Discussion Starter: An Illinois circuit court recently ruled that a Baptist group could legally distribute anti-Catholic leaflets at a Catholic festival. Meanwhile the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said that it was unconstitutional to restrict passing out Christian tracts at the Arab International Festival in Dearborn, Michigan. So now that such festival evangelism is legal, the question is: Is it effective?

"The practice of proselytizing in public is as old as the New Testament. Jesus preached at public gatherings during feast times, and Paul preached openly in the marketplaces. So there seems to be a very old precedent for this kind of activity. Furthermore, Paul recognized that some preached Christ with good motives and some with bad; nevertheless, he was pleased Christ was preached at all. Perhaps here the question becomes more complex and must be considered along two different lines at least. The fact that people can preach Christ in an unsavory way would require that those participating in marketplace evangelism monitor themselves to prevent abuses. Plato noted in The Laws that 'an abuse does not nullify a proper use.' If we judged any segment of society by its worst examples, who could stand? Nevertheless, to legislate against the bad uses in a way that prevents valid uses is itself an abuse."

Jerry Root, professor, Wheaton College

"Most Muslims and most people, the statistics show, come to the Lord through a process of God dealing with them over a period of time. Very seldom does anybody do the classic 'somebody's a non-Christian who has never heard the gospel and you give them a tract, they read it, and at the end get saved.' That's very rare. But if you use the tract to open up a conversation with someone, you can find out their felt needs; you can meet them where they are. Personal evangelism is often the most effective."

Danny Lehmann, evangelism representative, YWAM Global Leadership Forum

"Yes, if it isn't distracting from the event. Yes, if it is done with respect to the person and culture that they come from, being sensitive to the differences. Yes, if it's done with kindness to the person you are attempting to share with, passing out a lot of smiles. Yes, if you respect their wish not to listen to you. Yes, if you approach it as humbly, gently, and broken over the eternal destinies of people. No, if you are loud, arrogant, and aggressive in the way you come across. No, if you don't genuinely love the people you are sharing with. No, if you haven't bothered trying to understand their point of view and aren't willing to listen to them. No, if you are not practically serving them in some way to show the love of Jesus. No, if all you want to do is preach."

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Bob Roberts, pastor, NorthWood Church

"God spoke to Balaam through a donkey. So I reckon God can also use a tract. But I'm not sure that makes it God's favorite medium. The best evangelism happens through relationships, through sharing burdens, dreams, pains, and fears. The Gospel spreads like disease—through life, breath, touch, and shared life; it is not so much taught as it is caught. The incarnation is all about God moving into the neighborhood, and joining the human struggle. Perhaps a tract can be our first glimpse of God, and spark some sort of curiosity. But the good news is that God so loved the world that He did not just give us a tract but gave us his Son. And it is this same God who invites us to give our lives away for the sake of others. Jesus spread the Gospel not through force, but through fascination. And we get to do the same."

Shane Claiborne, founding partner, The Simple Way

"Very rarely. Most people become Christians through relationships, not by being handed pieces of paper. The latter usually has more to do with some Christians feeling like they are 'doing something' than anything that changes people."

Christian Smith, professor of sociology, Notre Dame

"Recent court rulings demonstrate how they're effective at causing acrimony, which, in my darker moods, I imagine is the actual intent of such 'evangelism.' The tracts and street preaching in question appear to be anti-Catholic or anti-Muslim more so than an authentic sharing of the gospel. If the message we're charged to spread is good news, the good news of God-in-the-flesh dying for sinners who betrayed and killed him, then logically I don't see how such a message can be conveyed in a way that is bound to be received as aggressive, hostile, or dismissive. Nor do I see how tracts or impersonal witness is adequate to our message. Our news, after all, is of an incarnational God. I don't believe we can share the message of such a God in a way that doesn't require us to put flesh to the message, opening ourselves to strangers and building relationships rather than passing out slips of paper."

Jason Micheli, pastor, Aldersgate United Methodist Church

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"These measures have little positive effect, but considerable potential for irritating their targets. Fliers that advertise an event might attract some percentage of recipients, though Billy Graham's team learned long ago that the best way to get the unconverted to his services was to have them brought by friends. This was the rationale for Operation Andrew, which reportedly accounts for a substantial proportion of people making first-time decisions. I doubt that fliers containing a brief gospel message have much impact. Tracts may be useful in addressing specific questions that an unconverted person might have, but the chance of matching the specific question with people receiving tracts on the street seems rather small."

William Martin, senior fellow for religion and public policy, Baker Institute, Rice University

"In my studies of church growth, early on I learned the distinction between 'decision-making' and 'disciple-making.' On one hand, decision-making represents a point in time—an event. By contrast, disciple-making represents a span of time—a process. Here's an important point: The goal is the key to determining the process. If the goal is an event (i.e., pray the sinner's prayer, come forward to the altar), then all kinds of methods have justified that end. But if the goal is a process (i.e., grow in the faith, involvement in a church, bring friends to new faith), then our methods will differ. But, you may ask, doesn't the event begin the process? Sometimes. But most every pastor can vouch for the fact that not all who make decisions become disciples and responsible church members. Some methods of evangelism practiced today are not only irrelevant to disciple-making, but actually counter-productive to it. I would put most distribution of tracts and flyers and typical street evangelism methods into that category."

Charles Arn, president, Church Growth, Inc.

Related Elsewhere:

Additional Christianity Today coverage of tracts, evangelism, and missions ethics includes:

Top Evangelical, Catholic, and Mainline Bodies Issue Evangelism Rules | Missiologists applaud unity effort, but note what's missing and what will raise eyebrows. (June 29, 2011)
Evangelism as Sacrament | Velcroed to a high felt need: Jerry Root says evangelism is seeing how God is already working in someone's life. (April 28, 2011)
Gas-Powered Gospels | Christians in South Korea use helium-filled balloons to spread gospel tracts. (January 22, 2009)
Editorial: The Greatest Social Need | It happens to be something that evangelicals are specially gifted to meet. (January 19, 2009)

Previous topics for discussion include politicians and infidelity, politicians and religious persecution, faith healing and legal protection, pastors' housing allowances, sacred spaces, stinginess, TSA screening, Christmas carols with questionable theology, and life ethics for the unborn.

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