It was a warm and sunny day in Houston, Texas, USA, when President John F. Kennedy stood before a crowd of almost 40,000 persons, many of whom were young Rice University students, and said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Canvassing, which in Adventist parlance means going door-to-door to spread the gospel through literature, is no moon shot. But I don’t think anyone would contest me if I put canvassing in the “hard” category of spiritual experiences. If there was one thing in my life, though, that I consciously and intentionally chose to do because it was hard, that would be canvassing. And what I reaped from this experience has continued to sustain me in my life to this day.
How It Started
During my junior year of college, while studying chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I felt convicted that I should spend the summer doing a canvassing program. Sounds like a nightmare, you might say, and you could be right. Yet I felt drawn to it because I sensed my need for solid training to do ministry on a secular campus.
Let me explain my rationale. At 17 I left my home in Indonesia and flew halfway across the world to attend college—an Adventist in a very much non-Adventist environment. Within a few weeks I met fellow Adventists in the Boston area who were also striving for excellence, both academically and spiritually. We lived with a deep conviction that, as He had done with Daniel, Joseph, and Esther, God placed us on these campuses for His purpose, to do something great for His kingdom.
As it turned out, doing something great for God’s kingdom frequently involved interacting with people, strangers, which was a problem for a reserved person like me. As the years of my studies went by, I became increasingly frustrated with my own inhibition and timidity toward reaching out to others. I was afraid of people.
I needed—no, wanted—something to tear down my walls, something to break myself open from the safe cocoon of my introversion. And I thought going canvassing would do the job. I thought that it would sort of shock the system and transform me into another kind of Christian, a more confident Christian.
The Canvassing Program
So I flew to Michigan and took part in a 10-week canvassing program in which a group of students, a mix of high school- and college-aged students, along with a few young leaders, were tasked with the job of selling books door-to-door. The portfolio of books we sold comprised of vegetarian cookbooks, kids’ books, and Spirit of Prophecy books published in magazine-sized print. We formed our home base at a local church, where we slept, showered, ate, and trained. We had to memorize what we had to say to introduce ourselves and to end the conversation at the door. There was also a script that we had to memorize for each book. We had the safety of training for two to three days, and then it was out the door. Open water, meet beginner swimmers!
Every day for the first few weeks, the leaders taught us various skills to use at the door: how to meet objections, how to upsell, how to awaken spiritual interests, how to notice people’s interests from the things around their house, to name a few. No amount of training, though, could prepare you to meet humanity on the streets. For eight hours a day we met people from different walks of life, in their meanest and kindest versions. We were confronted with brokenness, pride, and our own weaknesses, as well as the joy of God’s strength.
I ended up going door-to-door for two summers. Now, almost two decades later, some of the lessons from these summers are still engraved in my mind.
Practical Spirituality. You need a strength that comes from above when you spend eight hours each day canvassing. For me, going canvassing was a testing ground for practical spirituality. Before, things like feeding from the Word of God, praying without ceasing, and witnessing to others were more theory than practice. Of course, I read the Bible, but I didn’t desperately need it. I prayed, but I didn’t crave it like air. I shared my faith, but it didn’t feel urgent. But these concepts became very real out there on the street. To keep going each day, I clung to God’s promises that I had read in the morning. I prayed constantly on my feet, and I learned to share God’s Word with those who needed to be encouraged.
I learned to see each person as a candidate for heaven and to develop the discipline to act accordingly. No matter their race, socioeconomic status, gender, or backstory, they were all God’s beloved children. How people could surprise you and turn your presumptions upside down! Some of the meanest people at the door had Christian paraphernalia in their houses, and one of the nicest people I met had just been recently released from prison.
God showed me the sinfulness of my prejudices and that I needed repentance. He showed me mercy and how to extend that mercy to the people I met every day. I learned not to look down upon people, and not to fawn over those with wealth, high position, or power. I saw how the gospel lifted those who were downtrodden and humbled those who were lifted up. At the foot of the cross, we were equal—equally sinful and in need of mercy—and every person was first and foremost a human being and a child of God.
Confronting Greed. There’s a way to do canvassing that’s driven by greed. The sales nature of the endeavor makes it too easy for the ministry to be commoditized, but I was determined to have a spiritual experience. I asked myself, What if I didn’t care about how many books I sold? What if I didn’t care about the money?
There was an in-house aspect of the program. Each student was assigned a role for the daily upkeep of life, ranging from kitchen duties, to cleanup duties, to administrative tasks. I was assigned to help count the sales and proceeds from the previous day, entering data and making sure that our finances were balanced.
As part of this responsibility, I was privy to the results of every student’s sales each day. This too was spiritual training, because this kind of access revealed my greed and competitive nature. The toxic habit of comparing myself with others was something that I struggled with every day. I was confronted with two poles of emotions. Pride, if I was doing well compared to others, and shame, when someone else did better than I did.
As the weeks went by, however, God taught me that His providence to each person was His business with them, and to have peace with the lot that God had apportioned for me. God did not grant according to what we felt we “deserved,” but according to what He knew we needed.
Faith and Works. Because we were exchanging goods for payment, there was some confusion about what it meant to have faith. The prevailing narrative was that your faith was correlated to your performance (how many books you sold and how much money you made). We were told to have strong faith in God by having high goals, implying that if you achieved the goals, it meant that you had great faith. I rejected this theory. It smacked of prosperity gospel when I first heard it, though I couldn’t pinpoint why it so unsettled me. So I took this issue to God. I wrestled with what to do with goals and what it meant to have faith in God in an authentic way that resonated with me.
As believers we must evaluate every point of belief for ourselves and enter into a conversation with God. It’s one thing to hear scripted answers, but we must test them out to see if they are true. With respect to goals, I came to realize that having faith didn’t equal achieving my target. My faith was not in my goals; my faith was in God. If I had a high target that I wanted to achieve, I would do everything in my power to make it a reality, but leave all the results to God. If I didn’t hit my target, that did not make God any less powerful, nor did it diminish my faith in His providence. He could grant me my target if He saw fit, but that was entirely up to Him, and I trusted Him. And when I settled on this principle, I was able to canvass free from the burden of self-questioning. Yes, I was able to work with a restful heart, having faith in God and whatever He wanted to do that day.
Contrasting Ministries. Over the years, I have often referred back to my canvassing experience in contrast to other methods of ministry. Canvassing helped me understand the different approaches appropriate in various situations. It did not, however, train me in every skill that I needed to minister to people.
By nature, canvassing trained us only in minutes-long engagement. We only needed to be “loving” for a few moments at the door. Worse, canvassing might even tempt us to commoditize the people at the door to achieve our own goals or sales targets. The metric might even be noble, such as another Bible study interest, another testimony to share, or another copy of The Great Controversy sold, yet as long as people become nothing but a number, we are in danger of turning human beings into a product.
Many other ministries require us to develop long-term relationships, to know how to truly care for people and their lives for years, oftentimes without ever seeing a “result.” There were things I could say boldly at the door that could potentially cost me relationships if I said them to the people in my life. I learned that context matters. In a way, canvassing taught me to be intentional about my ministry approach. The principles of love and gospel sharing are the same, but how they play out in real life depends on the circumstances.
How I Think About Canvassing
We often harbor a fear of being called to do something hard for God and end up keeping God at a distance to avoid challenges. The purpose of life in Christ, however, is not to avoid pain and hardship, but to enjoy fellowship with Him, even when it entails pain as part of the growth process. When you have walked through a spiritual trial, each victory propels you to be a little less fearful of what God has in store for you.
To anyone considering going door-to-door, think of the experience as equipping yourself with a portfolio of skills. God may call some to be literature evangelists as vocations, but statistically speaking, most of us will occupy a different place in life. Wherever you are, however, you can be a missionary for God nonetheless. Canvassing is one of the many forms of training that you may obtain in your life as a follower of Jesus. The skills that you refine by going door-to-door will enrich your understanding and usefulness in other areas of life and ministry later on. There is no such thing as a perfect canvassing program, nor is canvassing a risk-free undertaking (nowhere is God’s mission field risk-free). Ultimately, however, if God calls you to canvass, then that’s where you need to be, because there is no safer place than being at the center of God’s will.