Evangelism is central to the church’s mission. But some methods are decidedly more effective than others.
Perhaps the worst evangelism effort I ever had the displeasure of being party to came when I was in college. I was late for class and briskly walking across campus when I passed a man holding a yellow sign. You know the type. Without my even turning to look at him, I heard him shout toward the back of my head: “You’re going to hell, son.”
As I turned back to look at him, unwilling to break stride, all I could think to say was, “Actually, I’m going to class, but thanks.”
Were I a nonbeliever, even if I wasn’t running late, I would not find this particularly hate-filled evangelism strategy compelling enough to make me rethink my belief system. Quite the opposite.
Nevertheless, there are other evangelism strategies that, while more motivated by genuine love and concern, I have found almost equally unappealing.
Another time when attending college, I was sitting outside, listening to music on my headphones and enjoying lunch before my next class began—until, out of the blue, another student sat uncomfortably close to me. After getting my attention and asking which program I was in, he almost immediately launched into a sermonette about the sinfulness of man and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Then there was the time when I was an Uber driver and one passenger sought to evangelize me by way of testimony. Only, he didn’t decide to launch into his story until after we had arrived at his destination. Even as I repeatedly sought to curtail the conversation, he remained in my car for several more minutes, causing me to miss out on my next fare when my time to respond elapsed.
Noteworthy of all these encounters is that I was already a Christian when the would-be evangelist tried to convert me. Prior to one of the conversations, I had even graduated seminary. It’s just that none of them thought to ask.
But what about gospel tracts?
Gospel tracts are small printed sheets or booklets containing the essential aspects of the gospel message. They come in various styles with various formats, illustrations, and designs.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about them. In my first encounter with one, I momentarily thought that I had stumbled upon a hundred dollar bill, only to quickly discover that I was the victim of a contrivance aimed at winning me for Jesus.
Again, I had already been won for Jesus. I would have preferred the hundred dollars.
Nevertheless, gospel tracts have long been a popular strategy of evangelism, with some Christians using them to help guide their conversations with nonbelievers, and others handing them out or leaving them behind for nonbelievers to discover and hopefully be impacted for Jesus.
However, the question that has arisen with increasing frequency over the past number of years is whether gospel tracts are still an effective evangelism tool.
While I haven’t been able to find any substantial study that would give an indication of their effectiveness over time, anecdotally, most would agree that gospel tracts certainly aren’t as effective as they used to be. The reasons for this are not entirely clear but mostly amount to cultural shifts away from widespread positivity toward the Christian faith.
Conversely, I have also heard anecdotal accounts of people coming to faith through the use of a gospel tract. So it would appear that they have less than a 100% failure rate. Even still, are they the best tool for us to be using?
Whether you love gospel tracts or hate them, here are some of their strengths and weaknesses as an evangelism strategy.
Strength: Gospel Tracts Help Clearly Communicate the Gospel Message.
To put it plainly, sharing your faith is hard—particularly if you’re not a well-spoken Bible expert or master theologian. (And even if you are a well-spoken Bible expert or master theologian, it’s still hard.)
This is why it’s important to have tools that empower you to begin doing something. For most of us, fear and uncertainty about taking the first step can, for years, keep us from doing anything meaningful by way of evangelism. The beauty of a (properly vetted) gospel tract is that it provides something to lean on, giving you a framework and verbiage to utilize in an evangelistic conversation.
At the very least, when you’re using a gospel tract, you can feel confident that you are conveying the essentials of the gospel message.
Weakness: For a Generation Growing Immune to Marketing, Gospel Tracts Can Be White Noise.
While the well-packaged nature of gospel tracts is what makes them appealing for someone trying to share the message of Jesus, this is actually the very thing that makes them unappealing to those who receive them. Clarity, in itself, isn’t necessarily compelling.
Because of the information overload that has come with the evolving complexity of the internet, smart phones, IoT devices, and more, most people—and especially younger generations—have become increasingly adept at recognizing when something is being marketed to them and ignoring it. Even the best marketing can become white noise.
And gospel tracts aren’t even that. At the end of the day, regardless of how genuine the effort of the person using them, gospel tracts can often feel like cheesy sales decks. Thus, they are treated with the same level of seriousness as an office administrator treats the traveling printer ink salesperson whom the receptionist let slip into their office.
This feeling is intensified when the person presenting a tract does so in a way that is non sequitur, much like the conversations I have had with people who sought to evangelize me without realizing that I was already a Christian. When a gospel presentation is given prior to any effort to establish a relational connection, it often comes off as bizarre if not patronizing or downright chauvinistic.
Strength: Sometimes, Gospel Tracts Work.
On the flip side, while many oppose gospel tracts with emotional verve, citing their triteness, datedness, and apparent ineffectiveness, we must admit that gospel tracts do occasionally work. If a well written gospel tract contains everything a person needs to understand in order to come into a lifesaving relationship with Jesus, then it can be used of God to that effect.
At a time when it has long been held among some that gospel tracts no longer work, I’ve heard stories where they did.
That’s because the Holy Spirit can use just about anything and anyone to turn someone’s heart toward Jesus. And apparently he can and will use a cheesy tract in the shape and likeness of a hundred dollar bill.
Weakness: Sometimes, Gospel Tracts Offend.
This isn’t to say that gospel tracts can only do good. Sometimes, they offend.
To be sure, there are times when the gospel message will be received with offense, regardless of how lovingly or winsomely it is delivered. But the overall salesy vibe that many gospel tracts give off can have the effect of moving someone’s feelings toward faith in the wrong direction.
This is perhaps due in part to the fact that while some tracts are effective at keeping the message simple, they are found guilty of making complex realities simplistic. There is no conversation to be had, but only a presentation to be accepted or rejected.
Relationships are essential to sustained effectiveness in evangelism. Such relationships cannot be distilled down to handouts and cleverly designed booklets.
Despite their virtues, because of these weaknesses, I’m not bullish on the idea of using gospel tracts as a primary strategy for evangelism.
Don’t Use Bad Tactics as an Excuse To Do Nothing.
While I’ve beat up on gospel tracts quite a bit, I would be remiss if I didn’t urge Christians to guard against cynicism when it comes to evangelism in general. Unfortunately, many Christians of my generation and the one that follows it have abandoned the idea of evangelism altogether.
That trend should concern us.
Though I am of the opinion that gospel tracts are not the most effective method of evangelism, I nevertheless commend the Christians who are using them, because you are doing important work. Frankly, it is the kind of work that more of us should be doing, regardless of what method we use.