Many years ago planning a trip was something of a journey into the unknown. A well thumbed copy of a ‘lonely planet’ guide might be acquired from a used bookshop and an itinerary of sorts roughed out before embarking hoping you had avoided the hostels with bed bugs and the routes impassable in a hired campervan and if any of your friends had been before you eagerly quizzed them for travel tips and their local knowledge.
It is much easier today. When planning the trip Robyn and I are taking at the moment it has been straightforward to research accommodation, activities, eateries and get advice about routes and weather with a few search terms and browser clicks.
I am not talking about the hotel or restaurant websites, though they are informative and have nice pictures and well crafted descriptions of what is on offer. I am thinking of the sites like ‘TripAdvisor, ‘Urban Spoon/Zomato’ where it isn’t the sales pitch or the advertising manager that shapes the message, but the experiences of some satisfied (or unsatisfied!) customers.
Call it the cynic in all of us, but we are pretty well conditioned to be wary of a sales pitch. The ‘used car salesman’ has entered folklore as a stereotype, a bit pushy, possibly dodgy products, looking to close a deal at any cost. Rather like the ‘Tele-evangelist’ stereotype. Big hair (well, I’m safe on that count!), smooth pitch and overpromising.
But where we will go out of our way to avoid or to quickly end encounters with ‘salesmen’, we seek out the opinions of satisfied customers. We trust what they say and happily take their recommendations. Even people we have never met influence us on eBay, TripAdvisor and other sites with their descriptions of service and products we are considering.
Even when we aren’t in the market for something, a comment by a friend, or an overheard conversation raving about how much someone enjoyed a meal, appreciated or was helped by a book, service or surprise holiday destination can provoke us to try it for ourselves.
For many Christians the idea of evangelism, of sharing our faith with others conjures up the image of the salesman. And for most of us that is not a comfortable or natural role, and we either avoid it, or try it and recoil almost as much as those we approach.
But what if we just acted like satisfied customers?
I guess I should caution against any impression of being a consumer minded Christian. Rating churches, preachers, youth groups like we do a transaction on eBay. I am not meaning act like a satisfied customer of the church, but that where we do find satisfaction, joy, comfort, purpose and help as followers of Jesus we talk about that as naturally as we do other things we enjoy.
We were lucky when we ran a typesetting business to have some clients become friends, but I worry when people get involved in some business activity, often a multi-level marketing scheme, and there is a push to turn friends into customers. I am not meaning we suddenly view every acquaintance as someone to bombard with our enthusiasm for Ecclesiastes or badger them about baptism. But that we simply take to heart what the apostle Peter writes in one of his letters in the New Testament:
“…in your hearts honour Christ as Lord. Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you about the hope you have. Be ready to give the reason for it. But do it gently and with respect.”
That doesn’t sound at all like our image of a pushy salesman, but it seems to me a lot like the satisfied customers, those who have tried it out and can tell us what their experience has been.
Like me, you might not be the kind of person who would ever be comfortable as a salesman, but why not focus on the things of God that satisfy, comfort, excite and amaze you. And be ready to share that experience with others. Think about it. What might you say in just a few sentences to someone asking you about the last place you stayed for a holiday. Or the last meal out that you enjoyed. Or the place you take your car for its service. And then ask yourself what could you say about knowing God?
“Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, your justice as deep as the seas.
How priceless is your unfailing love. All people find refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light.” Psalm 36:5-9