Airplane evangelism: Rachel Held Evans vs. Ray Comfort

Rachel Held Evans just wrote a very honest and humble piece about wrestling with the concept of evangelizing people on airplanes. When I was in seminary, I was given a book called Conquer Your Fear: Share Your Faith promoting a very confrontational approach to evangelism by a famous street preacher named Ray Comfort who started an evangelism institute called The Way of The Master. In his book, Ray gives several examples of his experiences evangelizing people on airplanes. So I thought I would put Rachel and Ray into conversation by letting passages from their writings bounce off of each other to see where Christ seems to show up.

Mark spoke in chapel every other year… A former college basketball player with an imposing six-foot-seven frame, bald head, and booming voice, Mark travelled the country telling Christian college students about his evangelistic exploits, challenging us to “wake up from our apathy” and start witnessing to people before they died and went to hell. Mark said his favorite place to witness to someone was on an airplane.  “It’s a captive audience!” he shouted from the stage. “I mean, the target is literally strapped in next to you!”  [He probably said “person,” but all I could hear was “target.”]

Mark suggested we begin a conversation with our seatmate by asking if they knew where they would go spend eternity should there be a catastrophic failure in the plane’s hydraulic system and we all went down in flames. If that doesn’t work, he said, we should drill the person on how many of the Ten Commandments they might have broken, revealing their need for a savior—Ever committed adultery? Ever lied? Ever disobeyed your parents? Ever coveted your neighbor’s things? You know, make a little small talk about idolatry and death and then tell them about Jesus.

Say that you are sitting on an airplane and you finally get up the courage to speak to the man sitting next to you. As he sips his coffee you say, “Hey Brian, I have a question for you. What do you think happens after someone dies?” Brian finishes the last gulp of his coffee, thinks for a minute and says, “Nothing.” You say, “Nothing?” He smiles condescendingly and says, “I’m an atheist.”

Now you’re the one who gulps… This man is obviously an intellectual. He’s a thinker. He probably has a university degree. What do you say now? Here’s what you need to do Stop thinking that Brian is an “intellectual.” That’s just not true. There is a possibility that he has a high IQ, but he is not a deep thinkiner. He’s a “fool” according to the Bible (see Ps. 14:1 and Rom. 1:22). He is very shallow in his thoughts.

I think of Mark every time I fly, which lately, is several times a month. And I have no doubt Mark would be severely disappointed in my typical airplane conversations, which involve a bit of small talk at takeoff (“where you coming from?” “where you headed?”), followed by blessed silence as soon as we reach cruising altitude and my seatmate and I indulge in our respective books or music or sleep, followed by friendly chatter during the final descent (“you going to make your connection?” “don’t you hate/love American Airlines?” “you fly a lot?”).

On the flight back to Atlanta, I sat down in the window seat. Minutes later, a large man sat down in the aisle seat. He was huge and… unable to put the armest down because of the size of his stomach. I said “Good morning, sir. How are you?” He glanced at me and mumbled, “Hey.” His “hey” was very telling. It told me he hated Christians. It told me he definitely didn’t want to talk. It revealed that this man was a bitter, angry, hate-filled human being who was so stressed with life that he was going to kill the next person who tried to ram religion down his godless throat.

Of course, sometimes things get a little more interesting. Like the time I sat next to a mom and her little girl, probably six or seven. It was the little girl’s first time in an airplane, so everything was exciting and breathtaking and adventurous. I switched seats with her so she could look out the window, and, for the first time in a long time, I too saw unicorns, sea monsters and peacocks in the clouds.

Roberta was spilling over into the middle seat between us, and she was concerned for the person who was going to sit in that seat… The man that sat between us had really bad breath, and her pushing him over pushed his breath all over me. It was so bad that I was afraid he would breathe on my computer screen and cause it to shut down. When the airline gave me two airplugs, I was tempted to put them up my nose.

Or the time I sat next to a young man from Hyderabad, India, who couldn’t believe I had been to his home city and that I even knew a couple words in Telegu. He was easy to talk to, spoke warmly about his wife and kids, and made me feel all travelled and wise. When he said he and his wife had found a good temple in Charlotte, and a community of Indians that helped them preserve their culture and language for their children, I said, “Oh good! That’s so important,” knowing good and well that Mark would not approve.

On the airplane ride home from Paris to Los Angeles, I sat next to a man who was older, bigger, and better dressed than I was. Normally I feel intimidated by such individuals when I am sitting next to them on a plane. These are the sorts of people who get the armrest and you don’t even battle them for it. I’m sure you have your nemesis. Big, rich, older businessmen are mine. Give me a young atheist who has been to a university and I am ready to spar, but not this type. Of course, usually it’s just my imagination that is being fueled by my fears, and Mr. Rich Businessman turns out to be congenial. But this was not the case for the man I had just sat beside on the plane. He was proving to be my biggest nightmare. My initial warm greeting had been met with dry ice. There wasn’t the warmth to even kindle the slightest spark of a conversation. So, for the next eight hours, I wrestled with my fears and my lack of love for him.

Adding to my thoughts was a sense of repulsion toward the horrible-sounding cough he had. It physically turn ed my stmoach. Each cough (and there were hundreds) had the echo of a deep, breath-taking gurgle… I decided I would offer him a tract at the end of the flight, and I began reading a Christian magazoine… Mr. Death Cough was now intensely playing on-screen solitaire. He had been at it for a while and was uttering the same four-lettered curse word every time he misplayed. I was sickened by his loud and unashamed dirty speech. Each cuss-word made me think about his godlessness and his eternal fate.

Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to try to witness to him… I boldly asked, “What’s your name?” “Sheen.” “Sheen, I have a question for you. Do you think there’s an afterlife?” “Interesting question… I don’t know.”… When I next asked if I could question him about his goodness, out came the dry ice. He said he didn’t want to talk any further, so I mumbled, “I tried,” and decided to leave him to his coughing and cussing. I did have a warm consolation. I no longer felt the plaguing of my conscience. I also had the consolation that success isn’t about getting a decision for Christ or even sharing the whole gospel. Success is simply doing my best to obey God.

A couple of months ago, I sat next to a sixty-something woman on a flight to Newport News. She and her husband of nearly fifty years had retired to the Virginia Coast, she said, because there were so many colleges in the area… Tears gathered in her eyes as she told me about her husband’s recent stroke. His personality changed. He can’t remember words. He gets frustrated easily. “I’d be frustrated too, if I were him,” she said. “Can you imagine? Everything that was once familiar is suddenly…difficult, strange, confusing.”  Her husband sat in the row in front of us, staring ahead. She put her hand on his shoulder.

I listened for a long time, moved by her love for her husband and her daily acts of faithfulness in caring for him. At one point in the conversation, she mentioned with some frustration that her daughter had become a “fundamentalist Christian” and wasn’t helping much. I decided not to venture down the Romans Road.  Instead I told her how sorry I was. I think I may have mentioned an ancient poem that describes certain women as “women of valor,” and that I thought she sounded like one. I told her I hoped I could be as good a wife to my husband as she has been to hers, and that I would pray for her. I worried that last bit might be pushing it, but she seemed genuinely grateful. She nodded off to sleep for the last 20 minutes of the flight and we didn’t say much to one another after that.

So the next time you sit next to or talk to someone who professes atheism, don’t be at all intimidated. Be encouraged. Here is a shallow thinker who loves his or her sins. You simply have to learn how to address that person’s conscience. You do that by imitating Jesus and using His moral Law to bring the knowledge of sin. Then you offer the grace of Christ’s death that paid the penalty for that sin and His resurrection that promises eternal life with Him.

Maybe “planting seeds” is all any of us ever do. Maybe “witnessing” is about the choice we have to plant seeds of unkindness, hurry, hate, and greed in one another’s lives, or to plant seeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. Whether it’s in our closest relationships or our brief encounters with strangers, we always have that choice—to bring life or to bring death, to bring an agenda or to bring love, to bring a product or to bring Jesus.

The woman on the plane planted a good seed in my heart, and I hope I planted a good seed in hers. We might not get to watch as the God of rain and soil and sun makes those seeds grow, but we can trust that God is faithful, that God can take even our clumsiest attempts at witnessing and turn them into something good. Or maybe I’m just chicken.

Thoughts? Reactions? Where do you hear the spirit of Christ here?


35 thoughts on “Airplane evangelism: Rachel Held Evans vs. Ray Comfort

  1. Oh my goodness, I stumbled upon this website and I just have to leave a comment. I have studied almost every single sermon given by Ray Comfort and this website totally mis-represents who Ray Comfort is, His heart for the lost, and how he actually witnesses to people. The comments were even more shocking. Not so much about Ray, because they never got a true glimpse to who Ray is and what he says to people, but I’m rather shocked at the mindset that just “loving” people is somehow witnessing to people. If you truly believe that there is a Hell and those who don’t put their faith in Christ for their salvation is headed there… then not telling them why Jesus came (to redeem us) and from what (sin) because they are headed to hell (wages of sin is death) then not telling them the truth in love, is no love at all… It would be like watching a person drowned in a pool beside you and telling me you loved them by being nice to them. noooo love would be pulling them to safety. in evangelism that is called sharing the gospel with them.

    • I just quoted what he wrote in his book. You should read it. It seemed to me like it showed a different side of Ray than what you’re describing.

      • Morgan, I’m sure I could dig through your website and take a little of this and a little of that of what you said and totally mis-represent the essence of what you were saying. listen we could debate that until we’re blue in the face. So lets put Ray off to the side. In your words how does a person becomes saved? and
        why does he need to become saved?

        • Trent, I commented earlier so I just want to share a quick thought. Becoming saved is a process. We all play different parts in sowing the seeds that can potentially lead to a relationship with God. A few of us may be fortunate to be present when someone accepts Christ into their life but that is not always the case.

          I’m sure Ray has a “heart for the lost” but I think it may be misguided to view people in terms of their sin rather than their worth and gifts as a child of God. It is really hard for anyone to be able to know the true heart of another. If you make judgements about people because of a single response, the way they look, or their unfortunate weight or breath, I think it diminishes the opportunity to show God’s love – which is the ultimate witness we have to offer.

          My prayer is that we all find a way to offer the gift of Christ through our loving actions towards one another.


          • I think understanding that God is using multiple people in multiple phases of a person’s life to reach them is important. Most mistakes are made when I assume that it’s up to me by myself to bring a person to Christ.

        • We are slaves to sin without God’s deliverance through Christ. To be saved is to gain freedom from sin by putting our trust in Christ and surrendering to Him. I tend to object to the sidewalk “decision-for-Christ” mode of evangelism because it’s a life of trusting Jesus and confessing Jesus as Lord, not a one-time choice. In this sense, Ray Comfort’s critique of the way that the church often does evangelism is spot-on. I largely agree with his critique of how things have been done, but I don’t agree that the right way to do it is to argue with people on the sidewalk about whether or not they’ve followed the Ten Commandments. Ray claims that this was Jesus’ approach but I thought his Biblical support was unconvincing.

          • Morgan, what is sin? Paul said that he didn’t know what sin was until the Law told him. (romans 7:7) In Galatians 3:24 Paul directly says that the Law was our tutor to bring us to Christ. When Ray Comfort uses the law… it’s not in a legalistic way… it’s to show a person that nobody can keep the law! therefore showing a person (WHY) they need a savior. The law shared in love (and Ray does this) directs a person to Christ. It gives a person the proper understanding of who God is. You see God is perfect, just and Holy. God says that he will leave no guilty person unpunished, Ezekiel 34 All liars will have their place in the lake of fire. Rev21:8. How can a Just God forgive sin and yet leave no guilty person unpunished? the answer is in the cross of Christ. Jesus came to redeem us from the law. You try to explain why we need to trust Jesus without explaining why Jesus came and you leave SO MUCH of How Merciful, Gracious and loving God is. You deprive a person of their understanding of the gospel and therefore they never come to Christ in a true life changing way. (salvation) when a person truly becomes a child of God they become a new person in Christ and it creates in them a repentant heart. We don’t repent to get saved…. that would be works salvation… we repent as the Holy Spirit changes us inwardly and your right its not a one time thing… it’s continual. And that is because we are sensitive to the sin in our lives. A person coming to Christ reflects King David’s repentant prayer in Psalms 51. The Bible says that unless you repent you shall perish. A person does need to be broken in order to be healed. You choose to give people a feel good gospel and the cure of Jesus without first giving them the understanding of their problem of sin and you will produce many false Christians. the bible refers to them as “goats”. These people are the people Jesus talks about in Matt 7:21. where he will tell them… depart from me, I never knew you, you who practice lawlessness. You feel good, watered down gospel message is not love, it leading people straight to hell. You will get many people accepting your message because they never truly understood the gospel. They will be like simon the sorcerer. the bible said that he BELIEVED IN JESUS… and he was baptized… this man was like so many today.. they believe in Jesus but they are still captive to sin just like Simon the sorcerer was although he believed. You said, “putting our trust in Christ” that’s correct… but trust Christ for what and why? without giving them a proper understanding… that could mean anything to an unsaved person… it could mean.. trusting him to give us power… fix our marriage…. but that isn’t right…. you know Morgan that trusting in Christ means to trust in him for our salvation based on what he did for us on the cross. You know that! but does the people you talk to know that?? Are churches are filled with so many “goats” and its because people are coming to Christ for the wrong motive and therefore not finding true salvation. I hope you really think about that… because you will have to answer to God for being a teacher of the law… a teacher of the law who seems to blatantly dismiss the law and hides it from your listeners. May God for give you! take care.

  2. Two things:
    1) I don’t evangelize. I share and talk and listen. I’m just human. If something comes up, then great. I’m not worried that I’m somehow going to screw it up. Wouldn’t it be better if I were just the human that I am rather than some image of the “perfect” witness? The God I believe in–who left heaven to come to Earth, to be acquainted with grief and loss and death–is in love with me and the people around me. I’m not too worried that I have to do something at any particular moment to make something happen. Go with the flow.
    2) I’ve been in a few car crashes and one head-on train crash. You’re not going to know what happens, not at all, if your plane crashes. Beforehand, you might feel scared, but at the moment of impact you’re just not going to know. You’re not going to know pain or fear or anything. So relax.

    • Reading the quotes from Ray Comfort, my overwhelming impression is of a sad, fearful, insecure man, not at ease in his own skin. And of a man with a shallow, woefully inadequate view of God. (I’m sure these things are related.) I can recognise the fear of strangers – I’ve been there – but part of the cure is to meet them. Really meet them – find out who they are. And to ask God to be in our meeting. As Rachel has found.
      Ray seems to jump to conclusions about people next to him without even trying to find out if he is right or not. The man was uncommunicative, so he hated Christians???
      I guess Ray believes that whether someone goes to heaven or hell depends on whether someone (like him) “witnesses” to them. That’s quite a burden, if you’re nervous and afraid and all you have is a sense of obligation. It also seems quite improbable. Doesn’t leave much room for God either, except as the hard taskmaster demanding good sales figures. No wonder he’s fearful.
      I wonder how I’d respond if I found myself sitting next to Ray. I hope I’d be a witness. But maybe I’d just be fearful of being trapped.

      • “I wonder how I’d respond if I found myself sitting next to Ray. I hope I’d be a witness. But maybe I’d just be fearful of being trapped.”

        Too bad I don’t fly. I’d love to end up sitting next to this guy. Let’s count how many of the ten commandments I’ve broken and how many times I did it. And then lets take a look at Micah 6:8. In fact, Ray, please show me where in the Old Testament — anywhere is fine, I’ll give you the whole Old Testament and the Apocrypha too if you need it — just show me where in the Old Testament it says if you break one commandment one time you will go to hell to burn for all eternity. “Paul says” — no Ray, stop right there. You wanted to talk about the ten commandments, not Paul. Where in the Ten Commandments does it mention hell? “Paul says” — Ray, I’m giving you the whole Old Testament: are you telling me you can’t find even ONE passage in the WHOLE Old Testament (or even the Apocrypha) that says you go to hell for all eternity if you break just one of the Ten Commandments once? “Paul says” — Ray, my man, Paul has nothing to do with it: show me where the Law says it. He’d be a basket-case by the end of the flight.

  3. You’ve put quite the contrast together. I personally lean towards a conversational style that waits for people to talk with me about their own faith, or curiosity about mine. I’d much rather see conversations that were not confrontational, but where some seed of relationship allows it to be natural.


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  5. I get it. And I don’t mean to be harsh, but this seems like an unfair set-up from the get-go. Someone who talks about Jesus on an airplane sees people as targets and describes them with disdain, all while talking about the compulsion to share and save them from godlessness. Someone who doesn’t share their faith treats people with kindness and respect.

    The reality is that in these examples, of COURSE RHE (who I respect greatly, btw) is the one showing Christ through her compassion, through her seeing of people as PEOPLE. I don’t know much about Ray Comfort, but the way he writes about these encounters turns my stomach in the same way he describes reacting to the gurgle-y cough.

    And yet…it doesn’t need to be this way! That’s why I kind of think this is a set-up. When we speak to people, whether about Christ or not, it should be with respect. It should be because we love with the love Christ gave us. I think that we can always look for opportunities. Maybe there will be one on a plane–maybe not. But pitting two extreme examples against one another, especially when one of them is so clearly harsh and unbecoming, doesn’t make a case for whether or not an airplane is a mission field.

    Anywhere can be a mission field, or a point for conversation with people about Jesus. Or just for conversation. Or not. I think the point is that we should have our hearts engaged with Jesus, asking for eyes to see the world as he does, and seek discernment in our conversations, treating people with respect whether we talk about Jesus explicitly, or share him implicitly with our actions.

    • I hear what you’re saying. I thought about how it would look. I honestly wasn’t cherry picking from his book. This is how he presented evangelism. I think evangelistically about every person I encounter. This is not to my credit. It’s instinct. But I’m always asking God how much to say and when to say it. So the argument is not “Don’t use words” or something. It’s just this aggressive 10 commandment approach is not at all Biblical. Comfort’s exegesis is atrocious.

      • I do agree that his presentation seems egregious–and I don’t think I need the whole book to see that. But perhaps there is a more balanced view of someone who does witness and speak up places like planes that also shares the same kind of respect and kindness and love that Rachel Held Evans does. That was more my point–not that you gave Comfort the short shaft. It seems that the conclusion drawn here (unless I was missing something) is that we shouldn’t be doing evangelism on planes because it looks like Comfort’s portrayal. When I think there could be a lovely view of evangelism that looked very different. Maybe I misunderstood the point of the piece, but it seemed a little bit of a closed conversation, I guess, if that makes sense. Still lots of good things to think about!

        • I probably should have interspersed my own commentary. I think I wanted to just let them speak for themselves, but because the contrast was so dramatic, I can see how the message would look the way you’re describing. I actually do see every time I’m sitting with a stranger as a holy opportunity. That’s where kingdom happens. What’s beautiful is when you meet a brother or sister in Christ and you talk as though you had known each other forever. It’s strange but I have a much easier time talking about Jesus to strangers in Spanish. When we’re flying to Latin America on mission trips, it often happens. But it’s never me interrogating the other person about their eternal destiny. When I witness, I basically talk to the other person as though they’re already a Christian and just share testimony about what God has been doing in my life at the time. I got this from reading a really good book called Live To Tell by Brad Kallenberg.

        • I probably should have interspersed my own commentary. I think I wanted to just let them speak for themselves, but because the contrast was so dramatic, I can see how the message would look the way you’re describing. I actually do see every time I’m sitting with a stranger as a holy opportunity. That’s where kingdom happens. What’s beautiful is when you meet a brother or sister in Christ and you talk as though you had known each other forever. It’s strange but I have a much easier time talking about Jesus to strangers in Spanish. When we’re flying to Latin America on mission trips, it often happens. But it’s never me interrogating the other person about their eternal destiny. When I witness, I basically talk to the other person as though they’re already a Christian and just share testimony about what God has been doing in my life at the time. I got this from reading a really good book called Live To Tell by Brad Kallenberg.

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  7. I actually had a “Ray Comfort” moment last year. It was on a small commuter plane leaving from Atlanta. A young man sat down next to me and after a few minutes asked “Do you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior” I was happy to reply “Yes” and that I was on my way home from a UMC event with youth. I probably disappointed him because we didn’t talk further… I’m not very social on planes.

    However, about 45 minutes into the flight we hit terrible turbulence. (Terrible is not good enouhg to describe it…) It was so bad at one point that the plane dropped several feet, people’s belongings were flung about the plane (my iPod ended up in the seat in front of me) and the flight attendant hit her head.

    IF my seatmate had asked me if I knew Jesus Christ at that moment, I’m pretty sure I would have agreed to accept salvation again. 🙂

    I fly more more than I want to and I have anxiety (had it before that experience above but it only heightened after that) so I think trying to convert someone in a captive environment is a REALLY BAD IDEA and shows no care or consideration for the other person.

    With the people Ray describes on the plane, I wonder if one of them is flying home to grieve the loss of a family member and is not in the mood to talk. Or maybe they don’t like flying or enclosed spaces. Maybe you can get this information if you take Rachel’s approach. Maybe, just maybe, if Ray actually took a real cue from Jesus (for example Jesus at the well with the woman) you would know its MOST important to know the person first – to be relational rather than confrontational.

    So if you do see me on a flight and I’m not talkative, know this: 1) Yes, I know Jesus and 2) I’m praying right now for a good flight. 😉

  8. I’ve found that I don’t need to do what Ray is doing because the minute I say I’m a pastor, people have questions. And I love that. Even when I hate it. I never know what will happen but it has taught me that people are often seeking to be close to God. Or they wonder what pastors do. Or they have Jesus questions. I love being able to talk about why I’m a Jesus follower and how that’s transforming my life. And I’m glad I get to tell them amazing stories about writing prisoners and visiting strippers. I’ve never felt the need to figure out if they’ll be at the right hand of Jesus in the afterlife. I’m just glad to love my seat neighbor. But, it’s all natural ebb and flow conversation. I’ve NEVER had to create a moment for evangelism. People tend to be already searching and I pray the Holy Spirit put us together for some reason.

    • Amen. Praise God that He’s gifted you like that. I kind of tend to have evangelism radar on all the time just as an innate part of my brain. But I’m not always very gregarious with strangers.

  9. I think the most interesting thing is how much Ray clearly despises the people he’s flying with. The commentary about the size of the people next to him is completely unnecessary, other than to establish that something is “wrong” with them. It doesn’t read as, “I care about you and your soul.” It reads as “You are a miserable human being, and I’d really rather not talk to you at all, but Jesus is making me, so here goes nothing….”

    I’m a firm believer that Christianity is better shown that talked about. Very few people are logicked into relationship with Jesus. Most are won over by his overwhelming love, something that Ray doesn’t seem to bring with him.

    • When you think that God is a misanthropic dooshbag, then being a misanthropic dooshbag is solidarity with God.

  10. Very obvious… So sad that folks who have the Ray Comfort mindset actually convince themselves they are sharing the gospel… Smh…

    • Yup… You know, the anguish of his Pharisaism is palpable though; it made me really feel sad for him. He’s a misanthrope because his ideology made him one.

      • I actually feel sorry for him. He’s so wrapped up in his duty and obedience and superiority he’s missing out on so much love.

        I remember that feeling.

        It’s so very lonely.

  11. I’m pretty sure I’ve met that guy, “Mark,” (who learned from Ray Comfort) at a weekend conference-type thing when I was about 19 and had to go into the streets of Knoxville, Tennessee with him to do that same airplane technique but out in the street instead (a “not-so-captive” audience, I guess… that must have been the problem).

    Complete side note–Where are you a Pastor at? Isn’t it in the D.C. area somewhere. I was just wondering because I’ll be in the D.C. area in a couple weeks.

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