In my childhood my mother warned me, "Never talk to strangers." The distinctives of a stranger were not very clear at the time. I just knew that if people were not from my neighborhood or my family they were not to be talked to. Of course childhood rebellion and natural curiosity led me to converse with dozens of "forbidden ones" in my early years. I allowed them to speak to me and even to have an influence on me.
Now in my adulthood the media—television, radio, weekly journals, daily newspapers—are designed to influence me. They also sell advertising to those who claim to have a concern and a right to speak into my life. If I really want to know, I will read that certain magazine. If it’s fit to print, I will read it in that particular paper. If I want the inside scoop (unless it’s insider trading) it’s available from that certain daily journal in New York’s financial district. They all want to influence me to their position. That is the essence of advertising in our capitalistic country. Freedom of the press is a First Amendment right that allows others to speak, even when their message seems against our own opinions. Everyone has an agenda that makes them want to influence others to their opinions, but few are altruistically motivated.
As we are evangelizing on street corners, handing out tracts is our way of trying to influence others to seek after and discover the living Lord Jesus. That is our agenda, our goal. Very few individuals on the busy streets of Washington, D.C., or wherever else we happen to be, are thinking about God. Fewer still are wondering how they might get to know him. Our job and joy as missionaries is to approach people and get God into their purview. We are seeking to influence them.
Many respond with, "Later!" or "I gave at the office," or "I’m trying to quit." Such responses tell us that we’re not getting through and are having no influence. Ignoring us is the principal method of resistance to our message.
Then there are others who merely say, "Thank you." We may never know about these. They take the tract and place it in their purse or pocket, and we can only hope that the tract will speak to them at a later time, maybe during their coffee break, or when they change purses or clothing later that evening.
We know we are getting through when they say, "Jews for Jesus? What’s this all about?" Some really do want to know about what they have always regarded as mutually exclusive terminology. Even when they say, "Get out of my face!" or "You should be ashamed of yourself!" or use some other hostile comments that would have no place in a Christian publication, we know we are getting through.
The issue of Jesus is making its way into the mindset of the hearer. It would be self-defeating if we went out only to rouse the hearers and cause them not to listen, but apparent antagonism is always evidence of the clarity of our message. Few consider us bearers of good news. More often than not they see us as unsolicited prophets, bringing up a topic they would rather not consider. Nevertheless, we are communicating as we attempt to influence those who are committed to being disinterested in what we are saying. Resistance is natural, so it does not surprise us to hear negative reactions.
After all, did you say "yes" the first time Burger King asked "Aren’t you hungry?" Did you run right out and buy the bacon double-cheeseburger? Did "Oh, what a feeling," cause you immediately to purchase a Toyota because the influencers—the advertisers—told you to? Maybe eventually you did, buy maybe you did not.
Likewise, we who proclaim the gospel are not surprised that our influence is not 100% received every time we offer it. We have a right—and a responsibility—to proclaim our message even if it is refused. But if we proclaim it often enough to enough people, some will not refuse. After all, someone influenced me, and someone influenced you if you are a believer. Maybe it was your mother, or maybe it was a perfect stranger. We keep on trying because we just might influence the very next person we approach.
Bob Mendelsohn is the leader of Jews for Jesus' work in Sydney, Australia. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Kansas City, but became a college drop-out when he decided to look for the meaning of life in the counterculture of the '60s. He found meaning and relevance in Jesus which caused him much trouble at home. But he says, It was worth the cost." Bob has worked for Jews for Jesus since 1979, and served as the leader of our work in Washington DC and New York City before moving to Sydney in 1998. Bob and his wife Patty both graduated from the University of Kansas and Fuller Seminary. The Mendelsohns live in Sydney near their son. Their two daughters and one grandson live in the US.