What an incredible opportunity. And it turned into an opportunity to talk with many young people that night right in the streets of WI Dells.

    Never give up on your goals, but don’t be afraid to ask questions and make the most of those encounters.

    Blessings, Sue (pastor WI annual conference)

    • Wow, thanks for the encouragement, sister. I’ve definitely had some conversations like what you’re talking about where God guided me in. The good thing about door-hangering is it puts you in the position of talking to people particularly if you time it right like in the evening when folks are just getting home from work. I’m glad that there are Methodist pastors out there willing to hit the bricks. It’s a good influence. Have you had any success getting members of your congregation to get out in the street? It’s hard to push back against the social awkwardness people say that they feel.

      • No, no success with my congregations. They are lost in the past and afraid of the future. I am struggling to keep them going. If you read Dan’s blog right after conference, you could say the same thing is happening here. We are looking at doing an assessment to see if there is really any viability left. The area is rural to the max with population depleting. And it’s off the beaten path. So only their willingness, if there is any, will tell the story. Right now there isn’t any willingness. As Dan said in the post from Thursday, you can’t put it all on the pastor. You gotta be willing to do the work to make your church grow.

        But that will never stop me from hitting the streets wherever I go and sharing the joy of Jesus Christ with everyone I encounter. You never know who might be needing Jesus at that very moment. I find it incredible that another friend and colleague of mine, no matter where we go someone always comes up to us and joins in the conversation. One night I saw him get a kid crying and turning his life over to Jesus. It was one of the most incredible moments in my life. We were just sitting at a table discussing church and the Bible and this kid walks up and joins in the conversation. Totally awesome!

        Wish I lived near ya, I’d be out there in the streets with you!

  4. Evangelism happens in at least two identifiable ways. The first being “Come and see” and the second being “go and tell.” The first way is considered more socially acceptable. Check it out: “Hey! I’m a church goer. Come and see what happens at my church! You are welcome there! We’d love to have ya!” The second way is considered dishonorable in some ways by our culture. Check it out: “Hey! I believe in Jesus. What do you think about the claims he makes about us, and the claims he makes about himself? They are quite provokative, and very interesting. What do you think?” I believe that both ways are used by the Lord, and I am very encouraged that you are evangelizing the area! I would love to discuss your strategy for evangelizing the area more. I’m very happy that you decided to share this story.

    Peace bro!

    • Thanks for the encouragement brother. Those are helpful paradigmatic qualifications for thinking about evangelism. I think I tend to be pretty shy about doing the second form without a relationship of trust with the person I’m talking to. I’ve just never seen it go well with a stranger. I used to hand out tracts at UVA back when I was a freshman there. A university setting allows for a lot more aggressive evangelism than going door to door, but maybe I just need more backbone to say, “Screw the fences, I’m going in!”

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