Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (NLT)]
Just north of us are the winter estates of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. Along with their homes, gardens, and laboratory, is a museum. It was there that I first learned of the unlikely friendship between automobile pioneer Henry Ford and naturalist and essayist, John Burroughs. After Ford introduced his Model-T car in 1908, Burroughs, who was concerned about its effects on nature, called it a “demon on wheels” that would “seek out even the most secluded nook or corner of the forest and befoul it with noise and smoke.” Upset by the naturalist’s censure, Ford sent Burroughs a letter explaining his view that the automobile would connect people to the land and allow them to explore it rather than destroy and pollute it. Accompanying that letter was a new Model-T! “Out of that automobile grew a friendship,” Ford wrote in his memoirs.
The friendship lasted many years and Ford introduced Burroughs to Thomas Edison and tire manufacturer Harvey Firestone. In 1914, these four men, known as the “Vagabonds,” took their first of many camping trips and Burroughs learned first-hand how Ford’s “demon on wheels” made it possible to connect with the land. The Vagabonds called it camping but, being a famous author and titans of industry, they didn’t rough it. They were accompanied by a support staff that set up each man’s ten-foot-square tent (complete with cot and mattress), a customized truck with refrigerator and gas stove, personal attendants, film crew, a library, and a kitchen staff who prepared gourmet food. At night, Edison kept the campsite lit with lamps and a generator. While Ford demonstrated the auto’s ability to get man into the countryside, Burroughs taught him about the beauty of nature.
As fascinating as this tidbit of history is, this story of Ford and Burroughs also illustrates what good evangelism can look like. Granted, Ford was trying to sell cars rather than salvation, but there is much to learn from his method. Burroughs’ negative assessment of the car could easily have led to ill will, debate, and whatever was the early 20th century version of angry tweets. Instead, Ford simply showed Burroughs how it worked!
Christians aren’t superior, smarter, or more worthy than non-believers; we’re just blessed to have found a better way to navigate life through Jesus. Few of us are skilled apologists and most of the non-believers we meet aren’t interested in long theological arguments. Rather than reacting with an “I’m right and you’re wrong!” attitude, we can learn from Ford who extended the hand of friendship and found common ground with Burroughs in their love of the outdoors.
Ford started to “convert” Burroughs through exposure; perhaps we can do the same. Instead of giving a non-believer a car and taking him to the Everglades, we can present him with what authentic Christianity looks and sounds like in our actions and words. Rather than talking the talk, Ford showed Burroughs what it was like to drive a car into the wilderness. Rather than talking the talk about Jesus, Christians need to show non-believers what it’s like to walk as Jesus walked.