Rant: 5 Reasons You Should Stop Handing Out Evangelism Tracts

Posted: March 4, 2013 by Joshua in Ministry, Rants
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Tracts SmallLike many other college students, I worked as a restaurant server for many years. As anybody who has ever worked in the service industry can tell you, Christian tracts are annoying. There isn’t much out there that matches the frustration of waiting on a difficult table only to be left wth a substandard tip, wrapped inside a cheesy bit of Christian propaganda, as if the person leaving it thinks that their pithy, mass produced “Jesus coupon” somehow makes up for the poor tip. Last I checked, the exchange rate from pamphlets to dollars wasn’t so great, and landlords rarely accept this type of “foreign currency”.

However, beyond my own annoyances, evangelism tracts can actually be incredibly harmful to the evangelistic efforts of the Church as a whole. Many aspects which form the basis for this practice are not only ineffective, but definitively harmful in building any sort of Christian community.

I'm sorry to say that, as a server, I have been fooled by this one more than once.

I’m sorry to say that, as a server, I have been fooled by this one more than once.

1. Tracts are insulting.

People have more access to information today than ever before in human history. Individuals wrestle with questions of meaning and purpose daily, whether or not they prescribe to a particular religious belief, and thanks to smart phones and Google, statements can now be fact-checked in real time. So, to assume that life changing theology, distilled down to a “Christ-coupon” is enough to make someone rethink the course of their life, is the height of arrogance. To assume that someone’s beliefs are feeble enough to fold under the weight of a cheap Christian pun, or some pithy, “lifetime-movie-esque” story fails to respect the receiver’s understanding, and is completely insulting. It has been my experience that most people are intelligent, and have wrestled with the great questions on a semi-regular basis, and while they may not have all the answers (who does?), they have built their own lens, through which they have learned to view the world. Most people in our culture have heard the arguments and seen the retorts. They distrust advertisement and disingenuous behavior. Therefore a worldview, condensed and distilled into a polished piece of over-simplified propaganda, is insulting to the person whose beliefs are considered so weak that such a simple presentation will topple them.

Even when we have the right answers, those answers are rarely what is needed to overcome those established beliefs. In fact, in today’s culture, “answers” have very little power at all, no matter how indisputable they are. The currency of the current age is relationship, but more on that later.

If I am truly lost, I'm going to need more than a pamphlet to get me out.

If I am truly lost, I’m going to need more than a pamphlet to get me out.

2. Tracts are impersonal, and represent no willingness to invest in others

Nothing says, “I care about you and your relationship with Christ”, like… blindly handing them a tract without an attempt to get to know about the recipient. While waiting tables, it was a regular occurrence that someone at my table, who had never taken any time to understand a single thing about me, left a tract on top of their check when they left. Had they taken ANY effort in understanding who I was, they would have learned that I was a ministry student, waiting tables to put food on the table for my wife and two kids, and that my existing relationship with Christ was actually the reason I was traveling through that particular chapter in life.

Tracts and pamphlets, used as evangelistic tools, overlook the most important facet of effective ministry: Relationship. By relying on the the tract to do the work for you, you are robbing them of the opportunity for real discussion that forms the basis of relationships; the same relationships that tie the church together. I’ve often heard it said that ministry is 10% message and 90% being there; living the example of Christ in real time. Using that understanding of ministry, even if you hand out the perfect, most complete pinnacle of all Christian publications, you still leave 90% of the job undone. This is barely enough to call this a partial job. In fact, it would be generous to even consider it slacking off. However, its even worse than that.

By choosing to have a hand-out build your bridges for you, you are actually building a wall between you and the recipient. You are in effect telling them that they are not actually worth your time. You are attempting to spur a major change in someone’s life, yet not even taking them time to learn the basic aspects of their story. Remember, Christ went to the cross for us. If we’re truly going to live by His example, we have to at least be willing to be vulnerable enough to listen.

Well, I'm convinced...

Well, I’m convinced…

3. They represent an outdated ministry model

If you plan on visiting Prototype Pulpit with any regularity, you will quickly find out that the realities of our culture’s embrace of postmodernism influences a lot of my ministry strategies. I’m not one who believes that this shift signals the death knell for the church, but i also recognize that many of our current strategies need some tweaking if we are going to truly have an influence in our culture. Among the many things that come from this shift is typically a distrust of authority, and a demotion of reason. While these were foundations of modernism, they have been traded for a heightened view of self, and an increased focus on relationship and connection. So, without writing a boring sociology lesson, today’s culture is much more interested in our individual stories, and how they intertwine, than they are with arguments, reason, and authority.

So what does this have to do with tracts? Well, tracts rely on reason and authority, at the expense of relationship. Don’t believe me? Look at it this way…

Typical tracts are impersonal, mass produced flyer, that claim a specific understanding of how the universe works (impersonal authority). It then presents its arguments in either a progression of logic, or an emotional story about how Christianity saved someone’s life (reason). They are handed out as a way to avoid actual conversation, failing to trust one’s own experiences as having enough credibility to be relevant to others.

Admit it,  you couldn't hand this to anyone,  AND keep a straight face.

Admit it, you couldn’t hand this to anyone, AND keep a straight face.

4. They are more for the satisfaction of the one handing them out, than for their recipient.

Tracts have much more to do with the person giving them out, than the person receiving them. They are given so that the giver may fall some sense of accomplishment, even if the feeling doesn’t actually correspond to reality. In other words, handing out Tracts is not self-less. It’s self-serving.

While handing out a tract or pamphlet may be treated like the giver is guiding the recipient with knowledge of the Gospel, more often than not, the giver is actually acting out of the self interest of purpose; trying to convince himself/herself that they did something good. The problem is that this flies in the face of the very concept of “gift”. In order for Evangelism to be treated as “gift”, there must be no expectation of returns for the giver. In other words, “gift” necessitates sacrifice of some kind from the giver.

A tract shows no such consideration. It makes no investment into the person. It represents no real sacrifice on the part of the giver, and the motivation for its use are typically self-serving. So, this would make the tract directly opposed to the concept of “gift”. In fact, the most fitting term that I can think of that describes this process of evangelizing through tracts is “coercion”…

… and no matter what, the Gospel and its message must always be given freely. It must NEVER be coercive.

Really?!  There are no words...

Really?! There are no words…

5. Tracts are inneffective.

When was the last time you heard someone talk about their life-changing encounter with a clever tract? Chances are good that you have never heard that story, and if you have, never more than once. The reality is that the tract doesn’t penetrate anymore. It is completely ineffective in completing its mission, for all the reasons stated above.

Now, you might be saying, “Hold up, Josh!  Even if only one person is reached, it’s all worth it.”  Normally, you would be right.  However in this circumstance, how many people were pushed even farther away from the church, just so that one person could have been reached.  I would even venture to say, that anyone who is able to be brought into the fold of the Church by reading a tract, would have also taken the same path if led personally by a friend, and fewer people would have been pushed away.

The Bottom Line

Paul circumcised Timothy, even though Paul’s own teaching made it clear that circumcision was not required.  Paul preached in Athens, utilizing the Geeks ideas of polytheism in order to introduce them to the one true God.  Why?  Because Paul understood that his teachings made a larger impact when he made an effort to remove as many barriers as possible between himself and those he was teaching.  Paul used the Greek ideas of an “Unknown God” to introduce them to the Gospel,  and he circumcised Timothy so that circumcised Hebrews would have one less barrier to contend with.

Worst. advice. ever.

Wow… just… wow…

Tracts are outdated.  I understand that they were incredibly effective at one point.   I, myself, have even handed a few out.  However, in today’s culture, this method often does more harm than good, and ultimately builds more barriers than bridges.   A pamphlet will never beat out an honest conversation over a cup of coffee.   So instead of wasting time (and tons of cash!) on tracts and Christian pamphlets, invest those resources into the people you’re trying to reach.  Invite them for coffee.  Ask if they are comfortable with you praying for them.   Leave an amazing tip for your server, wrapped up in a hand written note.   Ministry can’t be done from afar in this culture.   You have to get in the trenches, and put your butt on the line. You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Those are the times when God truly uses us to do great things.

Comments
  1. […] Rant: 5 Reasons You Should Stop Handing Out Evangelism Tracts […]

  2. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  3. Royal says:

    I could not agree more with what you say about tracts. However, it would be nice to have something simple and straight forward, without the tackiness etc, to give to someone AFTER actually talking to them and trying to initiate an actual human relationship.

  4. Tony says:

    You actually think your friendliness and winning smile is more powerful than God’s word.

    8 pages:

    Click to access systematictract_rev12.pdf

  5. Jason says:

    Such a sad post to read. I know of many who have been saved by Gospel tracts. But even if I didn’t, we don’t base our methodology on pragmatic principles. If you think that a piece of paper with the Gospel message on it is a waste of time and ineffective, then you don’t believe the Gospel is the power of God for salvation. You think something needs to be added to the Gospel, mainly, your efforts, in order for it to be effective. All of this sort of rhetoric is foundationally centered in a man-centered approach to the gospel and God’s ability to save people.

    • joshuanink says:

      Thank you for your comments (Jason and Tony). I feel I need to clarify a few points…

      This is a post from a few years ago, and while I still agree with its premise, if I were to write I again today, I would choose to phrase a few things a bit more specifically: Scripture does not NEED human intervention to be made powerful. God is God, and I am not. “dressing up” scripture… “modernizing” texts… and general “marketing” of Christ is not only unneeded… its irresponsible and sends the absolute wrong message. Scripture is the Word of God… anything I say is merely the words of man…

      That being said, Jesus himself spoke in Parables… Paul’s sermon in Athens utilized cultural realities to express Biblical truths. Therefore, it is absolutely withing our calling as ministers to place scripture in context when teaching. Our job as ministers is to teach and explain the reality of Scripture to a culture that does not know Christ. There is a danger when that “contextualization” gets placed at a higher priority than scripture itself… This is when the church starts to follow the rules of man instead of the reality of Christ. It is a danger of every single ministry, and the responsibility of every minister to teach scripture in context without elevating themselves above the Word of God.

      However, be careful to completely throw out contextualization altogether.

      This post is addressing the very real problem of simply relying on a tract rather than actually investing in a person’s life. I have no problem putting scripture in peoples hands… in fact I often give out the book of John to new Christians, and frequently pass out translations of the Prodigal Son to those who are seeking… However, I NEVER do it blindly, and it is always with the implication of future relationship. My belief is that if we are truly going to be missionaries of the Gospel of Christ, we must do so completely… jumping headlong into every engagement, and truly investing in the people around you. Do not simply rely on a clever pamphlet to do the work that your life and relationship should display.

      In other words, if you are actively investing in relationship with people, I have no issue with using gospel tracts. However, in my experience tracts were largely used “instead” of relationship and explanation. Meaning that Scripture was presented without context… if the tract was even scripture… Most of the tracts that came through my hands were anecdotes, clever turns of phrase, or arguments meant to tear a person down. Sure, they may have referenced a single verse, but calling the tract “scripture” would often be problematic.

      I’m not saying that all tracts are that way. Like I said, I frequently hand out the Gospel of John and the Prodigal Son… but these are lifted from scripture, and never given in the place of personal investment. In the end, my argument is not to reduce our engagement of non-believers… but to increase our investment in the lost, not limiting our investment to handing a stranger a flyer on the street, but starting a conversation, inviting them to dinner, take them o church, put a whole Bible in their hands and teach them to read it. I advocate that we walk WITH the lost.

      Thank you for your comments, and I’m excited to see you in paradise when the day comes! God bless your ministry.

      • Jason says:

        Thanks for your response. I agree that we should do both, invest time in relationships and distribute biblical gospel tracts. And since we can’t realistically invest time in multitudes, or even dozens of people, at the same time in a meaningful way, I would say tracts are a great way to reach people that you don’t or won’t otherwise have the opportunity to spend a lot of time with over an extended period. Also, some people I know are more introverted and even the idea of handing a gospel tract to someone and saying, “God bless you”, is terrifying. Others are extroverts, the life of the party and are great at meeting and making new friends. There is a spectrum and tract distribution is a great way to get started with evangelism and grow in your ability to step out and actually have conversations with people. On the other hand, don’t err on the other side and say the only way you can be an effective minister of the gospel is to be really friendly, be likable and enjoy a latte with lost people. We should do all of the above, to the Glory of God. Both the extrovert who loves being around people and the introvert who has to muster up courage to hand out a tract but is diligent to pray fervently that God would use it to save a soul, are biblical ministers of the gospel. Both should be encouraged and practiced! God bless you, brother!

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