There I was at a banquet table, inside the Westin in Phoenix, surrounded by about 600 other church planters and leaders of church planters, who had gathered for a convention of sorts. All of us part of the Send Network, we were blessed to come together and we were blessed by the filet mignon on our plates. Wow, filets? Nice. Encouraging. Yes, we were there to be encouraged… to see and to feel that we are not alone.
Especially in cities like Portland (where I am), church planters often feel like an island in an ocean of unbelief or perhaps mediocrity or of something other than what we are, and so, to come together just feels good. Support is good. Knowing we are part of something much bigger is good. I sat down, ready to enjoy hearing about other church plants and secretly hoping to tell someone about what God is doing in ours.
That’s when I realized… one of these men is not like the others. And this man, somewhat boisterously, sat down to my left. Ironically, the designated leader of our round table (there is always one) asked this man to pray. He quietly said, “No.” Interesting. He’s probably just shy. So the leader said, “Okay, I’ll pray… ha ha!” After the amen, my wife began to converse with the church planters to our right. I began to realize that I would not be enjoying the usual church plant banter, because of the person sitting to my left. In fact, I don’t even remember tasting my steak. Sensing God was up to something, I began to engage the one who did not fit. In fact, this very confident man had been hired to drive a bus for a large group of planters who had come over from the area of San Diego. I thought, well what do you know… he’s not a planter, he’s just a bus driver (Cue the Caedmon’s Call song by that name).
I remember it hitting me that this man might not even know Jesus and that I might have an opportunity in front of me to share the Gospel. I asked if he knew what the event was about. He said, “I’m starting to get some idea.” So, we talked a little about church planting. He said it had never dawned on him that someone had to intentionally go out and start each church. Thinking to perhaps find a pathway to share the Gospel with him, I said, “And we don’t just plant churches to plant churches. Think of each church like a factory. You wouldn’t build a factory just to build a factory. You would build a factory, for instance, to produce cars. In our case, we plant churches, to produce disciples of Jesus.” I was about to ask him if he knew what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus, but his response stopped me in my tracks. He said, “I used to believe and was maybe going to be a pastor, but then I decided mythology was not worth my time.”
Now, keep in mind I am not out on the streets of a city or sipping espresso near a secular college campus. No, I am in a banquet room with over 600 church planters, being treated to steak BECAUSE I am a part of this network of church planters, as if to say, “Thank you for BEING one of our church planters.” I really don’t even know how the bus driver could have been invited into the room. And if he was invited, why isn’t he sitting with whomever invited him? No, he is sitting next to ME. So I deftly say, “Hmm… okay.”
After a few more bites of tasteless steak (I’m sure it was good, but I don’t remember), I engage the bus driver on what led him to believe our faith is mythology. He starts in. And this is where I begin to comprehend that this man is not only an un-believer, but he is a raging, angry atheist who actually writes a blog to prove that God cannot exist. And, as is always the case, he has irrefutable personal experiences that drive his rationale. These personal experiences are atrocious, horrible stories, some of which cause me to feel just a little bit “in danger.” As a little bit of fight or flight hits me, I look around. It’s so loud in the room, that it’s like we are the only ones there, but I am thankful, because I don’t want my wife to get caught up in the middle of what is feeling a tad bit dangerous. At one point the bus driver tells me, “I asked with faith… and I kept on asking… and I prayed without ceasing… and it was like God said to me, “F*** You!!!” He did not use the asterisks. He was about two inches from my face when he said it. I didn’t flinch. After a few more bites of steak, I told him I was sorry for all that he had been through.
In fact, our conversation went on for about an hour and a half. As we spoke, David (that is his name) never seemed angry with me personally, but he was certainly very angry with God. Uncharacteristically, I listened much more than I spoke, probably because I was mostly speechless and I was praying my guts out, but after pauses, I did continue to try various angles and ask questions to get him to think more about his position. At the time, I felt like a total failure, but looking back I wonder if maybe God gave me words that helped him more than I could see. I may never know. I certainly could not detect any ground gained with my senses.
At the end of the meal, I must admit, I was pretty disturbed. I had tried everything I could think of, and the man was not the slightest bit swayed (it seemed). The fact is that this bus driver made points I had never heard and it shook even me, a little bit. Even me, ha. Yes, even me. I had fancied myself a pretty decent apologist, having read all of the books and preached whole series of sermons to make the case for everything I believe, but I was still bothered… by the points of a bus driver. It isn’t as if I had never spoken with an atheist before, but it turns out that David is, well, he’s more like Sam Harris than Richard Dawkins. In other words, David is pretty skilled at casting doubt. Frankly, it felt like bus driver: 1, pastor/planter: 0. I am well aware I will never argue anyone into faith, and I didn’t really try, but I felt defeated nonetheless. I even had a moment of fear or concern that these seeds of doubt might take root in my own heart.
But later that evening, as I sat talking with my wife, something dawned on me. There I had been, in a room full of 600 church planters, and some of them even famous in our little world. There were people in that room who have been responsible for entire church plant movements. This bus driver was likely the only unsaved person seated at a table, and yet my Sovereign God put him right next to ME. Beyond this, the Lord was faithful to lead me to engage him. I guess God thought I could handle it? Wow.
David told me that usually people were much more obnoxious than I had been. He told me that most people were afraid of his questions. Hmm. Maybe God used me a little bit, after all. When I asked the bus driver where he found hope, you could tell he wished he had a better answer. He said something about a juggling club he had started in the park. It was his worst answer of the night. I remember at one point he said, “We’ll never know who is right.” I remember saying, “Unless I am.” Looking back, this did seem to give him pause. Who knows? I don’t think Pascal’s wager makes believers out of unbelievers, but maybe it’s a beginning. Maybe God will use what I said somehow. Maybe someone smarter will water those seeds. Maybe God will take it from here. Maybe???
All I know for sure is that when I realized the Sovereign Lord gave this task to me… and that at least this time I had been faithful… any fear about the seeds of doubt being sown in my own heart faded. Instead, I felt a new confidence come over me. I felt encouraged that I had been chosen at that time and in that place… and that I had been employed by God to preach the Gospel to the bus driver named David.
My personal “take away” is this: I got through it. I survived. It wasn’t the end of the world, even though I felt outmatched. In the end, my faith was strengthened, not because I won points, but because I knew God was there and I knew He orchestrated this event and I knew He had chosen to use me as His spokesman. So, if I could get through this one, and actually wind up feeling encouraged by the experience, even though I felt like I had failed… what is stopping me from sharing with anyone and everyone? Nothing.
Bring me some more bus drivers, Lord… and also, save David.