An Awkward Exchange

I’m sitting at the car dealership, waiting on an oil change and new brake pads for our beloved family minivan. It’s fall break, and this is a long way from where I want to be. But with the responsibilities of adulthood and car ownership being what they are, here I am. Sitting, waiting, trying to pass the time.

Off to my left, an elderly gentleman roams aimlessly around the waiting area. He inspects the fish tank. He fills a styrofoam cup with coffee. He awkwardly greets a random employee that happens to walk by on the way to her office. His demeanor pulsates with nervous energy. I watch him out of the corner of my eye, wondering why he won’t just sit down and relax. 

To my right, a younger gentleman has done just that. He’s settled himself into a chair roughly six feet away from me. He’s sharply dressed with a phone in his hand and the cord of his earbuds dangling casually from a single ear. Maybe he’s in the middle of an important business call? Maybe he’s immersed in a riveting podcast? Whatever the case, he seems as thrilled as I am to be spending an afternoon at the Toyota service center.

Meanwhile, my attention is being pulled back and forth between the book in my hands, the HGTV show on the massive television, and the three restless kids I’ve forced to tag along with me. For the next several minutes, I’m too immersed in my own world to notice that the wandering old man has wandered to the other side of the waiting area. When I finally look up, I realize that he’s now hovering over the shoulder of the seated fellow to my right, circling like a vulture with an eye on his next meal. 

It’s at this moment that I start to have a bad feeling about the situation. Perhaps it’s some special sixth sense I’ve developed as the result of a lifetime of immersion in evangelicalism, but as soon as I hear the old guy clumsily ask the other man where he’s from, I know exactly what’s going on here. And sure enough, it’s only a matter of seconds before the elderly gentleman reveals his hand. With a well-rehearsed boldness, he pulls out his phone, explains the various features on his Bible study app, and then proceeds to launch into what can only be described as a comprehensive sales pitch for his own particular expression of religious belief.

To the credit of the businessman on my right, he sits patiently through the whole thing. He nods, he offers thanks for the insights being dispensed, and he maintains a respectful tone throughout the presentation. But as it turns out, this guy has his own religious loyalty, and he’s in no mood to be converted this afternoon while waiting for his car to be serviced.

Eventually the conversation settles into a recurring pattern: Young guy asks a sticky question: “But what about…?” Old guy confidently responds with a nice-sounding non-answer. Young guy regathers and comes back with a follow-up question. Old guy patronizingly tells him something like, “Well, if we look at this from God’s point of view…” or, “Actually, what this passage in the Bible really means is…” Young guy doesn’t seem even remotely close to changing his mind or trading in his religious beliefs for new ones.

This cycle plays itself out over and over. No matter what question is asked, the intrusive evangelist is ready with a half-baked—albeit self-assured—response.

As I sit next to this bizarre exchange between strangers, I can’t help but cringe. Partly because it’s so ridiculously awkward. And partly because it’s reminding me of my own uncomfortable relationship with a religious system that demanded my participation in evangelism, prioritizing my fulfillment of a sacred duty to convert those who don’t believe.

I’m reminded, for example, of the seminary class which required me to initiate a certain number of “gospel presentations” over the course of the semester in order to pass. I’m reminded of the time I agreed to go with a fellow church member through the middle of a college campus, randomly questioning students about their faith. I’m reminded of the church groups and leadership meetings when I was repeatedly asked, “How’s it going with you leading your non-Christian friends to Jesus?”

These memories are difficult to recall. They’re fraught with embarrassment. They’re laden with shame. And they’re a big part of the reason why I’m tempted to interrupt the conversation happening next to me and ask the guy who started it this one simple question: “What makes you so sure?”

If you’re going to disturb a complete stranger in a public space and attempt to convert him, you have to be unflinchingly adamant that you’re correct—and that he’s not. Why else would you try to uproot his entire spirituality? Why else would you suggest that his eternal fate depends on him adopting the faith you profess? This isn’t merely a matter of critiquing someone’s diet or questioning their taste in music. The act of religious evangelism is fundamentally a confrontation of a person’s core identity.

That’s why I find myself secretly hoping that at least one of the young man’s questions will earn a response of, “Hmm, that’s a tough one,” or “Gosh, I don’t have an answer for that.” Just one little glimmer of hesitation. Just one small admission of mystery.

After all, to talk about matters of religion and spirituality is to talk about the most transcendent and incomprehensible of all subjects. Our finite human minds simply cannot master the endless enigmas of the divine. Although each faith has its own set of insights and revelations, its own sacred texts, its own claims to authority, how on earth can anyone say they have God figured out? One could argue, in fact, that by to have God figured out means that by definition what you’ve figured out isn’t God at all.

Wise spiritual leaders have repeatedly observed that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt; it’s certainty. The more I contemplate the life of faith, the more I resonate with that observation. To believe is to admit a certain amount of ignorance. It’s to acquiesce to the reality of the unknown.

Yet as I listen to the waiting room missionary casually speaking on behalf of God and dishing out trite spiritual platitudes in response to deep and searching questions, it’s clear that this plot has been lost. What he’s offering is not an invitation to encounter a supernatural reality beyond our human understanding or existence. Instead he’s selling a nicely packaged assortment of cheap religious trinkets, all of which have been conveniently simplified and smoothed out so they can fit comfortably into the spiffy little app he’s downloaded on his phone.

The tragedy of this whole situation isn’t the fact that an old man whose car needs maintenance happens to have strong religious beliefs and wants to share them. The tragedy is that these beliefs have elevated him above everyone else. In a world of spiritual darkness, he must be the authority. He must spread the truth. He must be the self-appointed prophet to local service center waiting rooms (and who knows where else).

Such a posture inherently dehumanizes everyone else who doesn’t share the same beliefs. There’s no appreciation for their stories, no room for their contributions, no openness to their insights. When you go into a conversation already convinced that the other person is wrong, it’s nearly impossible to respect them as an equal. They may be your friend, or your neighbor, or your cousin—or the stranger at the auto service center. But what they really are is an infidel. A heathen. A lost soul.

I’ll admit: maybe I’m biased. After all, even when I considered myself a fervent believer, the responsibility of “sharing my faith” or “witnessing” to others never sat well with me. I knew I was supposed to do it. But it never felt natural, and to be honest, it never felt right. So sure, maybe I’m projecting those hesitations onto others. Or maybe I’m just trying to justify my own shortcomings as a failed evangelist who no longer knows exactly what he believes.

Then again, maybe there’s more to the story. Is it possible that stepping away from a lifelong religious identity has given my a greater awareness of its limitations? I don’t know. But I do know that I’ve only recently discovered how dangerously easy it is for a believer of any kind to grow so confident in his own perspective that he starts seeing everyone around him as nothing more than a convert to be won.

Speaking of which, back at the Toyota dealership, it comes as no surprise whatsoever that after an lengthy volley of questions and answers, no converts have yet been won.

It’s not for lack of trying. The evangelist has already ignored the service representative who came to tell him that his car was done. He appears ready to sit here all night. But the younger man is ready to make his escape. He’s just been informed that the dealership is giving him a rental vehicle for the night so they can order parts and complete the necessary repairs, and his attention has turned to those more urgent matters. It’s time for this conversation to conclude.

To their credit, the tone between the men is still cordial. The old man might be disappointed in the lack of a response, but he remains steadfast to the very end. He encourages is counterpart to check out that Bible app he showed him. He gives him a website that has “thousands of answers” to all the toughest questions. And at the last moment, before they depart, he extends one final remark:

“By the way, I don’t think I ever caught your name.”

I smile and shake my head. It’s a fitting end to the drama that has just unfolded. Nearly an hour of trying to save another man’s soul, and only now does he realize he doesn’t even know to whom he’s been talking.

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