Monday, March 1, 2010

The Philosophy of Gospel Tracts Part 1

The first question that I would like to address is:  Are Gospel tracts a vital tool or a waste of time?  I have heard people, even former missionaries, say that Gospel tracts are just a waste of time in an illiterate country.  They cite two main reasons as proof:  First, it is a waste of time to pass out tracts in a country where so many people are illiterate.  Second, even the people who know how to read just throw the tracts away, because they are not interested in reading about Christianity.

There is no doubt that those objections do bear some legitimacy, as I can attest to myself.  But let’s consider the objections individually.  Regarding the issue of literacy, let me give an illustration in order to disarm their argument.  I have six children, only three of whom know how to read.  That’s 50%.  But today I bought a bunch of used books for my children.  If we followed the logic of some, then I wasted my money since only 50% of my children are literate.  But I didn’t buy the books for the ones who can’t read.  I bought them for the ones who CAN!  Of course, the illiterate people in Cambodia can’t read our tracts, but there are millions of people who CAN read.  The tracts are for them!  You may say that it is not a fair comparison, because my younger children can’t read only because they haven’t yet learned.  But I can assure you that I would have purchased the books, even if I knew that the three younger children would never learn to read.  Why?  Because the books were for the ones who can read.  I don’t understand the logic that says since some people cannot read, don’t give literature to anybody. 

Their second main objection is that even the people who CAN read just throw the tracts on the ground.  Again, there is some legitimacy to that concern.  One of the first tract distribution efforts with which I was involved here in Cambodia was a major flop.  A very high percentage of the tracts were tossed to the ground without even being opened.  We analyzed and adjusted and tried again with much better success the next time.  However, I believe that it is a mistake to think that just because some tracts are thrown away that it is a poor method.  In the parable of the sower, there were 4 kinds of ground.  How many of the 4 were good ground?  That’s right, just one!  So in this Bible parable about sowing the Word of God (which is exactly what one is doing when passing out Gospel tracts), a full 75% of the ground upon which the seed fell was not good ground.  I don’t think that this percentage (25% good ground) is necessarily a magic formula or a threshold of receptivity that must be reached.  It does, however, give us a Biblical principle to guide our efforts.  That principle is that we should not be dismayed, disheartened, discouraged, or even surprised when a large percentage of the tracts we distribute get tossed aside and are never read.  We are looking for the good ground, but are under no illusions that it is all good ground.

Here are 6 reasons why I am a big proponent of writing, printing, and distributing Gospel tracts:

1.  Tracts help to plant seeds and water the seeds that others have planted.
I recently asked in one of our church services how many of the people had gotten saved the first time they had ever heard about Jesus.  Not one hand was raised.  The testimony of every Christian I know in Cambodia is that they heard about Jesus, then waited, then read something, then thought, then saw a movie, then asked some questions, then waited some more…and eventually they trusted Christ.  Someone has to be the one to plant that first seed.  When we give someone a tract, we have no way of knowing what spiritual work has already been going on in that person’s life.  Our tract may be the very first step of a long journey for them.  It may not produce immediate fruit, but that doesn’t mean it is a waste of time.

2.  Tracts occasionally do provide that final encouragement for a person to trust Christ.
This, of course, is connected to the previous point.  Every single tract that we pass out is planting a seed, watering a seed, or producing fruit.  While it is true that it is very rare for a person to get saved after reading a tract, that doesn’t make those rare cases any less important.  If after passing out 10,000 tracts, 1 person got saved, some would respond, “See?  1 out of 10,000…what a waste of time!”  I think the proper response, however, would be “Praise the Lord!  Let’s get started on the next 10,000!”

3.  Tracts are a great way to give the Gospel when there is no time to talk to a person.
Oftentimes you meet a person in passing.  If it were not for Gospel tracts, you would have no real way to share the Gospel with them.  For example, when driving through a tollbooth, you certainly cannot hold up the traffic in order to share the whole plan of salvation with them.  But what you CAN do is hand the person a Gospel tract with your payment, thereby either planting a new seed or watering a seed that was previously planted.

4.  Tracts can go where people cannot.
Missionaries in some countries are not allowed to go from door to door, but they are allowed to put tracts into mailboxes.  I know some people in America who always include a tract when mailing a check to pay a bill.  Here in Cambodia, the middle class and upper class live behind locked gates and high walls with coils of barbed wire on the top.  But when we hand a tract to their teen child whom we meet at the gas station, or give a tract to their maid at the market, those tracts can make their way into the previously impenetrable home.

5.  Tracts provide a very easy way for new Christians, shy people, and children to witness.
I have known Christians who were scared to death to speak to people, but would hand a tract to anybody, anywhere, anytime.  Yes, ultimately they should become more courageous, but I would rather have someone hand out a tract than do nothing at all.  We have had countless visitors in our services over the years because a shy Christian just gave someone a tract and spoke a brief word of invitation.

6.  Tracts provide a way to define yourself and clear up misconceptions.
The communist party has enslaved billions over the past nearly 100 years, and one of the main components of their strategy has always been the printed page.  It does not happen overnight, but you can change the way an entire population thinks by what you give them to read.  Even though many people will never get saved, an entire country’s perception of Christianity can gradually change by way of literature.  In every country, there will be false notions of Christianity that must be combated, often before a person will even give you an audience.  Literature can go a long way towards clearing some things up.  If you leave it up to others to brand you, they will, and oftentimes in a less than flattering way.  For example, one of the biggest misconceptions about Christianity here in Cambodia is that when you become a Christian you must abandon your parents.  As unbiblical and silly as that sounds to a Christian, most Cambodians either believe that, or at least have heard such claims.  Consequently, a couple of missionary friends have put out a little booklet that deals with the Bible’s teachings concerning the relationship between parents and children.  When they go into a new village or area, they distribute that booklet as part of their evangelistic outreach.

I really believe the key, as with all areas of life and ministry, is balance.  There is one extreme position that says nobody reads tracts and they are a waste of time and money.  On the other end of the spectrum is the position that places tract distribution as the major thrust of a ministry.  We’ll discuss this problem in a future article in this series, but for now I will say that I take a position somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  I love and use Gospel tracts and believe them to have a purpose, but I consider them just one tool in the ministry toolbox.