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Beware of “Nice” Evangelicals Who Ask Questions About Your Tattoos

cant we be friends
Cartoon by Paco

I have written numerous times about how Evangelicals use fake friendships to evangelize non-Christians:

My Evangelical critics might argue that I have it out for Evangelicals; that I can’t see the “good” Evangelicals do; that Evangelicals sincerely care about people. Believe what you will, but one thing I know for sure: Evangelical zealots are notorious for using disingenuous methods and subterfuge to achieve their God-ordained goal: winning lost souls to Jesus. No other group of Christians — Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses excepted — is willing to use fake friendships to achieve a religious objective. I am friends with several mainline Christian pastors. Not one time have these men and women attempted to evangelize me. We are friends for friendship’s sake.

I am convinced that Evangelicals have a pathological need to make other people to be just like them; to seek, force, and demand conformity to their peculiar religious beliefs. Evangelical zealots see every non-Christian as an evangelization target, a prospect for Heaven, a prospective (tithing) church member. The goal remains what it has always been: to recruit new club members.

Lest readers think that I have developed this opinion post-Jesus, people who were following me back in 2007 know that I was quite vocal about Evangelicals and their nefarious evangelism methods. Readers from that time likely remember my interaction with an emergent church pastor named Iggy. Iggy was bragging about what he and his church were doing for the local community. If I remember right, they were handing out free flower pots to people. I asked if the pots had the church’s name on them and if locals were given church advertising brochures along with the pots. After Iggy admitted that yes, the pots had the church’s name on them, and yes, people were given church advertising brochures, he attempted to defend his actions by saying they were genuinely trying to make friends with people in their community.

Then, as now, I objected to what I considered less-the-honest methods to evangelize people; that the goal wasn’t friendship, but saving the lost and gaining new church members. This led to Iggy and me having an epic war of words, one in which I had a profanity-laced meltdown (for which I later apologized).

I share this story to emphasize the fact that I objected to Evangelicals using fake friendships to evangelize then, and I still object today. Whether I was a Christian or an atheist, it matters not. I despise people who attempt to befriend others for ulterior reasons. All I ask is that Evangelicals be upfront about why they are doing what they are doing. In other words, stop the Trojan horse evangelism practices. Have the “soldiers” get out of the wooden horse and declare themselves: we are here to ravage you in the name of the one true Lord and King, Jesus.

This brings me to the a Gospel Coalition post about yet another way to evangelize non-Christians. Written by Erin Wheeler, wife of Brad Wheeler, the pastor of University Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Wheeler writes:

“I like your ink,” I say casually as I walk past the woman in my exercise class. “Thanks,” she mumbles, eyeing me with that look.

It’s the look people give when someone notices their tattoo. They wonder if the person really means the compliment, or if they just happened to notice their purposely and permanently pigmented skin.

At the gym, our conversation continues for a bit. She tells me her tattoo reminds her of a family member she lost a few years ago. I tell her I got my tattoo to remember how God saved my marriage at a time when I thought we might not make it. I have interactions like these frequently: at the gym, at the coffee shop, at the community pool. As a Christian, I’m hoping these tattoo conversations might lead to a more important conversation. A conversation about the gospel.  

As we go through our days, looking to speak to others about Christ, maybe it’s time we considered how asking about someone’s tattoo could be intentionally evangelistic

….

Tattoos present a marvelous gospel opportunity for us. As my coworker, a former tattoo artist, said, “99 percent of people get a tattoo for a reason. There’s a story behind the artwork.” And that, my Christian friend, is an open door! Why not walk through it?

….

Why not ask the barista you order coffee from each morning (whose name I hope you know by now), “Hey Sam, I’ve noticed that tattoo on your arm and have been thinking about it. What is it exactly?” Depending on how he responds, follow up with, “What made you decide on that design?”  

Or how about a coworker or neighbor you’ve gotten to know a bit? Why not take the risk of possibly sounding nosy or weirdly curious: “Hey Laura, I’ve seen those words on your wrist. What made you choose those? I’m curious.” And then shut your mouth and listen. There’s a story behind that tattoo. 

Even if they don’t share their story with you right then and there, it might be the thing God uses to open a door and give you an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s amazing what you can learn about somebody with that simple prompt. 

In response to my questions, I’ve heard people’s whole life stories. I’ve had a man tell me about his tattoo in memoriam for the infant daughter he tragically lost. Others have shared their love of nature—or “Mother Earth” as they called it. I even had a fellow nurse explain her love for Dr. Who because of how he cared for others, particularly the innocent. According to her, that’s what led her into nursing. Even if someone doesn’t remember getting their tattoo, that drunken night or wild weekend is part of their story. 

We can respond to each of these stories with gospel truth. Jesus, the ultimate caregiver, has made a way for the dead to come to life through his own death and resurrection. He knows what suffering is like. He can identify with the broken. He’s the Creator and Sustainer of this amazing world. All we see, he has made. He’s the master storyteller, and he’s at the center of it all. 

Why not use a tattoo story as a bridge to invite others to become a part of God’s larger story?

Do you have tattoos? If you do, remember this post the next time an Evangelical strikes up a conversation with you about your body art. Evangelical zealots want to evangelize you so they can put another notch on the proverbial handle of their gospel six-shooter. Yet another sinner slain for Jesus, Brother Billy Bob says to himself. Perhaps unbelievers need to get tattoos that say “Fuck Off” or “No, I am Not Interested in What You Are Selling” or Born-Again Atheist.” Or maybe just wear garlic around your neck to ward off the Evangelical vampires who want to drain the life out of you.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Benny S

    I think I’ll get “Leviticus 19:28” as my next tattoo, just in case I run into Erin Wheeler or her ilk who view me as a new notch (“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord.”)

  2. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Benny—You beat me to what I was going to say! The pastor of the Evangelical church of which I was a part, long ago, invoked that very verse in admonishing us to get tattoos or piercings (except for small, “tasteful “ earrings on the ladies). Interestingly, ultra-Orthodox Jews have exactly the same belief.

    I have no tattoos and have never had any inclination to get one—except, perhaps, one that says, “Do Not Resuscitate.” I would love to see Ms. Wheeler’s reaction to that!

  3. Avatar
    missimontana

    My niece has a whole sleeve tattoo of nothing but the Joker in all his forms, from the 60’s TV Batman to the latest movie version. I can only imagine what Wheeler would attempt to say to her. Or, would Wheeler just ignore it, assuming that my niece is evil? Being nosey for Christ never works, and they never learn.

  4. Avatar
    Ben Berwick

    I have seven tattoos, and so far I have been lucky in that no one has tried to use them as an excuse to preach to me. Then again, I’ve had strangers start talking to me about God because I asked for directions to a bank, and another damn-near followed me halfway home, despite no indication from me that I wanted a conversation about God. It seems respect for others is entirely optional in fundie circles.

  5. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I don’t have any tattoos as I don’t think I could commit to an image or statement for the rest of my life 🙃. But I know a lot of people who have tattoos, and yes, there’s meaning/a story behind each one.

    Evangelicals are a weird bunch. I want to get mad at them for their disrespect of personal boundaries in spreading their message. But as a former evangelical, I know how the message that everyone who isn’t “saved” is going to hell. So there’s an urgency and guilt that nonevangelicals may not understand. Evangelicals perceive boundaries from their “marks” as the work of Satan, a hardened heart, or some other bad thing that the evangelical has to work harder to overcome. Ugh. I understand why Evangelicals behave as they do, but damn…..

  6. Avatar
    Nils L. Weber

    Tattoos are sinful, period. If you have tattoos, Christ loves you too, many evangelicals have tattoos from their youth, but they repented of them.

    • Avatar
      Astreja

      Sin is an imaginary crime against an imaginary victim, Mr. Weber. There is nothing inherently wrong with tattoos. The Bible is simply wrong (as it so often is).

      And how can some deceased rabbi love anyone at all? If there actually was a real-life Jesus, he died and remains dead to this day.

    • Avatar
      John S.

      I have two tattoos from my days as a zen Buddhist- on both biceps, so theyre not visible unless I don’t have a shirt on. I still have the tattoos even though I’m now Catholic. I have left them as there were when I got them. They are a reminder to me of my own spiritual journey.
      A lot of things are sinful according to the Old Testament that modern American style evangelicals seem not to care about. Why start with tattoos?

  7. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    A friend of mine has had simple drawings made by her children, that they especially liked, tattooed on her arms. Ask her about them, and you will hear fun stories shared with maternal pride. I can’t imagine she will ever regret them.

    Knowing my friend’s outgoing personality and inability to tolerate nonsense without taking the source to task–and also her passion for swearwords when making her case to people not in authority over her–I really hope, for Erin Wheeler’s sake, that she never encounters my friend.

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