Why Does it Make a Difference?

God was with me that day.  Not only did I manage to get on an earlier flight, but it appeared that the two seats next to me would be empty for the trip … for me, that’s heaven.  Just before the hatch door to the jet way closed, a young man stumbled onto the plane.  We made eye-contact as he made his way down the aisle; I knew he was heading to the seat next to mine.  He asked me to hold his venti-sized cup of Starbucks while he found the last inch in the overhead bins.  Then he climbed over me into his window seat.

As I handed him his coffee, I commented that I might have stolen a sip if it had been mocha.  He laughed and we began a conversation that lasted all the way from Chicago O-Hare to Bush Intercontinental.  He was one of the top sales people for a large software company in Houston, and I was the third pastor he sat next to on a flight in the previous two weeks.  Maybe God was trying to say something to him, he wondered.  His wife who was 7 months pregnant with their first child was Catholic and he was raised by a Catholic mom and a Unitarian dad.  That introduction led us to a lively discussion about the role of faith in the life of a child, and in his life, and in society in general.

He finally confronted me with a snicker; he and I were really in the same business … sales … and that the bottom line was we both had to be master schmoozers and manipulators.  He understood why he did it – to sell his company’s product and to ultimately support his family.  But, why did it really make a difference to me whether he had faith in God or not?

Gee, nothing like getting to the point.  Why does it matter to me?  I thought about that question for weeks afterwards.  Why does it matter?  Why do evangelism?  Isn’t it really just sales?  And isn’t this one of the real struggles Presbyterians have with evangelism?  We consider it to be little more than sales and marketing.  And who wants to be a sleazy schmoozer or manipulator?

If we are going to take our vision 2010 seriously … growing congregations that passionately engage their community to make disciples … we will need to grapple seriously with that question.  Why does it matter to us whether our community has faith in Christ or not?

If our primary answer has to do with the survival of our particular congregation or denomination, our style of worship or our great Sunday School, then perhaps we are only marketing, because these things are ultimately self-centered.  Evangelism has to be Kingdom-centered, not congregation-centered or pastor-centered or, even, denomination-centered.  For me, personally, evangelism is about the Kingdom of God being at our doorstep.  It’s about a glorious future which already exists in Christ.  It’s about moving from a self-centered society filled with “to each his own” and “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” to a God-centered world filled with compassion, hospitality, generosity, and prosperity.  Can you catch a glimpse of that life?  It’s what Jesus refers to as the Kingdom of God coming “on earth as it is in heaven.”  That’s the answer I gave the young Chicagoan on the plane to Houston.

I told my seat-mate that even in the short time we’ve been talking, I have already grown to care about him and his family.  I believe that having a faith that’s centered on Christ will influence his family in ways far greater than we can begin to imagine.  More than just “doing good,” a Christian life is living each day deeply connected with pure goodness.  It may not bring them riches or guarantee them health, but it will bring them a deep peace and joy.  I want that for them, not me.  That’s the difference between what I do and what he does; if there’s a flavor of manipulation or sales, it’s not my intent.  I, personally, gain nothing.  And as we de-planed I realized, I didn’t even know his name.

I had a sense when we left that I was one of a string of people God would use in this man’s life over the next few months and years.  And, I even had a sense that one day God would be using him not only to challenge people like me about the purpose of sharing our faith, but in even greater ways.  He’d make a great new church planter one day.  I continue to pray for him and his family. Yes, God was with us both that day.

Published in the January 2006 edition of Connections