This is part five of a series. The previous articles may be read here: Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
As I have stated previously, my ideas and views in these articles are with regards to Gospel tracts on the foreign mission field, not tracts in the United States. Also, I want to make a clear distinction between Gospel tracts and church invitations. I think that church invitations and Gospel tracts designed for use in the United States would typically require a very different approach in design, layout, style, and content than the ideas I am putting forth here.
Now that we have considered the validity of tracts, the content of tracts, and the importance of cultural relevance, let us move on to the next question: Is a straightforward approach better, or is it better to ease into the message?
My opinion is that there is a time and a place for both styles of tracts. I like to use straightforward tracts for people who already have some interest in Jesus Christ. There are times when a person is literally asking for information about Christianity or asking good questions about Jesus and it seems a waste of time to give them a tract that beats around the bush. For this purpose, a few years ago I wrote a tract called "Five Questions About Jesus". This would be a perfect example of a straightforward tract. It just tells you right on the front cover what it is about, and interestingly enough, this tract is one of the tracts that people like to use the most.
On the other hand, many (perhaps even most) of the people with whom we come in contact are not yet interested in Christ. They need a tract which will engage them by way of some question, statement, or topic which grabs their attention and compels them to read further. I call those kind of tracts “back door" tracts. The purpose of this type of tract is the same as any other tract – to get inside of a person’s heart and mind with the truth of God’s Word. But since they often don’t throw open the front door of their mind with enthusiastic interest, we have to go through the “back door” instead.
By the way, God is the originator of the “back door” tract. You probably already knew this, but the book of Esther doesn’t mention the word “God” even one time in 10 chapters. Yet God’s sovereignty, wisdom, providence, grace, and power are seen all throughout. This shows us that it is possible to get a point across with a subtle approach.
1. If you work in an area where everybody is interested in Jesus, you could use straightforward tracts exclusively. The problem is, I don’t know of any such area. J But seriously, there are countries where Jesus Christ is already very well known, and the missionary’s task is to tell the people the truth about a God whom the people think they already know and love. In many countries though, Christ is not looked at favorably by the majority of people, which brings us to the next point.
2. If you work in an area where nobody is interested in Jesus, you could use “back door” tracts exclusively. There are some countries where the best hope you have of presenting Christ is to bring up some other subject first.
3. If you work in an area which has both kinds of people, you could use both. I would say that point number 3 best characterizes how we approach people here in Cambodia. There are a few people who have heard something of Christ in the past and now display a genuine interest in knowing more. The majority of the people are not that way though. Most people here are simply drifting through life giving very little thought to spiritual matters. I have found that people who give little or no thought to spiritual things generally don’t show any interest if your opening words are about spiritual things. I think that principle also holds true with Gospel tracts. We use both straightforward tracts and “back door” tracts in our ministry here.
4. If you work in an area where you don’t know yet what the people’s basic feeling is towards Jesus, you can use both kinds for a certain period of time while at the same time gauging the response you are getting to the different kinds of tracts. I would strongly recommend this approach to a new missionary in a new field, especially if he is not working with a veteran who can inform him of what is or is not working well. There are two ways to go about this. One way is to use different kinds of tracts simultaneously and keep track of what kind of responses you get. The other is to use one kind of tract for a while and then switch to something very different.
If you want to use some “back door” tracts, here are a few thoughts and ideas that we have used.
1. Put nothing about God or religion on the front page of the tract at all.
Studies have shown that a tract that is not opened will not be read! (Just kidding about the “studies have shown” part, but if you think about it, it does make sense).
Every November in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, there is a huge festival which draws hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country. Many missionaries have seen this as a great opportunity to get the Gospel out to large numbers of people at once. The first year I arrived, the group I was with was handing out Gospels of John. In this type of setting, that was extremely unproductive (see more about handing out Gospels of John in part 2 of this series). When the next year’s festival rolled around, another missionary and myself decided to pool our resources to print a new tract for the festival. We ended up printing a tract that had a picture of Christ on the cross and the words “Christ died for us all” on the front. To put it mildly, that was one of the worst responses to a tract I have ever seen in my life. I would say 9 out of 10 were thrown down within 2 seconds of being placed into a person’s hand (and, I might add, without ever being opened). At one point, it looked like a carpet on the road made with our tracts. After analyzing the situation, we both agreed that the main problem was the picture. People were walking in large groups of 10 and 20, heading to the river with their friends to have fun. Even those few who may have otherwise been interested in reading something about Christ had to act cool and funny in front of all their friends and family by throwing down a tract with a picture of Christ on the cross. It was just not the time nor the setting to be approaching people with that type of a tract. We were convinced, however, that while that particular tract didn’t go over well that a more strategic tract would be much better received. I began praying for an idea for the next year’s water festival, and God gave me one.
I wrote a tract in parable style which was a story of a rowing team which came to Phnom Penh during the water festival to compete in the boat races, but the race officials caught them cheating and sent them home. For a cover, I had one of my converts draw a nice, colorful picture of the boat races, and we put the words, “Everybody wants to be a winner!” on the front. The message was the same as the previous year’s tract, but the different cover and approach made all the difference in the world. A much higher percentage of the people took the tracts, opened the tracts, read the tracts, and talked with us. We were able to get names and contact information on many people and a few people got saved and started coming to church in subsequent weeks.
2. Utilize “life situations” which the locals are familiar with.
People like things that relate to their lives. What are the people like in your area? What do they spend their time doing? What kind of jobs do they do? Is education a big, important issue to them? How do they get around town? All of these are important questions to answer in the quest to write a tract that will resonate with them.
-We have a special tract written for garment factory workers (pictured at the beginning of this article). The tract has a picture of ladies at sewing machines, and the front has the words, “The Paycheck That Nobody Wants”. This tract is based upon Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…” and presents Bible truth about sin and its consequences.
-We have a special tract written for distributing in the market (pictured at right). It has a picture of various items one may find at the market with the question, “What should I buy?” Since Cambodians typically do not own a refrigerator, they go to the market daily (sometimes twice a day). Markets are bustling daily with both the rich and the poor and make a great place to hand someone a Gospel tract. This particular tract is based upon Proverbs 23:23, “Buy the truth and sell it not.”
-We have a special tract written for mototaxi drivers and fellow riders on public transportation (pictured in part 2 of this series). It has a humorous comic-style picture of an everyday scene of men beckoning riders for a taxi. On the front it simply asks the question, “Where are you going?” which is a question that Cambodians use multiple times every day as a greeting. Most Cambodians ride jam-packed vans to and from their home provinces, and everybody rides around town on motorcycle taxis. This tract is for those times.
-We have a special tract written for university students (pictured on part 3 of this series). It has a picture of an instructor with a graph, and another person sitting in front of a computer. All across the front it says the different subjects that people study here (business, accounting, tourism, English, computer, etc), and in large letters it asks, “What do you like to study?” This tract is unique in its approach. It starts out by praising people who are wise enough to invest in their own future by going to a college or university (Proverbs 1:5, "A wise man will hear, and will increase learning..."). It then goes on to bring up some of the dangers that are associated with education.
-We have a special tract written for school students (pictured at left). It has a comical picture of three school kids with a look of worry on their faces as the text above it announces boldly, “Don’t forget about the big test!” This one was one of the first ones that I ever wrote and consequently it needs some work. We don’t use this one much right now, but I have plans to revamp it. I still believe that it is a good idea to have a tract written especially for school kids.
When used for the right person and in the right situation, all of these tracts will usually at least get opened and skimmed, if not read completely.
3. Utilize a phrase, axiom, or proverb from their language and culture.
Every culture has its own little sayings, and these can often provide a great opening for a tract. One of the favorite tracts that our church people like to distribute is “Where are you going?” Why do they like it? Because it is a very Cambodian question. Everybody says it.
There are many Cambodian proverbs that I think in the future would make excellent “back door” Gospel tracts. But as with many of these tract in this article, they wouldn’t work anywhere else because they are exclusive to Cambodians. Each person has to pray and seek for their own ideas to custom fit the need of their area.
4. Write a story or parable which illustrates a spiritual truth.
I already mentioned the tract written for the water festival. Another tract which I wrote a few years ago specifically for the water festival is another parable-style tract called “Soum’s Boat” (pictured in part 4 of this series). When we used this tract, instead of 9 out of 10 being thrown down, 9 out of 10 were being kept. I met people for years after that who had seen and read that tract. It didn’t say anything about God until the very end, but by that point, the seed of truth had been planted. I have written two more parable tracts which have not yet been printed. One is called “The Fun Train”. This is a story about people living life in the fast lane. They are having a great time, but seem to be unaware that they are speeding down the tracks toward disaster. Artwork is being done now for this tract, and it will be printed soon. I have also written a story called “My Ladder Is Bigger Than Your Ladder”. This is a story about 3 men who fall into an abandoned well and want to get out. One man strives to build the longest ladder possible, one man builds a little ladder, and the third man sits and does absolutely nothing. But all three of them remain stuck in the bottom of the well, because the depth is too great. This tract is designed for people who think that by virtue of their religious fervor, they have a better chance than the next guy to make it to Heaven. If Jesus used parables to shed light on a certain truth, then certainly that would be a good approach in a Gospel tract.
5. Try to say something on the cover that is so interesting or thought-provoking that they are compelled to read further.
A missionary friend of mine has written a great tract called “All Religions Teach You To Do Good”. That phrase on the front makes it one of the easiest of all tracts to get people to take. They read the front and quickly say, “Exactly!” But before you label me a compromiser, that is just how the tract starts. It ends much differently. The basic point is that while all religions do want their adherents to be good and do good, it is only Christ who offers a way of salvation when mankind fails. It’s an excellent tract.
6. Appeal to logic by asking some of the big, important questions of life.
Another missionary friend has a tract which simply asks three questions on the front: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? They may or may not agree with what you tell them, but at least it will get them thinking about these essential questions. I have another tract in Vietnamese that a ministry in the U.S. sent to me called “What’s the most important thing?” The tract makes the case that there is nothing more important than a human soul. One of the young men in our ministry wrote a tract recently which I am considering printing called “Do you ever think about your future?” He wants to target young people with it by talking about the immediate future (i.e. school, job, marriage, etc) and then move to the more important future (eternity). I like his idea.
The most important part of this process is to seek God’s wisdom and leadership in developing tracts that will be faithful to God’s truth while at the same time being compelling enough to get read.
In conclusion, I want to give a word of warning for both straightforward and "back door" tracts.
Depending on the country where you serve and the level of religious liberty in that country, straightforward tracts can have a tendency to get you in hot water with the authorities. Obviously the truth of God’s Word will always be offensive to some. The preaching of the cross is a stumbling block and an offense to those who believe not. We cannot water down the truth to please men. But we have to also keep in mind the command to be wise as serpents. If you "cut loose with both barrels" in a Gospel tract, don’t be surprised to find yourself expelled from some countries. It might be more productive in the long run to be a little more shrewd in your printed materials in order to stay in the country. One of the first tracts I wrote in Cambodia was called “There’s Only One”. It was a very straightforward tract. It said that there is only one life, only one God, and only one way to Heaven. In the tract, I quoted some portions of Isaiah 44 about the foolishness of idolatry. That tract was used with no trouble for over 5 years, and then one day a copy made its way to a high-ranking monk who was very offended at the tract's content. It caused some real shock waves between the government and all of the Baptist missionaries. They banned that tract, so we don’t use it anymore. And why would we? There are thousands of ways to say the same thing.
My word of caution regarding "back door" tracts is to be careful of what your tracts look like. One popular "back door" tract in America is the fake money tract. I wouldn’t recommend that one here. First of all, you are liable to be mobbed when the rumor spreads that you are passing out 20’s. Second, when it comes out that they are fake, people will be very mad. And some people will accuse you of cruelty for getting people’s hopes up. A few years ago, I assigned a group of students to write their own tract in a soulwinning class. One young man wrote a tract based upon the idea of a “passport” to Heaven. His cover was a color copy of the front of a real passport. I would never use anything that purports to be money, a passport, or uses the words marriage or adoption. Why? Because all of these are hot button issues here in Cambodia involving fraud, corruption, and crime. We have to consider how our tracts look to others, and be wise in our approach.
I believe that our message is so important that it requires us to be compelling and creative with our Gospel tracts, but we also must be cautious in all that we do.