*Note: I asked Bobby for permission to use his name in this story. To the best of my recollection it is accurate. If there are any discrepancies, I will post a correction.
I first met Bobby in the break room of an industrial chicken farm. If you’ve never been in an industrial chicken farm, there’s no way I can describe it that will do it justice, but here’s my best shot: Imagine a strong stench of ammonia punching you in the face. Now multiply that by 3 million (the number of chickens housed on said farm). If I’m exaggerating, it’s ever so slightly. The parking lot would take your breath away. I can’t imagine what the actual chicken houses were like. The break room was isolated from the houses, which tempered the stench somewhat. It was still there, but it wasn’t quite so violent.
Anyway, Bobby worked as a foreman (or some such thing) in the department that produced liquid egg. There were tanker trucks of this stuff leaving every day. This isn’t the stuff that restaurants buy in cartons for making omelettes, this is the stuff that is used to coat candy bars. This is what gives your Snickers or 3 Musketeer that inviting sheen that says, “Eat me!”
I worked for an outside contractor as a vending attendant. My job was to fill the vending machines in three break rooms, on two different farms, every day. I also inventoried product and counted the money for the route drivers to pick up.
There were a few guys that I went out of my way to make small talk with on a daily basis. At first, Bobby wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him, but I mistook his California swagger for arrogance or aloofness or something. Maybe it was the accent, but I just assumed he was a jerk.
One day, as I was sitting in the corner counting a dozen stacks of one dollar bills, Bobby walked up and struck up a conversation. I don’t remember what this conversation was about, but it became a regular thing. “How’s the kid?” “Any plans for the weekend?” That type of thing.
One Monday morning, Bobby asked if I had been at the Fall Festival at the “Christian Academy” on Friday evening. I told him that he had and that I thought I saw him there, but he was across the room and wore black rimmed glasses instead of his usual safety glasses, so I wasn’t sure if it was him. He proceeded to tell me that his daughter attended Seymour Christian Academy, the school that was operated by my church. This was also where my wife worked and my son went to preschool. I was surprised to learn that he had a connection with my church, but that’s about as far as the conversation went.
The following week, my church was in revival and I was planning to invite a few people who I thought would be interested. As a matter of fact I was praying that God would give me an opportunity to connect with someone. I had a few people in mind.
Bobby wasn’t on that list.
I had no reason to believe that he would be interested. We had never breached the topic of faith. To be honest, he seemed to be the least likely to care about our revival. Call it a vibe that I got. Boy, was I wrong… What happened next shocked me.
Bobby walked up and seemingly out of the blue said something along the lines of, “Would you mind if I came to church with you sometime?”
Would I mind? I rolled the words around in my head, which suddenly felt empty and grossly under-equipped to decipher what he had said. What I wanted to say was… Actually, I’m not sure what it was I wanted to say. I think I wanted to explain why I hadn’t invited him already and apologize for being an idiot, but what came out was something like, “Sure, that would be great! How is this week? We’re having revival.”
He looked at me in much the same way that a deer looks at headlights. It didn’t register with me at the time that he had no clue what I meant by “revival”. He shrugged and said, “Sure!”
Bobby’s first service was fairly typical of a Pentecostal revival service. Bro. Mike Easter, a fiery evangelist was preaching with his usual enthusiasm and flair for the dramatic. The worship service was high octane. None of this was unusual to me, but I was fairly certain this was Bobby’s first experience in a Pentecostal church. I was a little worried about how he would respond. Would it freak him out? Would he be back? Would he talk to me again?
My fears intensified when he basically just sat back and watched the service without any perceivable expression or reaction. When it was over he still didn’t have much to say. He unceremoniously got up and walked out. No feedback. No compliments. No complaints. No comments. Nothing.
My fears were short lived. He came back the next night. And the next night. And Sunday. He just kept coming back. Still sitting back and watching. Still basically expressionless. But he was there. He would have made an excellent poker player.
We invited Bobby and his daughter to our home friendship group and we soon became good friends. There were cookouts, game nights, and group discussions, but still no real reaction.
One night, during the altar call, Bobby lifted his hands and began to pray. When he did, he his legs buckled and I caught him and broke his fall before the floor did. He just couldn’t believe how intensely he felt the presence of God and how amazing it all was.
This scene continued every time he would lift his hands in worship. His legs would just give out. There was no drama to it. No flailing. No yelling. He would just pass out (or almost pass out) and someone would help him to a pew.
It was strangely beautiful to see someone so heavily impacted by the Spirit, without any presumption of what was supposed to happen. God was undeniably moving. Bobby wasn’t prepared to feel something that was actually palpable and powerful. My faith was strengthened by watching what God was doing in Bobby’s life.
Eventually Bobby was baptized and filled with the Holy Ghost. But first, he had some questions that he needed answered. I have had some tough questions (and some weird questions) over the years, but none caught me off guard like the list of questions Bobby had. Questions like:
- Who are Adam and Eve?
- What is creation?
- What is baptism?
- What is worship?
- The Ten Co-what-ments?
- Who is Jesus again?
- Samson who?
- David and Goliath?
- Paul? You mean McCartney?
The list went on and on.
Then it dawned on me that Bobby had no clue what I was saying when I spoke in “Christianese”. None of the words that we use to communicate our faith had any meaning to him. He couldn’t even process what I was saying in a simple discussion of baptism because I was so used to explaining it through a framework that he couldn’t comprehend. The language I used when I talked about God wasn’t even in his vocabulary.
Now, Bobby wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t even uneducated, traditionally speaking. In fact, he was really sharp. He had been to college. He had been a police officer in the City of Riverside, California. He spent several years as a store manager for a grocery store chain. Now he was a foreman at an industrial farm. No, intelligence wasn’t the issue; he just didn’t seem to have a point of reference.
Looking for answers, I asked him about his past experience with religion. To my utter shock, he informed me that he had never been in a church building in his life.
He was 37 years old.
Most people I know had been to church before they were 37 days old! I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone had never been inside of a church for any reason. So, I began to interrogate him. Surely he had been in a church at some point.
I proceeded with my list of questions.
Me: “You didn’t go to church on Easter or Christmas as a kid?”
Bobby: “No, my mom was raised Catholic, but hated religion and refused to go.”
Me: “Ok, I’m sure you’ve been to a wedding in a church.”
Bobby: “No, everyone I know either got married by the JP or on the beach. I’ve never been to a church wedding.”
Me: “What about funerals?”
Bobby: “Ok, maybe for a funeral. Never for a service, though...”
It was true. This 37 year old man had never been inside a church, at least not during a service. Ever. That was almost more than my brain could handle. My head didn’t explode, but I’m pretty sure I heard something short out.
*Pffft…. smoke rolls out the ears.*
We decided to do the only thing I knew to do. We had to bring him up to speed. This wasn’t going to be easy and it wasn’t going to be quick, but we had to start with the foundation.
We started with the concept of “God”. Using a tool called “Bible Study in a Bag”, we talked about who God is (as best as we can understand an infinite God with our infinitely finite minds) and why that matters. We talked about Jesus and his basic doctrines. We discussed baptism and the Holy Ghost. Then, after about four sessions of the highlights, we started in the very beginning and began to work our way from Genesis to Revelation.
Over the next year, we would meet every Tuesday and discuss a section of the scripture. Of course, it’s impossible to really cover everything in a year, but we managed the highlights. We covered the major recurring themes, important principles, and popular stories and characters.
Bobby was like a sponge. I have never seen someone so hungry to learn the scripture. He needed to know God. It was a refreshing change of pace from trying to convince comfortable Christians that just maybe this whole thing wasn’t about their comfort.
We connected. Really connected. Bobby became a good friend. Not too long after our year-long Bible study, Bobby began dating a lady in our church who had lost her husband a few years earlier. They were both single parents. They had mutual friends. They clicked almost immediately. It almost seemed like God had orchestrated their budding romance.
When the time came for the wedding came, our entire family was involved. I was his groomsman. My wife and I sang a song during the ceremony. Our son was the ring bearer.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I have a love/hate relationship with weddings. I love the romance of the whole thing (I’m a hopeless romantic). I wouldn’t say I love to cry (it’s inevitable), but I also wouldn’t say that I hate it. I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s going to happen and I just embrace it. What I hate is getting dressed up and sitting still for an hour. (My wife would say it’s more about my not being able to talk for an hour, but I digress…)
This was one wedding (tux or not) that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
We are not as close now as I would like, victims of busy and conflicting schedules, but through this process, Bobby and I both gained a lifelong friendship. When I see him worshipping God or quietly praying, I still feel a connection that cannot exist with anyone with whom you have not been a close companion on a long spiritual journey.
What I Learned from My "Accidental Evangelism"
There are a few major lessons that learned from Bobby. Hopefully these are lessons you can avoid having to learn first hand.
- You don’t know who is going to be receptive to the Gospel, so you should continue to sow everywhere, even in the places where you are pretty sure the soil is not fertile.
- Don’t assume you know what someone else knows. They may know the Bible cover to cover or they may have never read a verse. Just ask.
- Don’t assume that sowing is the only job you will have to do. Sometimes you sow and others water and harvest. Other times you are making a long term commitment to gardening.
If we can be more sensitive to the Spirit and more open to others, we can avoid many of my mistakes that resulted in "accidental evangelism". We can and should be intentional. When we allow God to use us and follow his lead, it is amazing what he will do with our efforts.
The FORD Method
Connecting with people who are unchurched or non-religious presents some unique challenges. When connecting with people of differing religious backgrounds, there is nearly always some common ground in those various religions, which we will get into in later chapters. When talking to someone of a non-religious background, however, the common ground maybe much less obvious. The FORD method is invaluable in these situations. You can (and should) also use the FORD method as a jumping off point for talking to anyone of any
No doubt here are many ways to connect with someone who is non-religious, but in my opinion, the FORD method is by far the most defined and effective, especially as a launching point. This method is surprisingly simple, easy to remember, and effective. FORD is an acronym for four topics that you can use to maximize your effectiveness in developing a real connection with anyone:
Depending on the setting, you will want to start with one of first three. Number four is a little more difficult to get people to open up about, but it can provide the deepest level of connection.
When engaging someone in conversation about family, it is always good to open up somewhat about your own family before asking about theirs. Family is a fairly common topic of conversation in any setting, so it should be easy to make small talk with most people on this subject.
For better or worse, we are often defined by what we do. Therefore, occupation can be a non-threatening subject for a low key conversation starter or carrier. Even if we work in different fields, with little in common, most people like to talk about what they do. We also enjoy comparing and contrasting work experiences. This is equally true of people who love or hate their jobs.
Recreation is pretty self-explanatory. Who doesn’t like to talk about their hobbies. Whether it’s playing golf, mountain biking, woodworking, quilting, collecting vinyl records, or playing the banjo, we all have something that we love to do in our spare time. Keep in mind that the other person may not enjoy hearing about your hobby as much as you love talking about it, but I know they love talking about theirs. So, be sure to give equal or more time to their hobby in your discussions on recreation.
Dreams are the most difficult subject on the list when it comes to getting people to really open up. It may be easy to get someone to say, “I always wanted to be a nurse” which is responsible, socially acceptable, and pretty innocuous, but it’s more difficult to get them to admit that their real dream was to be a firebreather in a traveling circus or a cinematographer or a songwriter (that’s my big secret by the way). These real dreams are often hidden because they represent impracticality and failure, two things with which we don’t typically like to be associated.
If you can get someone to open up about these deeper dreams, however, you will have connected with them on a deeper level than most of their friends and family. Once you have reached this level of connection, the discussion of a typically off-limits subject like religion will seem completely natural.
Keep in mind, this method is equally effective with people of all different backgrounds. The FORD Method is a great tool for starting or continuing a conversation with anyone in any setting.