01 August 2017

Bikinis, Burqas and Bibles

My 7 year old son Curtis and I were standing at the crossing beneath that iconic arched Surfers Paradise sign on the Gold Coast last week. We'd just devoured 2 chocolate donuts by the beach and were heading back to the hotel. Holding Curtis’ sticky hand, we waited at the crossing for the lights to change. Two ladies wearing skimpy gold bikinis, cowboy hats, boots and Surfers Paradise sashes were welcoming passers by with their ultra white smiles. I didn't know where to look! A few meters away stood a cluster of women wearing dark Burqas revealing just their eyes - it was the starkest of contrasts. And stationed right in the thick of it by the crossing was a man, bible in hand shouting at us all something about abominations, homosexuals, fornicators and repenting. This was one of those bizarre moments where world views collide in a spectacular way and you realise what a privilege it is to live in Australia.

But the atmosphere at the crossing was dominated by the stern voice of the street evangelist. I felt like I was in trouble and I reckon everyone at the lights in that moment became people of prayer — we were all were praying the lights would change!

And as I stood there holding my son’s hand for what seemed an age, my sense of internal agitation continued to grow as I thought to myself ‘Oh would you please shut up!' Suddenly Curtis turned to me with a startled look on his face — I realised that my mouth must have been attached to that thought after all. Slightly embarrassed, I apologised to him — and mercifully the lights changed.

But just a few meters further along the esplanade appeared an elderly couple motionless under the shade of a Yucca Tree . They had erected an A-frame and with brochures in hand about something to do with creation, they stood like statues waiting in an awkward silence for someone to stray a little too close to their side of the pavement. It was like I'd walked into an evangelistic mine field. Again, all I could think was how quickly could we walk and how far away these people were from a truly meaningful engagement with the people passing by, myself included.

Now on reflection, I suspect that that these people are genuinely nice people. They are taking seriously Jesus’ explicit call on all his followers to share the gospel (something the majority of Christians balk at). I applaud their boldness, their obedience and their willingness to be uncomfortable for the sake of the gospel.

But my hunch is that this abrasive and invasive style of communication does more harm than good. If it turns off fellow Christians (like me), how much more does it turn off those already cold to Christianity?

I’m also really passionate about talking with people about Jesus and there are plenty of opportunities to do so each week. Even as I write this I’ve just been sitting next to an older lady in a cafe. As she sipped her green tea and read her Kindle we found ourselves both drawn to the TV on the wall watching Whitney Houston’s video clip of “I will always love you” (remember The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner?). My book and her Kindle seemed less interesting than this cheesy clip because something deeper was happening than just an old memory of a schmaltzy film from the 90’s. For just a moment we both were thinking the same thing — this beautiful virtuoso was actually dead. Her life away from the cameras a prison of addiction and substance abuse and self-loathing. After it ended I voiced that thought, and this stranger and I lamented together on the tragedy of her death and the fragility of life. We both had to leave, but with a little more time this point of connection could have easily developed into a conversation about Jesus that was totally natural and unforced.

People don't want to be shouted at or preyed upon, but they do want connection and I think the vast majority of people want to talk about meaningful things when they have the time and feel safe. And from my experience, there is something very gratifying in fostering those simple, unthreatening yet meaningful conversations with people that sometimes lead nowhere, and sometimes everywhere.

If you’d like to make more intentional yet unforced connections with people about the deeper stuff of life here are a few discoveries I've made along the way that can transform your capacity to connect with the people around you:
  1. Be present. Being physically and emotionally present for the people around you is a mindset. In public spaces (like the cafe you frequent) tear yourself away from that screen, look up, make eye contact, smile, say hello and ask people how their day is. Without a posture of being present, you can be in a crowded room all by yourself. 
  2. Be curious. If you strike up a conversation, don't make it all about you. Being curious about life and how someone else is experiencing it builds connection. You may be the only person that has spoken to them in ages and letting them speak is a great gift to them. I’m constantly surprised what people will disclose after just a few minutes connecting. People like to talk about themselves, so let them. 
  3. Be relaxed. Your only agenda should be to leave someone feeling encouraged. Remember, people aren't simply ‘souls to win,’ they are simply people to be loved. If you are all tense about connecting with people (or nailing the four spiritual laws), they will pick up on it and become tense too. 
  4. Be safe. One reason why people don't talk to strangers may stem from being told not to in childhood. So fear cripples us from living out some of the most basic instructions of Jesus. Yes, be wise in who you will connect with. Don’t place yourself in an unsafe situation. But also remember you need to be a safe person. This looks like always leaving the other person with the balance of power, not forcing the conversation or moving faster than they want. When they need to go, let them.
God really likes that person in front of you. Your privilege is to reveal it.