Over the past few years I’ve travelled to a handful of major U.S. cities, and during each visit, I manage to come across people handing out gospel tracts. I’ve seen these people everywhere. When there aren’t people to hand them out, sometimes I’ve found tracts lying in airport bathrooms. My wife and I went on a trip about a year and a half ago where every time we had a layover I picked up a tract somewhere. Everywhere I went these printed materials were ready to meet me. Maybe I needed to repent and ask Jesus into my heart. Yet, blessed assurance…
Out of curiosity I steer toward these people and take whatever they are handing out. I can remember vividly interactions I had with two different persons while visiting New York City. One person handed me a tract that stated “being baptized as a child” and “following the 10 commandments and basically being a good person” were not sufficient for salvation, sentiments with which I would agree. These conditions were the foundation of the presentation which was to follow. If you’ve seen printed materials which begin with a similar line of argument, you know that infant baptism and being a good person are portrayed as types of “salvation by works” which will be demolished by the proclamation of salvation by grace alone through Christ alone.
Again, as a Christian person I would affirm that salvation comes by grace through Christ. I wasn’t too surprised by the basic message of this gospel tract. What bewildered me about this gospel presentation was the fact that it assumed the majority of people reading it would have either experience baptism as a small child or have been familiar with the 10 commandments and considered the decalogue a reasonable basis for a personal code of ethics. That day I was walking with my friend Ryan, and I told him that I thought this line of argument was no longer applicable to our culture. The church no longer shares a common discourse or language with a nominally Christian public. We are no longer living in a nation which intentionally engages with the texts and way of life as embodied in the Judea-Christian tradition. Tracts like the one I received in New York City were written to another world which no longer exists.
As for that other person I can remember in NYC, he was outside Yankee stadium handing out tracts featuring Mickey Mantle. Standing on the Subway headed home from the game, I knew I wasn’t the only one who had been handed one of these tracts. I can recall seeing a man carefully reading through the material, then expressing his disgust to his wife who was with him. I was saddened in that moment, but was unsure what to say.
This week I was reading a book entitled Holy Conversation: Talking About God in Everyday Life by Richard Peace. In his 3rd chapter, “Really Good News,” he asks this question:
I do wonder if tracts are not a thing of the past? You don’t see tractlike materials used in any other areas of life these days.
I thought this was a good question for the blog world, considering this may be one of the most prevalent forums in our culture today in which people can express their beliefs on faith, politics, religion, and public life to a diverse and broad audience. The blog world just might be the contemporary tract, though the format and the means of engagement are quite different.
I am not someone who leaves “Tracts in my Tracks,” as one evangelist once exhorted me to do both in word and by walking the aisles of the church facility flinging tracts in the air. My life and work are tracts which I hope point others toward a different reality called Kingdom which is constituted by a cross.
In order to open this up, I invite you to blog and link back here with your thoughts on this question: Is the tract still a viable means by which to communicate the gospel? Or, has it ever been? What are your thoughts on tracts?
If you don’t have a forum, feel free to leave a comment. How effective is the tract? What purpose does the tract serve? Will tracts continue to be used by Christian people in the future, and will they maintain the same form? I’d love to hear your thoughts.