The Good News on the Trail
For the past few years I’ve spent a number of months each year on The Appalachian Trail. While I hike and live along the trail my primary focus has been on spreading the Good News to those I meet. There are many people who come to the trail looking for “the meaning of life.” Initially they think it will be found in nature, but soon they realize that there must be more. It’s a grand opportunity to let them know about where true meaning comes from: God, who is manifested in His creation. Over the years I’ve had more occasions per day to share the gospel and point people to Christ along the trail than anytime else in my life.
While I was at home, I was asked to write about how I share Christ on the trail and I had difficulty describing it: it just seemed so natural to me. Now that I’m out on the trail for the year, I’ve paid attention to what I do and offer these ideas that I’ve found to be powerful instruments. As a preface, let me note that while out here, I almost never initiate these conversations. People can discern that I’m available for discussion and they are the ones who start it.
This brings up the first key to a fruitful intercourse: time. I make it clear that I have all the time desired to stop and talk with someone. When people realize that you will stop and hear them, they begin to tell you about their life, their challenges and their joys. I provide the sounding board that they need to empty what has been kept inside them because no one wanted to hear. I say very little, but listen very carefully. It is amazing how long folks will talk if they know you want to hear them; many do not have someone with whom they can open up like this.
The second key I see is imbedded in the first: silence. Of course I’d love to tell others about my life and adventures, but I keep quiet. These discourses are intended to reach others, not sound my own horn. If the relationship develops further, there will be plenty of time for me to tell about myself. For now, the less said about me, the better. Avoiding talking about myself lets others know that I really want to hear about them, and encourages them to continue to open up about themselves. I often hear God reminding me in these conversations that I should shut up and listen.
After a while in these conversations the subject starts to turn from the mundane to the truly significant: things like life-changing events or traumas, or significant concerns that have been left unanswered, sometimes for years. This is the time for the third key: questions. Now is the time to ask thoughtful questions which do two things: they let people know that you really are hearing what they have to say, and it helps to start turning the conversation towards the One who can help them when no one else can. For example, someone came up and asked if they could hike with me; after telling me all about themselves and marriage partner for well over 45 minutes they started wondering about the foundations of their marriage. I asked why they were concerned, and what they thought the foundations should be. Their focus was entirely based on what the world values: communal life and love, avoiding being alone, and joint happiness. When I asked if they thought there was more to it than that, it opened a dialog about what I see as the focus of marriage: God putting us together to share life and draw each other and others to know Him and serve Him. This stirred up more questions about who created marriage, and further, who created the world we live in. This conversation will be continued when I expect we see each other again in a few weeks. It was interesting to me that I got to interact with both members of this marriage at different places before I connected them to each other; even more interesting is that I learned one is pretty heavily involved in a Christian church already. God is a good arranger of events.
The fourth key is one that is easy to say, and sometimes harder to do: love. I practically never tell people I’m a Christian; they should perceive it by how I behave, and what I say. It may be cliché, but it is still true: “They will know we are Christians by our love.” By what I do and what I say in response to others, people will know where my hope comes from. And this is now my opportunity to tell them about the one who loved me so much that He gave His life for me, and stands with me all the time. That kind of love should exude from every pore of your body; when others see it, they want to experience it also and are often eager to hear more about how they can find this special love. They want to hear more about who I know as the creator of the world and guide in my life. With hikers, something tangible that can show this love is taking care of their often calloused and hurting feet by offering some foot healing lotion, or helping fix a broken piece of equipment. Maybe a snack from my pack will be a sign of love, or an offer to use my phone which gets reception where many phones don’t to call someone. It might be an offer to call and continue the conversation later, or it might be sending a note by snail mail encouraging and helping to lead to further discussions.
The final key in these discussions is the one that underlies all of them: The Holy Spirit. It is never people who bring others to God; the Spirit is the one who comes into their lives, and brings them into the ultimate relationship. Our role is to point out some of the things God has done in our lives, and to show pathways that can lead to finding that relationship with Jesus which forever will change a person’s life. I find it vitally important to keep in mind also that we are seeking to find faith, and not complete understanding of everything. Faith in God does not mean that we will now know the answers to all of life’s questions. In fact, it may lead to more questions. Understanding might be advanced, but we will not understand all that is in this world while we are in it; we aren’t God. Leading someone to Christ means putting them in a relationship under His wings where He can over time reveal more of Himself.
So there you have it: the five keys I see in my trail discussions: time, silence, questions, love, and Holy Spirit. I hope they can help you as you walk your trails.