The Lord Jesus Christ looked out over a vast crowd and was ‘moved with compassion for them’ (Matthew 9:36). But is it possible that the very familiarity of these words has bred contempt for them in our often cold hearts?
As we go about our lives we often find ourselves in crowds – if only in the high street on a Saturday morning. What thoughts pass through our minds? Do we notice the crowd? Do we have any concern for them?
Matthew goes on to explain just why the Lord was so concerned for the people – ‘they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd’. Here were people struggling through life, perhaps with little idea of why they were here or where they were going.
But that is why Jesus was there among them. He came to seek and to save that which was lost. Praise God, he is still about that glorious work today.
But to make his Word known in the world he calls his people to be involved in that work. Jesus said, ‘You shall be witnesses to me’ (Acts 1:8). What a calling and privilege it is!
Sadly, however, we have a 101 excuses why someone else should do it. It is still the case that ‘the labourers are few’ (Matthew 9:37). Christ’s words are not intended to console our indifference but to stir us out of it – and motivate each of us to join those who labour in his harvest field.
A church planter once said that giving out tracts was a waste of time. How wrong he was, and for a number of very clear reasons!
Firstly, giving out tracts, like open-air preaching, takes Christians to where people are. Unless we are out among unbelievers we cannot share the gospel with them – especially in a day when few people attend church and multitudes have never heard the gospel. If people will not come to us, surely we must go to them!
A man was converted to Christ after receiving a tract at (of all places!) Epsom Races. He went on to become an evangelical Anglican minister and saw many saved under his ministry.
Secondly, distributing tracts is a way of getting the gospel to those we might not otherwise reach. Take Grace for example. She was serving a nine-year prison sentence for killing her boyfriend in a drunken rage.
One day she was cleaning out a cupboard in a vacated cell when she came across a gospel tract. Grace was moved by what she read. She noticed an address with an invitation to receive further literature.
She duly sent for this and shortly afterwards was saved. Grace’s life was wonderfully transformed. Through God’s amazing providence, a tract that had been discarded by someone else was left for this needy soul to find.
It might be tempting to despise something so small and seemingly insignificant as a gospel leaflet, but it is a little missionary which can get into dark places and be used of God to enlighten darkened hearts.
Bear in mind that recent legislation (Section 23 Clean Neighbourhoods & Environment Acts 2005) safeguards the right of religious groups to hand out material in public places.
Thirdly, this is a work any Christian can do. You don’t have to be a preacher to give out tracts. There are so many opportunities. You can leave tracts in public places such as telephone boxes. You can give them to those you meet in the course of daily life – the postman or window cleaner, the shop assistant or car park attendant.
You could encourage others in your church to join an open-air team. Even if only one other believer was willing to stand with you in your local town that would be a fine start.
Finally, a tract can be a good way to start a conversation. When people are offered a tract by someone with a polite manner and friendly smile, they will often ask what it is. This can be helpful for those of us who find it hard to start a spiritual conversation.
It is important when giving out tracts in a public place to let people know what they are. We don’t want to create litter as people discard tracts once they realise what they have been given. If they know what the leaflet is beforehand they can refuse it – yet are also more likely to read it if they accept it.
There are always a variety of responses to the offer of a Christian tract or leaflet. Some will refuse politely and some will ignore you completely. Some responses can be quite amusing. A lady in Leicester replied, ‘I can’t read that, I’m on holiday’. A classic reply to the offer of a ‘Christian leaflet’ was, ‘No thanks duck, I’m Church of England’.
Someone may rush by with barely a word, seemingly uninterested. A student in Luton called Matthew emailed the Open-Air Mission (OAM) office last year to apologise for hurrying past the lady who gave him a tract. He explained that he was on his way to do a presentation at college and didn’t want to be late.
He went on to say that he was very curious about religion and asked to be sent a Bible (which we were only too pleased to dispatch the same day).
Many refuse to take a tract, but even this can bring someone to the Saviour. The late Rev. Canon E. A. Stuart was an undergraduate at Oxford University when, he said, ‘My soul was smitten by the power of God after refusing a tract’.
The tracts themselves are important. Always use good quality material. Drab colourless leaflets are a poor advert for the life-giving message of salvation. Also be sure to give contact details. You may never see the recipients again so they need a means of finding out more.
The Open-Air Mission, for example, receives around 50 enquiries each month from individuals in Britain and overseas.
Very recently we heard from a lady who has come to know the Lord through reading a tract. She wrote, ‘After listening to a church sermon one Sunday about “Christ the solid rock” I was out walking my dog and … really searching my heart, knowing that Christ wasn’t my rock.
‘I sat down on a seat … and prayed to God to show me the way to go when this piece of paper blew up to my feet. It was a gospel tract from OAM entitled Are you good enough to go to heaven? As I read it I knew that I wasn’t, but I also knew what I had to do.
‘There and then, I asked the Lord to save me, to forgive me my sins and come into my life, to make me good enough for his home – and praise the Lord he has’.
Spurgeon once delivered the following rebuke and challenge: ‘Behold, how many professing Christians there are that are asleep…! They are inactive. Sinners are dying in the street by hundreds; men are sinking into the flames of eternal wrath, but they fold their arms, they pity the poor perishing sinner, but they do nothing to show that their pity is real.
‘They go to their places of worship; they occupy their well-cushioned easy pew; they wish the minister to feed them every Sabbath; but there is never a child taught in the Sunday school by them; there is never a tract distributed at the poor man’s house; there is never a deed done which might be the means of saving souls…
‘The church does not need to stop for lack of instruments, or for lack of agencies; we have everything now except the will; we have all that we may expect to give for the conversion of the world, except just a heart for the work, and the Spirit of God poured out into our midst. Oh! brethren, “let us not sleep as do others”.’
Sharing the gospel always does something for the Christian. It is a real blessing to believers to make Christ known – the Lord has said, ‘Blessed are you who sow beside all waters’ (Isaiah 32:20).
Casting our bread upon the waters can seem a thankless task at times, but we should remember that it is the Lord’s work and we need to have confidence that he will bless it in his own time and for his own glory. One thing is sure – God’s Word never returns to him void but always accomplishes that which he pleases and prospers in the thing for which he sent it (Isaiah 55:11).
‘In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike will be good’ (Ecclesiastes 11:6).