It's Spring Break in Daytona Beach, Fla., and hundreds of rowdy coeds are packed into Froggy's Saloon, where a nubile blonde gyrates seductively on top of the bar, her belly button ring shimmering like a bass jig in the sun. Motley Crüe's "Girls, Girls, Girls" plays to wild cheers as the blonde fishes bills out of the empty beer pitcher marked "Tips for Tits."
When the blonde -- who is maybe 18 -- removes her tube top to reveal a pair of star-shaped nipple shields, a short, demure college sophomore named Brandon holds his beach towel over his eyes. On his wrist sits a white "LivePure" bracelet. Scott, our group leader, rubs Brandon's back. "Satan is strong here," he says. "But remember: Every person is a person for whom Christ died, whether they're wearing a lot of clothes or no clothes at all."
I guess I should explain myself. I'm here in Florida with a group of students from Liberty University, the Rev. Jerry Falwell's "Bible Boot Camp" for young evangelicals. But I'm not a young evangelical -- not even close. Two months ago, I transferred to Liberty from Brown, a school whose overall social climate, according to Falwellian standards at least, is only a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah. I had a secular liberal upbringing and I've always considered myself pretty ambivalent about God, but I decided to enroll at Liberty for a semester to learn about my conservative Christian peers and find out whether any common ground existed between my world and theirs. Since then, I've been living undercover in an all-male dorm (Liberty's 46-page code of conduct, called "The Liberty Way," prohibits all but the most innocent gender mingling), taking courses like young-earth creationism and Evangelism 101, and getting a first-hand look at the other side of the much-hyped "God Divide." And when March rolled around, I decided to do what many Christian college students do over spring break: take a mission trip.
Evangelizing to secular spring breakers in Florida might sound like an enormous waste of time. Why not go somewhere where Jesus would be an easier sell? Like Islamabad? Or a Christopher Hitchens dinner party? But Daytona Beach's bacchanalian atmosphere is part of the allure for domestic missionaries -- it's what's called "battleground evangelism."
"Be warned: This is going to be 24/7 spiritual warfare," explained the Liberty Mission coordinator. "We're talking about Satan's home turf here."
As I listened to him speak, I knew I had to go. After all, one of the things I haven't seen yet is Liberty students living outside their ideological safe space, in real-world settings where they're forced to interact with people like, well, me. So a short application, two weeks, and a $600 trip fee later, I was in a white Ford panel van, quickly dubbed the "Jesusmobile," making my way down I-95 with 14 Liberty students.
Our leader is Scott, a sprightly 58-year-old with a high-pitched Carolina twang and a full head of silver hair; he is, by all appearances, the LeBron James of evangelism. When we get to Daytona, Scott guides us through an all-morning training session on the whys and hows of evangelism. We sit on folding chairs in the Sunday School room of First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, our makeshift headquarters, and eat snack-size bags of pretzels while Scott recites the "Great Commission," the verse that serves as the architectural frame for all missionary work. It's found in Matthew 28:19, when Jesus says to his disciples, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
"The first thing you should think when you meet anyone," Scott says, "is 'Are they saved?'" It's safe to assume that almost everyone coming to Daytona for Spring Break is unsaved, he says, adding, "It's a very dark place out there."
Before we take our evangelical Delta Force to the beach, though, we need to learn how to witness.
There are several words for what, exactly, will be transpiring here. "Spreading the gospel," "sharing the faith," and "evangelizing" are all common terms for the act of attempting to convert non-believers, but "witnessing" seems to be the most all-purpose. (I should say, also, that what we're doing would strike many Christians as odd. Proselytizing to strangers, which one Christian I know calls "cold-turkey evangelism," is a dying art, and many evangelicals prefer less confrontational methods of proselytizing. But on this trip, it's all strangers, all confrontation, all day.)
The best witnessing tactic, Scott says, is beginning conversations subtly, so strangers don't grasp your intent immediately. Then, they'll be less likely to walk away. Scott's favorite technique is the "Way of the Master" evangelism program, formulated by a New Zealand-born pastor named Ray Comfort and marketed by "Growing Pains" actor and evangelical pitchman Kirk Cameron. It is based on a four-question sequence designed to demonstrate systematically to a non-believer that he or she is not, in fact, a good person -- that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
The four questions, Scott says, can be remembered with the mnemonic "WDJD." ("What Did Jesus Do?")
W -- "Would you consider yourself to be a good person?"
D -- "Do you think you've kept the Ten Commandments?"
J (Judgment) -- "If God judged you by the Ten Commandments, would you be innocent or guilty?"
D (Destiny) -- "If you're guilty, where do you think you will spend eternity -- Heaven or Hell?"
"This last step is where people realize they're hell-bound, and they make decisions for Christ to save themselves," Scott says.
A sophomore named Samantha raises her hand nervously and asks the question we've all been considering. "But what if they don't?"
"Good point. These people may not be ready to accept Christ, but we can plead with them to consider it, because Hell is a real place. So just ask them two or three times: Why would you NOT consider this? Why would you think it DOESN'T matter?" As Scott says this, 14 skeptical faces stare back at him.
"Never forget, guys," he says, "what we're doing is kind! We're doing something better than the best Christmas present they'll ever get!"
Before we go, we pray.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Today, we will be doing our beach evangelism in pairs. The fortunate part of this is that I'll be able to see other members of my group in action. The unfortunate part: I'll probably be expected to participate. Luckily, my first partner, a sophomore named Claire, is what the cognoscenti call a "bold witness." Claire, a brown-haired bombshell who wears trendy drink-coaster-sized sunglasses, agrees to let me watch the first few times, since I hinted when we started that I was new at this.
Here's what they don't tell you in evangelism training: Being a bold witness doesn't matter if no one is listening. Claire approaches two dozen people in five minutes, none of whom stay with her past the first question.
When Claire finally gets someone to hear her out, it's a Rastafarian-looking guy sitting on a bench. He answers the WDJD questions nonchalantly. "Yeah, I've stolen. Yeah, I've disobeyed my parents. Yeah, I'm probably guilty." When Claire gets to D, the one about Heaven and Hell, Reece rubs his eye with the back of his hand.
"I'm gonna live forever," he says. "Heaven is a state of mind, you know? You ever watch 'The Matrix'? When Neo went to the Oracle, and he's like 'Am I the one?' and she's like 'No you're not, because you don't know.' It's like that. You gotta know, you know?"
"No, I don't know," Claire says.
Reece goes on his way. As we continue down the boardwalk, Claire turns to me. "I think that man was on drugs."
Two failed approaches later, Claire tells me it's my turn. When Scott started schooling us on the Way of the Master method, it became clear that, over the course of the week, I'd be expected to push Christianity to strangers. This made my conscience's usual swampy morass a little swampier. At Liberty, see, no one asks me about my faith anymore, so to blend in, I rarely have to do anything more proactive than keep up my Christian signifiers -- going to Bible study, praying before meals, being on time to church.
Evangelism to strangers, though -- that doesn't sit nearly as well with me. So I set some guidelines for my Daytona mission. First, I would distance myself reasonably from evangelical theology. If I told someone about Jesus, I'd begin, "Well, according to one reading of the Bible ..." or "Some Christians think ...". Second, I wouldn't condemn anyone. And third, if things ever got to a point where I was doing too well, where someone was on the verge of converting, I'd find a way to get out of the conversation quickly, no matter how out of character it was.
I may never have to put these rules into effect, though, because I'm too scared to make my first approach. I wander the sand with Claire for five or ten minutes looking for a suitable target. The two middle-aged men checking their BlackBerrys? The preteen boys stomping on a sand castle? No, won't do.
Claire points to a guy in a beach chair. "How about him?"
"It looks like he's about to leave. Doesn't it?"
"Okay, the guy next to him."
"He's tanning. We probably shouldn't disrupt him."
After a dozen of these, Claire looks a little irritated. "You know, you shouldn't be afraid," she says. "You have Holy Spirit boldness inside you."
Eventually, I approach three girls tanning on beach towels. They're good-looking girls, maybe a year or two out of college. One is reading a Patricia Cornwell mystery, and the other two are on their stomachs, listening to their iPods.
"Hi there," I say, trying to sound as peppy as possible. The Cornwell reader looks up from her book, eyebrows raised, and one of the iPod girls takes out her earbuds.
"I was just wondering if I could give you guys a million dollars."
When Scott was teaching us to evangelize, he gave us several gimmicky ice-breakers to use when beginning conversations. This one is a fake million-dollar bill with a message printed in tiny letters on the back that begins: "The million-dollar question: Will you go to Heaven?"
"Sure," Cornwell girl says. "I'll take one."
"But first," I say, "I have to ask you the million-dollar question."
I take a deep breath. "Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?"
iPod girl's eyes bulge. "Excuse me?" She pokes her friend, who turns over onto her back, takes out her earbuds, and stares at me.
"Um ... do you guys know Jesus ... as your Savior?"
Cornwell girl says pointedly, "We're Jewish."
"I'll take that as a no?" I say. They don't laugh. Not even the faintest trace of a smile. I turn and walk away, mumbling thanks under my breath.
As I go, I hear them talking: "What a creep," one says.
After this rejection, I start to get angry. How could Scott make evangelism seem so easy? Doesn't he see that this is torture? When Claire and I return to the Jesusmobile for our appointed meeting time, the rest of the group looks a little shellshocked. Faces are sullen, postures slumped.
"That was the hardest day of my life," says Samantha.
"Any decisions for Christ today?" Scott asks. No hands go up.
"Well, that's okay," he says. "Decisions or not, we're planting seeds the Lord will water in time!"
Back at the host church, Scott explains that beach witnessing is just half of our agenda. Tonight, we'll get another chance at the nightclubs. We spend half an hour in prayer before dinner. It is, I suspect, the saddest prayer circle ever convened.
"Lord, I pray for the medical student I met today," says Scott's wife Martina. "Being a hotshot doctor at a big hospital is not going to help her when she has to face you, Lord. Even though she brushed me off, I pray she'll reconsider later."
"I pray, Lord, for the old man who spit on me," says Charlotte, a blonde from Arkansas. "Satan had such a strong grip on him, and I just want to see him know you, Lord."
Claire is the last to pray: "Lord, let them be nicer to us tonight."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Around 11:00 pm, the Jesusmobile pulls up to Razzle's. Razzle's is a Wal-Mart-size nightclub with a squadron of earpieced bouncers manning the velvet rope and a set of revolving laser lights that overflow onto the sidewalk. We won't be going inside, Scott says, but we'll stand just outside the rope, witnessing to people waiting in line.
The first surprise is that there are at least two other groups of Christian evangelists here. One group, a youth team from a Florida church, has set up a shaved-ice machine on the sidewalk. They're making sno-cones for the Razzle's patrons, which almost seems like cheating. (Some Christians call this "gastro-evangelism.") The other group, which is affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ, has done something truly brilliant. A well-funded national organization, Campus Crusade rented the ballroom at a hotel next to Razzle's and set up a fake party inside, complete with strobe lights, a security team, and attractive models paid to stand outside the hotel and gossip loudly about the great party inside. When would-be clubbers enter the room, they quickly realize they've been duped -- instead of bar specials and trance music, they get gospel tracts and a salvation message.
Our group has no such Trojan horse, just the same Way of the Master routine we used on the beach. Witnessing at Razzle's, where everyone we meet is either drunk or well on the way, makes communication a little harder.
"Excuse me, sir. Would you help me with an opinion poll?" I ask.
"Sure, go ahead."
"Who is the greatest person you know?"
"Hmm ... gayest person I know ... I'd have to say Richard Simmons."
Meanwhile, others in my group are having more success. I walk over to another part of the sidewalk and catch Scott's wife Martina deep in conversation with a large, muscled man.
"Jason," Martina says as she sees me approach. "Meet my friend Kevin." We shake hands. Jason is slurring his speech and leaning against a palm tree for support, clearly many drinks into his night. But, perhaps because of this, he's really opening up to Martina.
"Listen, Martina," he says. "I just met you, and I like you a lot."
"That's very sweet," she says. "Listen to me, though."
He slumps back against the tree, a little maudlin, eyes sloshing around in his head.
"Jason, you need to be born again."
"So what if I am? Then tomorrow, I come back out here and go drinking again, and nothing's changed. What good is that?"
"You won't come back out here tomorrow if you get born again. You'll have the Holy Spirit guiding you."
The issue of post-salvation behavior is an interesting one. I thought, when Scott was teaching us to evangelize, that we'd be told to do some sort of follow-up with successful converts, if we had any -- guide them to a local church, maybe, or at least take their contact information. But there's no such procedure. If Jason had decided to get saved (he didn't), Martina would have led him through the Sinner's Prayer ("Jesus, I am a sinner, come into my heart and be my Lord and Savior" or some variant thereof), she would have let him know he was saved, perhaps given him some Bible verses to read, and they never would have seen each other again. Cold-turkey evangelism provides the shortest, most non-committal conversion offer of any Western religion -- which, I suspect, is part of the appeal.
If the new believer backslides, though, like Jason was suggesting he might, Christians are likely to believe that he wasn't really saved. False conversions are a glaring wart on the face of Christian evangelism. In the book that accompanies our Way of the Master program, I found several sobering statistics about the percentage of apparent converts who stay involved with the church in the long term, including one from Peter Wagner, a seminary professor in California who estimated that only 3 to 16 percent of the converts at Christian crusades stay involved.
The false conversion rate is profoundly depressing if you believe in this stuff. After all, if we get ten converts during this week -- an optimistic number -- and our false conversion numbers are consistent with the average, this group has spent a week's worth of twelve-hour days, thousands of dollars, and suffered massive amounts of emotional trauma for what? One more Christian? Two?
There must be an easier way.
On the third day of the trip, my witnessing partner is Caitlin, a blonde sophomore from Oklahoma. She's a sparkly, bubbly girl, which makes her first encounter of the day all the more surprising. She approaches a small Asian man outside a Starbucks.
"Excuse me, sir. If you got hit by a bus today and died and had to stand before God's judgment seat, why would you tell him you deserve to go to heaven?"
Caitlin, I've learned, is a bulldog witness. She is also the most experienced evangelist in our group. But she certainly doesn't take rejection well. When the Asian man tries to walk away from Caitlin, she follows him down the street.
"In Revelation 21:8, God says that all murderers, fornicators, and liars will have their part on the lake of fire!" Caitlin shouts behind him.
Three hours later, Caitlin and I have gotten maybe 50 walkaways. Seeing her confront people so coarsely never gets less shocking, and I ask Caitlin why she's so harsh.
"Well," she says, "I want to save as many people as possible. So I don't get into arguments about the facts, or about evolution or anything. People can look that stuff up. But if I spend 20 minutes arguing with someone, that's four more people I could have approached."
I'm trying to treat Daytona as a weeklong thought experiment. For one, a little mental distance is the only way I can keep myself from feeling like the Grinch Who Stole Spring Break. But more than that, it's the only way I've found to place myself into the moral space of aggressive evangelism, to try to understand how well-intentioned Christian kids -- some of the nicest people I've met all semester -- can end up on streetcorners in Florida, shouting hellfire and damnation to the masses.
Part of it, I'm sure, is that these students are convinced that their actions are compassionate and altruistic. All week, we've heard pep talks like this one from Scott at last night's post-Razzle's debrief: "To me, here's the motivation to evangelize: If I'm a doctor, and I find the cure for a terminal illness, and if I care about people, I'm going to spread that cure as widely as possible. If I don't, people are going to die."
For these students, the choice is clear: The risk of being loathed and humiliated by strangers is far outweighed by the possibility that even one person will see the light and be saved.
Of course, just because the choice is clear doesn't mean it's easy. Tonight, at Razzle's, I see Valentina, the Italian girl from Manhattan, sitting on a curb with a homeless veteran, her arm slung around his shoulder. It's pouring rain, a real torrential storm, and both of them are being pounded by the thick drops. After a few minutes, she stops telling the veteran about God's love and just sits there, holding him. And from across the street, I see her start to cry.
Later, back at the host church, Valentina tells the group about her breakdown.
"I was just sitting there on the curb, and I started thinking about how sad this all is. How sad it is that billions and billions of people are just dying without Christ. I hate that Hell is a real place, and I hate that sin came into the world through Adam, and most of all, I hate thinking about how all we can do -- all anyone can do -- is try to tell these people that there's hope out there. They might not want to listen, but we have to keep telling them. For the rest of our lives, guys, we have to keep telling them."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
On the last day of our trip, group morale is mixed. On one hand, we've had a pretty good time by ourselves. Between beach crusades and trips to Razzle's, we played beach volleyball, conducted piano sing-alongs, even went swimming for a spell. Everyone on the trip gets along really well, and it's been a faint approximation of a vacation.
On the other hand, our nets are far from full. Caitlin led a high school boy to Christ yesterday, and one woman we spoke to later visited the Daytona host church and got saved under the care of one of their pastors, but that's it. Two people. We've been cheering each other up, saying things in prayer circles like, "Lord, we know we've done a good work here this week, and we trust that you'll follow up in these people's hearts."
Then again, maybe this trip was never all about the Spring Breakers. Battleground evangelism, it turns out, can be just as useful for the evangelists as for the non-believers. For these Liberty students, going to Daytona is a tool for self-anaesthetization, a way to get used to the feeling of being an outcast in the secular world. The first 40 times someone blows you off, it feels awful. The second 40 times, you start reassuring yourself that all of this must serve a higher purpose. By the end of the week, you get the point -- you are going to be mocked and scorned for your faith, and this is the way it's supposed to be.
Around 8:00 am on Sunday, eight days after arriving, we pack our suitcases, deflate our air mattresses, and shove it all in the back of the Jesusmobile for the 12-hour trip back to Liberty. To the last, Scott remains upbeat.
"Sharing Christ is so exciting!" he says as we pull away. "It's a way of life! Man, it's just such a thrill to introduce people to Christ!"
As we cross the Daytona city limits, Brandon turns to me in the backseat.
"Was this a productive trip?" he whispers.
"Unless I go on another missions trip," he says, "I probably won't evangelize like this again."
"Do you think we made a difference?" I whisper back.
"I mean, anything can happen when the Lord is involved. But personally, I don't think us being here was very productive."
Scott looks back from the driver's seat. Seeing us whispering, he smiles warmly.
"Boys and their secrets …"
He turns back to face the road, the Jesusmobile presses on, and we never look back, not once, not even to remember the effort.