So before social isolation kicked in and social distancing was only about not shaking hands, I was up in Scotland with a team of people thinking about what good news might look like today in the midst of Corona panic. We were joking about loo rolls and why people were stockpiling them of all things. Then it occurred to us: what better way of conveying our gift of good news than by giving out for free the very thing that so many were hoarding – loo rolls!
I went to a supermarket first thing and already the shelves were bare except for posh loo rolls – a pack of four quilted rolls with vanilla fragrance – lovely! I picked up five packs for my giveaways but as I went to the self-check-out, a well-built lady decorated abundantly with tattoos came and publicly denounced me. She was the customer services manager and, in no hushed tones, announced to everyone that I could only buy two packs. I felt the shame coursing through me as everyone tutted and shook their heads. I desperately wanted to justify myself and explain our idea but I knew how it would sound. So I handed back my loo rolls and walked away with my tail between my legs to find my colleague in the hardware aisle.
As I went, I noticed that someone was restocking the aisles with bumper packs of cheap loo roll. Nine in a each! If I bought two of these I would have all I needed. As I picked them up, I spied the customer services manager watching me and froze. I sheepishly went over and asked if I could buy two bumper packs. ‘Yes,’ she said, quite unmoved. Away from the shaming glances of the public, I explained to her what I was actually doing. She smiled and then laughed before giving me a strong, tattooed embrace – so much for social distancing! ‘Go and buy them,’ she told me, ‘and then come back and get all you like.’
That day we offered free loo rolls to passers-by in town. People loved it – few took a loo roll but the idea made them smile, laugh and open up. People came over to ask what it was about and who we were. We told them we were from the local church and how God had something to say about reassurance. We ended up praying and chatting with a whole host of people – it was good news. Not the product but the message. My friend Chris says that, ‘If the good news isn’t understood as good news, then it’s no news and no news is bad news.’
So what else does good news look like in these unchartered waters we find ourselves in? When from one day to the next, the situation abruptly changes? After all, it is not even appropriate to be giving out loo rolls now, let alone stopping and talking to people in the streets!
My answer would be that evangelism is all about where you start, not where it takes you. I write about this in my book of The Peg and the Pumice Stone, recounting true short stories of everyday evangelism. I have found that the key to evangelism is not so much about where someone gets to with you, but finding the place where they need to start from, the place where they ‘itch’. It’s about finding out where people are at, meeting them there, and starting them off on a journey which you may or may not walk with them. So what does this have to do with buying loo rolls…
A friend suggested that we are buying loo rolls because we are frightened, because buying something reassures us. When we are frightened, we do something familiar that makes us feel safer. It’s not about loo rolls per se, rather it’s about the act of ‘buying’ itself.
Like it or not we are conditioned in our society to buy, buy, buy. We don’t really buy any longer out of physical necessity in the West but, as consumers, do it for diverse emotional reasons: to signal our status, to feel pleasure, to appease an anxiety, to affirm our identity or to feel a sense of belonging. As we face the prospect of all these emotional needs being threatened, we seek tangible reassurance in the physical form of the toilet roll.
In the coming weeks, as people experience a hunger for these emotional needs to be met, could we present them with the good news that they really need? What if we shared the story and message of Jesus in ways that scratched these consumer itches that currently can’t be reached? What could we communicate about what our faith has to say about pleasure, joy, reassurance and belonging? A lot, I would suggest! Surely, this is where our good news should start today.
But how? Practically, we can help by volunteering with local services, as many have done with the NHS, or by reaching out to people online and via social media. As we meet in person and in the virtual world, be listening out for signs that people are looking to scratch that itch and be prepared to share something of your God-given hope. Over the coming days and weeks, people will have a lot of time to think and may well find themselves noticing an itch that they have not had to before because until now they have always been able to scratch it. This will be an opportune time to respond with some of the best and most relevant messages contained in Scripture. Choose those which will excite you and be prepared to share them, to help set people on a journey, not worrying today about getting them to the destination in one go, but giving them a nudge in God’s direction.
Personally, I will be setting up a company which prints good news on toilet rolls!
Glyn Jones is the author of The Peg and The Pumice Stone, and he also works with The Light College where students of all ages and backgrounds can gain University of Chester accredited degrees in Mission and Evangelism. Why not consider starting one of their courses from home during this lockdown period?