“I already have one of those,” said the taxi driver when I offered him one of the gospel tracts in my wallet. Since I live in a densely populated Asian city, the odds seemed slim he really had one. To my shock, the driver pulled an identical tract from the console between the seats.
“You gave it to me last time you rode in my taxi.” I did not remember him, but he remembered me and kept my tract. It’s hard to remember taxi drivers when all you see is the back of their heads.
About a year later, I was witnessing to another taxi driver, and the same thing occurred. He, too, still had the tract I had given him months before.
“Did you read it?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied.
“Then it won’t be able to help you,” I said, smiling into his rear view mirror. “Read it. That message can change your life.”
Is the Common Perception about Tracts Wrong?
Most Christians today rarely give out tracts. Why would they? Tracts don’t work. Even pastors say so. But is this true?
My story above could be used as a case in point. I could augment that with stories of tracts that met their doom on filthy city streets just moments after I handed them to someone. Furthermore, I can say that despite the hundreds of tracts I have given to people on both hemispheres, I cannot think of one who got saved just because I gave them a tract.
However, is this failure? How would one quantify the success of handing out tracts? Furthermore, why has handing out tracts and literature been a staple of Christian outreach since Gutenberg’s printing press first started whipping out mass produced pamphlets?
Were Christians of the Past Right about Tracts?
As I researched my missions devotional, Daring Devotion (and a possible sequel), I have found example after example of God using tracts, even if the one handing it out never saw the fruit of their labors.1 William Carey, the Father of Modern Missions, distributed thousands of gospel tracts with his team in India. Adoniram Judson published tracts to introduce the gospel to Burma. Samuel Zwemer, the apostle to Islam, scattered tracts across the Middle East from Iraq to Yemen to Egypt. Lillias Trotter, artist turned missionary to Algeria, beautifully illustrated tracts for art-loving Arabs of northern Africa. James Gilmour, pioneer missionary into Mongolia, wrote simple tracts to introduce the gospel to the nomadic Mongols he met on his travels. Hudson Taylor and the hundred of missionaries of the China Inland Mission employed gospel tracts as a dominant feature in their first wave of gospel advance to the interior of China. If tracts don’t work, why did so many notable Christians hand them out?
Is this Case Study Worthy of Consideration?
Mrs. Geraldine Taylor reports of a Buddhist monk in the arid regions of western China. An unknown missionary distributed small booklets containing the Gospel of Mark. One booklet made its way to a Buddhist temple where it gathered dust for years. One day, a priest named Chu found it and read it. As the Holy Spirit used God’s Word to convict this man’s heart, he hungered for more truth.
Some months later, a friend who had visited a neighboring city brought Chu more pamphlets from missionaries who had traveled through. Years passed, and Chu’s spiritual thirst increased. He later said, “I was always reading it, though I understood but little. One thing that impressed me was that Jesus said the way to eternal life is strait and the gate narrow, and few there be that find it. ‘Alas,’ I thought, ‘time is going on. The end is coming soon. I am not in the way, and perhaps shall never be able to discover it.’”2 Finally, though he was poor and rarely traveled, Chu decided he would journey by foot to a city with a Christian presence to find more truth. There, a local Chinese pastor led him to Christ.
The tracts were like bread crumbs, leading to the Bread of Life. Again and again, biographies report such stories. The missionaries who distributed the literature that Chu found in the temple never met this Buddhist and never knew the fruit of their labor.
What Causes Gospel Tracts to be Ineffective?
So do tracts work? Well, despite the above anecdote, that is hard to quantify, but I can tell you a few instances where tracts are ineffective.
1. Tracts don’t work if you don’t give them to people who need the gospel.
Rows of tracts in a tract rack are useless. Tracts that make it to your home but end up crumpled in a drawer likewise do nothing. The only chance a tract has comes when it is in the hand of someone still lost in their sin.
2. Tracts won’t work if they don’t have a clear gospel message inside.
A tract needs more than a cute story and a sinner’s prayer. A good tract includes Scripture and a clear explanation of the gospel. God’s Word will not return void, but a prayer and a poem probably will. The Holy Spirit works through the Word to convict hearts. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).
3. Tracts rarely work if the cover is deceptive or ugly.
A waiter who snatches up a large tip only to find it is a tract will probably not be enthusiastic to read it. It is better to be straight forward. With a smile, offer someone an attractive tract, telling them why the message is so important.
5. Tracts don’t work in a vacuum.
Tracts are rarely the only factor in a person’s salvation, but they can be a step along the way. A quick read through a gospel tract may build upon the witness of a family member or friend. A glance through a tract before it hits the trash may give the reader a glimpse of light that God can use later. Even an unsaved person refusing a tract from a loving friend can make him more receptive the next time as his friend’s persistence highlights how important the gospel message is. In addition, a tract can be an early step in building a gospel-centered relationship.
Why Not Hand Out More Gospel Tracts?
So, will every gospel tract I hand out lead to someone trusting Christ? No, that is an unrealistic expectation. Will most tracts end up in a trash can? Yes. Does that mean that this witnessing method has no value? No. Does handing out tracts replace personally sharing the gospel? Absolutely not. However, God can use clear, Scripture-filled gospel tracts, especially when contact with someone like a taxi driver, waitress, or cashier, is short. In that brief window of opportunity, God may use my little paper as a step along the road to salvation.
Therefore, I give out tracts, and I encourage you to join me.
1 Check out my recent devotional book, Daring Devotion: A 31-Day Journey with those who Lived God’s Promises, recommended by Conrad Mbewe, Chris Anderson, Matt Herbster, and more.
2 Mrs. Howard Taylor, Pastor Hsi, 299.
Dr. Conrad serves in urban Asia. He, his wife, and their four children squeeze into a 700 square-foot apartment where he seizes rare moments of quiet to write amidst homeschooling, a cacophony of musical instruments, and the steady stream of visitors they so enjoy having in their home. He enjoys birding, board games, and basketball. He is the author of Daring Devotion: A 31-Day Journey with those who Lived God’s Promises.