Two Salesmen Walk Onto a Plane: Los Ranchos and the Pew Report

by | May 20, 2015 | Reflections Blog | 0 comments

On the flight back from a training week for new presbytery-level staff leaders in Louisiana, I couldn’t help but overhear a very revealing conversation in the two seats next to me. A cheese salesman was pouring out his heart to a knife salesman. Both were in their late 20’s.

While their interaction began in bursts of laughter as they recounted their lives as salesmen, it gradually moved on to more serious matters, with the cheese salesman confessing through tears how, though newly married, he was afraid that his marriage was falling apart despite his best efforts.

As one might hope, the knife salesman listened intently before offering comfort and affirmation. Then he shared his own marital struggles and what it meant for him to persevere.

By being available at that moment in a vulnerable way, the knife salesman opened a space in the conversation into which he could now speak—and he would be heard, for he had earned his companion’s trust. As he paused, I held my breath, wondering what he would say next. This was real life.

That’s when the knife salesman shocked me. He started talking about Jesus.

Taking out his Bible and notes, he went through the basic beliefs of his church with corresponding scriptural verses, followed by a prayer for his new friend, one that lasted over 20 minutes and included the laying on of hands.

Now at this point in the story I could critique the knife salesman’s theology or wonder out loud about the effectiveness of healing prayer on a crowded plane. I could debate the wisdom of converting someone in a state of heightened emotion. I could excuse my own timidity in being vocal about my faith in similar situations by suggesting that he had the spiritual gift of evangelism and that people like me should stick to our own strengths.

But I would be missing the deeper lesson.

Here’s the telling detail. He had notes. In other words, he had been taught the faith, even as Timothy in the New Testament was taught the faith at the knees of his mother and grandmother—an early education whose flames would be fanned by his mentor, the Apostle Paul, into a mature confidence.1

The knife salesman made sharing his faith look easy. But that’s what a good student does. The grace is a result of the practice, like the fluid motion we witness in the great athlete or master musician after decades of training. It takes time to develop something so that it comes “naturally,” and in this case, flows lovingly and compassionately.

In his book, The Life You Always Wanted, John Ortberg explains “there is an immense difference between training to do something and trying to do something.”2

dzn_3D-Athletics-Track-by-Subarquitectura-1topFor example, in high school, I was trained as a high jumper and I won more than my share of ribbons. But at one track meet, I was called upon at the last minute to fill in for my injured teammate in the challenging 440-yard race. I ran the only way I knew how, as fast as I could—apparently too fast, for I passed out before the finish line. Only after proper training could I complete the course.

The Apostle Paul used this image in his teaching, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,”3 a truth made evident in his own personal life, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”4

To paraphrase Ortberg, growing healthy churches “is not a matter of trying harder but of training wisely.”5

From what I could tell, the knife salesman had trained wisely and the airplane encounter left the cheese salesman not with a feeling of imposition by a stranger but with a new spiritual direction that engendered hope. Maybe for the first time in his life he could say, “God loves me.”

This is a very encouraging story, especially when the latest Pew survey on religion documents the apparently alarming news that the percentage of Christians in America continues to experience a “freefall.” The media says we should be afraid—the Church is falling apart despite our best efforts.

But a closer look at the Pew survey reveals another story. While the overall number of Christians is falling, the greatest drop is in the subcategory the New York Times calls “Social Christians,” meaning people who might only attend church on Christmas and Easter (those who are trying), but for the Christians who practice their faith regularly, “the core” of our churches (those who are training), the numbers level off. What’s in steep decline is nominal affiliation, not religious practice.

Here in Los Ranchos we call ourselves a learning community; we offer training opportunities. We can see it in our Open Space classes, the renewal programs for traditional churches like New Beginnings and Evidence-Based Leadership, as well as in the experimental faith communities like Esperanza Viva in Norwalk, the Arabic-speaking Fellowship in Huntington Beach, and the Little Brown Mission Hub in Long Beach . We will see even more offerings in the future as we launch new initiatives as a result of the Generative Catalyst Team’s regional gatherings.

Together, these engender hope and perseverance in challenging times. And in the long run, they will bear much fruit.

That’s what I learned on my trip to Louisiana. You never know what you are going to overhear on a plane—perhaps even a reminder of who God calls us to be.


1 2 Timothy 1:5, 6

2 Ortberg, John. The Life You Always Wanted. p 47.

3 I Corinthians 9:25

4 2 Timothy 4:7

5 Ortberg, John. The Life You Always Wanted. p 47.