I paid my way through college and graduate school waiting on tables. Working in the service industry taught me many important life lessons: humility, grace under pressure, appreciation for hard work, generosity . . . and that Christians are typically the worst people to wait on—especially after church on Sundays.
Here’s my experience working Sundays at lunch time: dressed up, rude, demanding, condescending, “hangry” people. And cheap. For my tip, I’d find a dollar, tucked discreetly within a tacky gospel tract.
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Do you know what I’m talking about? A glossy little pamphlet with a clever message about how, unless I repented immediately, I was going to burn in hell. My all-time favorite was the fake $20, $50, or $1 million dollar bill. Inside was “THE MILLION-DOLLAR QUESTION: Will you go to Heaven when you die?”
You know what wasn’t inside? A tip.
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Did I mention I was a theology student, training for ministry? These tracts seemed a bit misdirected to me. Not to mention that I was neck-deep in the lunch shift, so no time to read or respond. May I be honest? My coworkers hated to work on Sunday at lunch time because of Christians. A fake tip in lieu of a real tip? Asking an ill-timed and inappropriate question? My coworkers weren’t thinking about heaven when someone left them a tacky tract; they were wishing someone away to the other place.
I can’t imagine Jesus would leave a server at a restaurant one of those tacky tracts. Here’s why:
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Christ's coming was all about connecting with people. So it should be no surprise that His ministry was all about connecting with people, too. Of His purpose Jesus said, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10, ESV), which for Jesus meant eating with “sinners”—people who had yet to experience the grace of God.
Eating with someone in the first century was all about connection. In Christ’s time, one key rule of table fellowship was “like eats with like,” so when you ate with someone you were communicating that you and your guest were like each other, equals, and connected as human beings.
Handing a stranger a gospel tract is the exact opposite of making a connection with someone; it’s off-putting. Here’s a practical alternative, a way of connecting with your server: Ask his or her name and—before praying for your meal—ask if he or she has something you can pray about. I’ve seen God use this powerfully to make quick connections with someone who was a stranger just moments before.
Lost people are often lost in every way. Like “sheep without a shepherd” they are wandering—wondering where they are, who they are, and why they are. Jesus didn’t cross the street when He saw lost people walking His way. Matthew said it this way: "When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless” (9:36).
Compassion took Jesus toward sinners—took him all the way to the cross. You know where it didn’t take him? To a tract.
What genius decided that it was compassionate to leave a complete stranger a note that he or she is going to hell? As one who received more than a few of those tracts, I can tell you that they are not experienced as an act of compassion. Here’s something you can do instead: Ask your server their story. Get to know something about them. Find out what has them wondering—where they are, who they are, why they are.
The best context for the truth is a relationship. That’s my problem with street preachers. It’s not that what they are saying isn’t true (it may or may not be). It’s that what they are saying has no context. They yell words at strangers from a street corner. Similarly, tracts communicate from a distance. The reader and the writer are far removed from one another, and when you leave a tract on a table rather than engaging in the conversation that a tract might make possible, you actually exaggerate the distance. Truth spoken (or shouted) beyond the context of a relationship can be easily misunderstood as hate.
If there’s anyone in the Bible who would have easily been classed as a “sinner,” it was the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar. She’d been with five different men, and she was currently living with a man who wasn’t her husband. Most people in Jesus’ day would not have sought connection with her; they would have ignored her, even exaggerated the distance between them. In that day, men didn’t speak with women publicly, and Jews didn’t interact with Samaritans in any way, shape, or form. Christ’s courageous interaction with this woman was an act of preemptive grace, creating a caring context through which He could speak truth she needed to hear (John 4:17-18).
The best context for truth is a loving relationship, not a safe distance. So instead of dropping a tract and slipping out the door, consider becoming a regular at the restaurant, someone your server expects—and looks forward—to see.
Tracts supposedly offer good news, but they make for bad tips. How about, instead of leaving your servers a tacky gospel tract, you make an effort to connect with them? Ask them their names; ask them if they’d like you to pray anything for them.
How about you approach them with compassion, paying attention to how busy they are and considering how you can make their day easier?
How about you consider their context—find out who they are and what they’re going through and let what you learn dictate what truth you offer them?
And how about you make their day and give them an actual, really good tip?
I can tell you from experience, that would be received as good news.
Image courtesy: ©Thinkstock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
Publication date: July 12, 2017