We went out in teams of three–always one guy and two girls. We’d meet up at 10pm, then walk the downtown streets, looking for people to talk to, always with a sense of urgency, importance, nervousness. The goal was to meet random people, engage them in conversation, then gradually work Jesus in, somehow. Athens, GA was the perfect place to meet random people–University of Georgia brought 35,000 students to the area 9+ months out of the year, and on a fall week night downtown, you had the usual frat crowd milling in and out of the cheap bars, the usual dozen or so homeless residents of the city, the more studious types from freshmen to grad students clogging the coffee shops and restaurants, year-round Athens residents, and angsty undergrads trying to work out their identities away from their families for the first time.
It was this last type that our little group usually ended up talking to, sometimes late into the night. We normally ended up at Blue Sky coffee shop (the one on College Street that was a fixture until the Starbucks arrived a few years later to put it out of business) parked at one of the tables out front, where we would sit and wait for unwitting prospective converts. The tables were crowded, so you would always end up sitting with people you didn’t know. We weren’t the sort of evangelists that would carry signs, shout at people, or even quietly hand out tracts. We didn’t even have to bring up Jesus the first conversation, actually. Our church’s plan was to have each team do this mini-group thing once a week, at the same time, for the whole semester. The whole point was actually to build relationships with people with the intention of trying to talk about God/Jesus at some point and then work into inviting them to church.
My church was a small, non-denominational evangelical church comprised mainly of college students, and a few students who had graduated and stayed in Athens afterward. Our pastor was just a few years older than us students…young, enthusiastic and full of ideas for ministry. Our church service consisted mainly of rock n’ roll God music and then a long sermon by said young pastor. We met in the top floor of “Tasty World”–a now defunct Athens bar known for it’s so-so drink prices, thick smoky air, but slightly above average bands that would bring in a Saturday night crowd so big that you could barely move.
We all felt pretty damn cool about the fact that our church met in a bar. To pay our rent, the church regulars like myself would meet two hours before our Sunday morning service and clean, scrub and mop the first two floors–an experience I will never forget. (There is something about regularly cleaning up puke out of a urinal that permanently changes your perspective on certain things.) So we were a downtown church, and this is why we decided to do street evangelism within the 5 or 6 block square area that made up the Athens downtown.
One of the people I remember meeting during one of these night time evangelism outings was a girl named Kate. All these years later, I can still picture her–maybe 5’3″, thin, curly dark hair, and freckles. She normally wore faded, torn jeans and flannel shirts. She was one of the regulars at the coffee place on Wednesdays, so after a few weeks of going out with my team, I began looking for her so we could talk about the books in common that we loved, the one class we had in common, and lots of other things I can’t really remember. We probably actually did talk about spiritual things. Mostly I just remember that she came to be a friend. As the weeks went by, we met up a couple other times other than Wednesday night evangelism hour to grab lunch in one of the campus cafeterias, or study for the class we shared. I sort of forgot that I was supposed to be bringing up the whole Jesus thing with her, but eventually I did invite her to come to our church. It was easy enough…I pointed at the bar window across the street from where we were sitting, her on her 3rd or 4th cigarette of the night, and me with my latte. That next Sunday, she actually came. And she kept coming for weeks after, sort of to my surprise.
I felt great. I thought to myself “hey, this whole evangelism thing isn’t so hard! You just make friends and invite them to church. Huh.” I felt important and self-righteous too. (“Look what a great Christian I am, actually bringing someone to church!”) On the last Sunday of the semester, Kate was sitting next to me. When it was time for the sermon, instead of launching into an exposition of this scripture or that one, our pastor made an announcement. “I would like to tell you all something. This whole semester, we have been sending out teams into downtown Athens. These teams of our members have been trying to form relationships with people with the intention of inviting them to church and introducing them to Jesus Christ, our Savior. Some of you are here this morning, and we are glad you are here with us.” My insides sank like a stone. I glanced through the corner of my eye at Kate, who had a blank, inscrutable expression on her face. After the service, when we normally would eat the potluck food everyone would bring, she said something about studying for a final, and left quickly.
We all left for Christmas break after finals, and when I returned to Athens in January, I didn’t see Kate again at our church. She wasn’t at Blue Sky coffee on Wednesday nights anymore, even though I looked. UGA was big enough that I wasn’t going to run into her just by chance very easily, and it was before Facebook or even text messages. (Imagine life like that!) So I just didn’t see her. When it was time to form evangelism teams again for Spring semester, I said I had too much studying to do to take a whole night off this time around. It wasn’t true…I just didn’t want to do it. I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly, but I just wasn’t comfortable with the idea of seeking people out with the sole intention of getting them to come to church. It seemed disingenuous and false, and those were two of the feelings I hated sensing within myself the most. I thought about Kate with this nagging sense of missed opportunity. I wanted to find her and tell her I liked her for her friendship; that I wanted to keep meeting up and that I didn’t care if she came to our church anymore or not; and tell her that I wasn’t trying to trick her into anything, even though I understood why she might think that. But I couldn’t of course, because I couldn’t find her.
One beautiful Spring Sunday morning toward the end of the semester, I had just left my dorm and had met up with a couple church friends to walk downtown when I saw a familiar person coming up the sidewalk from the other direction, arms entwined with a guy who I didn’t know. It was Kate. As we got closer, I could tell from her body language that she recognized us, but that it was too late to avoid us. We stopped for a second to talk, and had one of those false, cheery kinds of conversations that people have when they just would rather not be talking but don’t want to take the energy to be unpleasant. If I had seen her alone, or been real or brave enough to ask her to meet me later, I could have said some of the things I had been thinking, but instead she and her boyfriend moved on, and I kept walking towards church. I never saw her again.
This was an experience that has stayed with me through the years. I have thought about what it must have been like for her to run into us that morning, our smiley, holy selves marching towards church in our cute little dresses while she and her boyfriend went to breakfast after spending the night together. As a life-long church kid, this was not by any means my first or last experience with evangelism, but it was the first time I had the experience of seeing a person who I was supposed be evangelizing as a friend, as someone who I liked just for them and not for whether or not they decided to come to my church, or decided to pray a certain prayer, or decide to adopt the same beliefs as me.
I believe my intentions and those of my church members were not bad. We were actually trying to share with people that which mattered most to us–our faith. But the method was poor, and I know it was like bait and switch to Kate, who thought that she just randomly met us/me, and that we were real friends who ended up talking at a coffee shop, and that I just decided to invite her to our church because I liked her. Those things were sort of true actually, but that Sunday in our church, she must have felt like an object, a tally on a scorecard, a checkmark in box–not a person, a soul.
So if I could run into Kate right now, I’d say that I’m sorry. I’d tell her that she was the last person that I ever tried to talk to with the sole purpose of trying to bring up God/Jesus/faith/church. That even though I failed to be a real friend to her, that it was because of her that I began to realize that it is more important to look at each person I meet and try to know and understand what makes them interesting, special, and unique. I’d tell her that I know now that those things are way important than trying to get people to fit into a box of my own making.
So I am no longer a street evangelist, or really an evangelist at all. And I am glad.