In 2004, The Barna Group, a Christian based research company, did a survey which asserted that 65% of senior Protestant pastors felt that tracts (paper handouts with pithy gospel messages) were an effective means of evangelism. In particular, paper pamphlets were, “a good way of making evangelism doable for the people in their respective churches.”
Notice that the operative word here is doable — as in: within one’s power or feasible. Sadly, the survey did not choose a word which meant: likely to be achieved, or probable. Let’s give the data the benefit of the doubt, in which doable must at least mean that at some point there is some possible value. That is, it’s possible that paper handouts can affect an audience, but there are no guarantees.
It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, and you’re sitting at a typical greasy spoon diner. While reaching for a napkin, you discover a small paper booklet. The tract is about heaven and hell. Two-toned illustrations on every page depict how your earthly choices will affect your eternal resting place. It ends with the question written in the most somber of fonts, “What will you choose?” You ponder the inquiry for a fraction of a second before choosing the mint chocolate chip over the apple pie. Moments later the sweetness of the sugar sends endorphins to their proper receptors, and you smile as you are made pleasantly content. On your walk home, you reflect on whether or not you left the correct amount for the tip. You don’t once consider the distasteful tract that you left right where you found it.
I’ve got several issues with tracts. They are at best a numbers game. If 11 out of 13,000 have a positive effect on non-believers, I will acknowledge them as valuable. But what about the reverse effect or unintended consequence. What if there were also 11 out of the same 13,000 non-believers that are further pushed away from Christ because the pamphlets were tacky. Is this a zero sum gain? Or since we’re talking about souls, is this something far worse? Additionally, what if the paper literature looked dated and uncool? What if the Christians in proximity to the leaflets feel embarrassed about their faith and become less open to sharing their beliefs.
There is nothing inherently wrong with using tracks to convey the gospel. I’m just suspicious of them and worry that they incentivize Christians to remain quiet; because the literature says it better.
But there’s some good news. If you dig into the Barna study, it also states that 85% of the pastors asked, agreed with tracts having value when combined with a relational approach to witnessing.
That should have been the takeaway. That should be the headline. There should be no further talk about the use of tracts. In particular, because the research was entirely qualitative and based off of the opinions of pastors when asked about tracts.
For pamphlets to have their greatest possible impact, they still need a relational/friendship approach.
We’re calling PunkChiridion’s proposed method or depiction of evangelism Investigative Evangelism. We’ll be posting numerous bits about it over the next year. But I will leave you with perhaps its strongest core component. Investigative Evangelism is about investing in people. I know that this is just a teaser. I meant to write this blog solely on a description of it, but I’m just about at my word limit. So this will have to be a teaser.
It needs to be said that the Barna Group has done great work and I’m sure will continue to do more. Additionally, the survey they did on tracts was commissioned/paid for by the American Tract Society.