delivered one of my best testimonies for Jesus at 18,000 feet. Or so I
I was flying over the South China Sea from Singapore to an island in
Indonesia. My friend Laurie and I were experiencing an Asian adventure. Air
travel in the 1970s, especially in that part of the world, was pretty rough and
tumble. Laurie was looking a little green around the gills.
An hour or so into the flight the pilot emerged from the cockpit. An
American himself, he'd heard that two other Yanks were aboard.
Looking spiffy in a white uniform, he ambled back to our seats. Assuring us
that his co-pilot had his hand on the controls, the captain offered a tour of
his world. Cool, we thought as we followed him into the cockpit. A chance
to chat with the flight crew.
He showed off the instrument panel and entertained us by suddenly banking
the plane, so we could get a good view of Borneo. The crew laughed as we
lurched around in the tiny cabin. A couple of foul words stung the air, and I
let it be known that such language offended me as I was a Christian.
Laurie shot me a look like you idiot, how could you bring that up
now, but I smiled smugly as if to reply:
Hey, do I look worried? I'm saved.
We had more fun in the cockpit. The pilot teased Laurie about the scare he
had just given us, and I put in another good word for Jesus.
That went well, I congratulated myself as we shakily made our way
back to our seats.
We landed at Jakarta, a refueling stop. The captain, now our friend,
announced a one- to two-hour layover. In the manner of South Pacific air travel
in that decade, things were pretty laid back. During the break, crew and passengers mingled
under a thatched roof hut on the tarmac.
All of a sudden, I noticed the captain didn't seem so friendly toward me. In
fact, he glared. I asked him why, and he let me have it--full throttle.
Turns out I had broken just about every rule of effectively presenting
myself as a Christian. I had been smug about my faith, forced my beliefs on the
cockpit crew and acted like I had it all together when, in fact, the air show
had scared the wits out of me too.
In short, my so-called testimony for the Lord was totally out of context,
inappropriate and therefore not the least bit credible. Worse, I wasn't
following up with my listeners. In the name of "righteous seed planting," I had
flitted like a butterfly, dropping a morsel that contained no meat. I had
probably done more harm than good. At least according to this pilot who,
halfway around the world from our home, had nothing to lose by giving me a
piece of his mind.
By the way, it turned out to be a great trip. But that conversation was an
important data point in another personal journey--both as an on
mission Christian and as a journalist. Over the years I've interviewed
many people whose Sundays don't include church. I've collected their complaints
about how we (sincerely but imperfectly) attempt to share the Jesus we know and
I've found that people who sleep in on Sundays range from skeptics who have
bitter attitudes to folks who call themselves Christians but don't see the
relevance of church. All make valid points, because, no matter how
closed-minded, they are God's creation and the people we want to reach.
By listening to them we can discover what barriers we and our churches can
try to dismantle. Through them we can learn to be more effective.
Following are excerpts from interviews with non-Christians. Michael, like
the rest of the names mentioned, is a pseudonym. All biographical information
is accurate, however.
32, single, civil engineer, Indiana
A big turnoff to me is when Christians approach me like I'm a notch in their
I almost get the impression that [talking to me about Christ] is like a
sales call. First, they introduce their product. Then they tell me the features
and benefits. Finally, they try to close me. It's more like I'm a challenge to
them than a person. I feel a little used if they don't find out about me first,
tell me about themselves, give me a reason to listen. They're telling me about
something so personal, and yet some of them
use the same approach they might use to sell me a phone service. Is this
because we're a product-oriented society or because evangelicals are trying to
I appreciate the concise spiels, because my time is valuable, but--to
me--trendy is about cool shirts, a state-of-the-art pager, a great CD. Heaven
isn't exactly a subject that lends itself to good salesmanship. I'm as modern
as they come, but I need some personality with my technology, if you know what
36, married and stay-at-home mother of three, Kentucky
If you take a hard look at the way some Christians act, it's hard to believe
they have the corner on morality.
Two wives on my cul-de-sac call themselves Christians and talk about their
Bible study. They invited me to come on Thursday mornings. They even offer
coffee and danish. The kids can play in the yard while the ladies talk in the
I figure if they talk about what's in the Bible, that's fine. Trouble is,
I've never been able to bring myself to drop by, because I don't have the
stomach for their kind of talk. I hear so much gossip and mean-spirited
conversation come out of their mouths at community association meetings that I
can't imagine how they must behave at these Bible studies.
I guess they don't know people notice stuff like that.
47, community college instructor, divorced, Washington
I've never really met a thinking-man's Christian. I don't mean to sound like
a snob, but I really have to hear some rationale and objective reality to
believe in something. The "born-agains" who talk to me always use emotion and
scare tactics. That doesn't appeal to me in the least. I'm not asking for
"proof," but I would listen to a man who gave me solid answers to hard
questions. I would even respect him if he said, "I don't know. I've wondered
about that myself." Instead, they always talk to me about blind faith. I try to
be polite and smile, but I wonder if turning off my brain is really a criteria
[for following Christ].
39, government employee, married and father of two,
People spend more time trying to convince me to join their particular church
or denomination--or claiming their brand of theology is the "truth"--than just
talking about this man they say is their Messiah.
That's a big turnoff and distraction.
26, homemaker, mother of one and part-time aerobics instructor,
People who talk to me about their faith seem so perfect, so peppy about it.
They project an image of "I never have a problem now that I'm saved."
I could listen to them better if they showed me just a little more reality
in their lives--how they've failed, what they struggle with, that sort of
thing. It's like they're so intent on doing good PR for God that they can't let
their own humanity show through. The result is that I find myself wondering
what they're really like rather than listening to what might be a very sincere
appeal to me, because I'm so distracted by a delivery that seems a little
It would help if they'd invest more time building a relationship between us
before springing Jesus on me. I feel ambushed by a smiley face if they want me
to think they never get behind on their VISA bill, never get ticked off by a
rude driver, never get mad at their husband--human things I can relate to.
54, owns wallpaper store, twice divorced, no children,
I'm confused about God. In the '50s I heard about a mean God who would
punish me and send me to hell if I didn't believe in Jesus. Then in the '70s I
heard that Jesus was my friend. In the '90s I want to be inspired. I suspect
that if God is Who He says He is, then I should be in awe. But some Christians
describe Him first like He's someone to be feared, then as their buddy. Neither
of those descriptions sounds particularly compelling.
So I just worship God when I see a gorgeous sunset, rather than go to
church. And I don't see anything wrong with that.
66, mackerel fisherman, never married, Nova Scotia
I live a decent life.
I don't bother anybody, and I don't ask anything of them in return. If
someone will show me one thing going to church has ever done for them, then
I'll try it out. My attitude toward God is a personal matter, and I'd like to
keep it that way.
28, dental hygienist, married, one daughter, Montana
People who talk to me about God emphasize what they've done with God's help
rather than what God has done without their help.
I feel like their "God talk" is a sneaky way to brag on themselves while
41, languages teacher, married, two children, Texas
Some Christians make it sound too easy.
Accepting a new life is a huge leap, and yet some people say "just do it"
like they're talking about sportswear. You can't change 40-plus years of habits
and attitudes just like snapping your fingers. Over the years I would say I've
tried to make the leap to living a Christian life at least 10 times, but what's
always missing for me is the answer to these questions: What do I do after I've
accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior? What do I do when the going gets rough?
How do I sustain the new life with all the demands and pressures on me?
In other words, what is the Christian life? Very few Christians seem willing
to talk about that. They just want you to make the initial commitment.
18, U.S. Marine recruit, Oklahoma
Whoa! Don't start in about hell and the devil if you want me to listen to
Tell me something I can relate to, man, not some [stuff] to scare me. I'd
like to know how to make my life better. Negatives don't motivate me.
43, married and father of four, butcher, Nebraska
I deal with the public five and a half days a week. I could tell you stories
that would make your blood boil.
Sometimes people who call themselves religious act as bad as the heathens.
They try to squeeze every dime out of you in a deal. They expect special
favors. They order you around if you have dirt on your apron.
Not all of them are like that. Some are obviously living up to their faith.
But the few who treat others badly undo all the good the others have done. I
think of myself as a Christian in my heart, but--on my one full day off from
work each week--I prefer to buffer myself from people who think they have all
37, beautician and sales rep, mother of twins, Alabama
Christianity frightens me.
I don't think I'm strong enough to be a Christian. I have too many failings
that I don't think are forgivable. The Christians who talk to me have it more
together than I ever will. I feel like it's a "club" I'm not quite good enough
to join. The women are perfect housekeepers, the men are good providers, the
children are well-behaved. I feel like I'm a slob next to these people. I
support my family with two jobs, my kids are a handful, and I always need a
break. I just can't see myself getting involved in church, which takes time and
energy. It's easier just to hope God will forgive me if I die before "getting
Carolyn Curtis is editor of On Mission.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC