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?