How I got collared

Michael Williamson

Experiment 1

Before today, this wasn’t even a question for me. I already knew the answer. The collar had it’s place at ordinations and at funerals of non-church members to help identify the minister. Apart from this it was an obvious curse to effective ministry, a stumbling block to unbelievers and foolishness to all Christians. A relic of a by-gone era it’s a wonder that I even still have one. But that was before today. Today something happened that has me asking new questions.

It all began in early February as I began having breakfast meetings in a local café with other Rectors from our Mission Area. As the newly appointed co-leader for Wollongong (south for me, north for Peter Hutchinson) I’d booked them all up one-at-a-time to have breaky, talk mission and pray. So there I was, Thursday by Thursday sitting in a café next to the glass windows plotting to save the world with other like-minded south Wollongong men. Something that came up continually was the growing invisibility of the churches and the chameleon like nature of local Christians. And then it finally struck me. Here I am sitting with other ministers week after week in a public space, talking about how to become more noticeable and neither of us were noticeably different from anyone sitting around us. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

So today I tried an experiment. Same café, same meeting setting, but this time I’d wear my clergy shirt and collar and church name-tag. What would happen? Surprises at every turn ...

First I was shocked by how exposed and foolish I felt. As an evangelist I have no problems with walk up evangelism in any setting. But that’s when I’m wearing my civvies and looking comfortably like everyone else. Had I been hiding behind “looking normal” all these years?

Second I was a shock to my breakfast partner. His first question honestly and compassionately asked: “What time’s the funeral?” Then it looked as if I was a minister and he was a non-Christian. Next it was the source of speculation between us as to how negative it must look to others and how negatively divisive it would be in public outside of a funeral setting. But why did we think this? Was there any evidence from our 90mins in that café? 

None – quite the opposite! On the immediate up-side we were given first class service; by the manager no less … this was new. Second, other diners were watching us intently and no one threw anything at me. Third, the passers by all looked at me constantly. My breaky mate was given no more than a glance, I was given eye-contact from all passing by and had time to smile and greet people with a nod. Lastly when paying the bill, the hostess enquired about my work and I was given opportunity to introduce myself and what I do – the first time ever!

So, curse or catalyst? For me I reckon the experiment has just begun.

Experiment 2

Once more I’m greeted by my Rector breakfast partner with compassion and concern – what time’s the funeral? Is this really now the only time we wear gear like this? Likewise the other Rector is swift to jump in and say grace, this never happened when I wasn’t wearing a collar – curious.

Casual glances from passers-by again become lingering stares that I am able to respond to with smiles … would conversation be possible if I was walking slowly along? Must test this some time.

The café again supplies excellent service. The manager engages in conversation about the new reduced flow of trade following the extensions. Surprisingly open to conversation.

Following breakfast I decided to enter some shops in search of a new casual shirt – Target, Just Jeans, and two other men’s boutique shops. Quick and attentive service from the staff at Target. One shop ignored me as I’d normally expect to be ignored. The other two were quite the stir of activity. In each of these the staff were most apologetic that they had changed seasons and the shirts I wanted were no longer on the racks. Both went to check the store-room for me without me asking. At one of them I was invited into the store-room out the back to sift through their stock and give my opinion on shirt after shirt that the assistant showed me. Numerous apologies followed when they didn’t have what I was looking for. Is the collar really that powerful?

Experiment 3

The trends continue … 

Other breakfast Rector concerned at the funeral I must be about to take. Likewise other rector more assertive and louder than usual. Is there a sensitivity amongst Rectors to demonstrate to others watching that there is not only one minister at this table … not just the guy with the collar)?

Café staff friendly and engaging, ready to chat and willing to be delayed. Could I engage like this with other shop managers, “Hi I’m the local Anglican minister, just wondering how business is going for you?” Will need to arrange some diary time for a walk around some time.

Am yet to try any direct evangelism or whilst wearing the collar. Recent attempts while dressed casually have been normal and fruitful. Would the collar slow this down? Put the person off? Or would it allow a starting point? Must try some wearing the collar.

Experiment 4

This week I held meetings with two different church members and some reading time whilst sitting in the food court. The church members were at ease and the trend continued with people’s general lingering looks. 

The fascinating news about shop owner favours continued. The guy who I bought coffees off didn’t want payment on the spot – he said I could pay when I was finished. Remembering that this was in a busy food court, it was quite astounding! The church member I met with buys from this guy all the time and had never been offered service like this before. We finished 90mins later and paid. I then came back for the 2nd meeting 30mins later and the guy ran me a tab again and even remembered what I had ordered. Hmmm, a little bit spooky. Later when purchasing prawns at a fish shop, the other customers deferred to me in the queue – I wonder if that would work in a deli line with numbers?

Sitting in the food court to work was excellent. There were numerous friendly walk-ups from locals who I knew and/or church members. However it was more effective the 2nd time around when I was facing out towards the busy thoroughfare rather than with my back to the entrance. Must remember though that if I actually intend to read or to meet intensively with the other person, that the interruptions were a problem.

A slow walk through the centre afterwards gained many looks and smiles from strangers but nothing more substantial.

Experiment 5

This week we held a food drive at a different shopping centre. In my collar and badge I stood on the door from 9 – 10:30 on two successive days handing out fliers and asking people to give an item of food today to help feed the poor in our area. The food drive itself was a great success. As for the collar … in one sense it made little difference to handing out fliers on other years in my civvies – it was still possible. Yet  I am convinced though that I had more success in gaining attention and acceptance for my fliers than when in my civvies. Each person as they approached would meet my eye, glance at my collar, glance at my badge and then either look away if their judgement was made against or look back to my eyes if they were going to engage. It took only a split second but the same thing happened every time! When I was without the collar and just a badge, the people would meet my eye, glance at my hands with the fliers (skipping the badge) and make their decision based on whether or not they wanted my flier. If they engaged I’d have to show my badge and describe who Anglicare was and what we were doing. With the collar on I didn’t have to explain Anglicare at all, not even once. The hit rate was excellent.

The collar also opened up an interesting set of interactions with people. One man immediately engaged me in 10mins of his life’s woes and then instructed me to take on the government in regards to all his issues (and to stop the boats!). Sadly he wasn’t interested in my offer of coffee and a chat, nor did he bite at my attempts to salt the one-sided conversation. Others who were open on the first day were also present on the second day at the same time slot (note. Some people shop at the precisely same time daily … lots of people!), they all either greeted me either warmly or at least acknowledged me a second time. It made for multiple second interactions with people. Except that we were there booked in with centre management to do what we did, I’d seriously wonder about doing this more often – same time, same entrance, same people.

Experiment 6

Walk up evangelism! 

This past Saturday (7th Sep,2013) church was a Polling place for the Federal Election. Every election we manage to give away more than 200 Bibles or other Christian information to the people who come to vote (approx. 10% of voters). We’ve learnt much about this over the years, not least of all that we should only offer Bibles as people exit the building and we need to be right at the exit but separate to all others. I’ve also noted in past years that the last 2hrs of polling are the least effective and most frustrating for the volunteers. Of course we’ve always worn our church badges to declare who we are, but I’ve never before worn the collar. This time I did, and I took on the last two hours of polling solo to see if it made a difference.

And what a difference!!!

The Bible give-away rate jumped to 50% of all attempts and the follow-up of other offered information also significantly lifted. While there was no change in the conversation engagement with those coming to vote, what did happen was that the staff within the polling booth wanted to engage with me on their breaks as did most of those who were handing out polling information. I didn’t approach any of them, they each voluntarily came to me wanting to speak deeply about spiritual matters. They each bided their time and then sidled over for meaningful conversation and gave me opportunity to present the gospel. 

Far from being a hindrance, the collar was a help in Bible distribution and a magnet for conversation.

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