Most media were fairly restrained in covering the weekend's news that an American Airlines pilot asked Christians to raise their hands and share their faith during a flight from Los Angeles to New York -- but some headline-writers had fun with it: "Coffee, Tea or Jesus?" (CBSNews.com), "God only knows what this pilot was thinking" (The Winnipeg Sun) and the inevitable "On a wing -- and a Prayer" (Herald Sun, Australia). TheDailyFarce.com was the first to jump to straight-up mockery: "Come, Fly with Us or Burn in Hell." I'm eager to learn what Salon's Ask the Pilot will make of this.
More than one passenger claims pilot Rodger K. Findiesen of Annapolis, Md., said passengers were crazy if they weren't Christians, though the airline disputes that detail. (The Los Angeles Times identified the pilot by name and sought comment from him.)
Passenger Amanda Nelligan told WCBS-TV that the pilot added, after asking Christians to identify themselves, "Well, you have a choice: You can make this trip worthwhile or you can sit back, relax, read a book or watch a movie."
When I heard passengers Jen Dorsey and Karla Austin describing the pilot's words on CNN's American Morning, I winced. With evangelists like this, who needs enemies?
But I also felt a twinge of empathy for the pilot. He had returned recently from a mission trip to Costa Rica, and apparently carried his post-mission zeal onto American Flight 34. Many evangelical Christians would have to admit to feeling similar impulses, though not as numerically ambitious or favoring the words "you're crazy."
Lee Buck, an elder statesman among evangelical Episcopalians, says he once had an airborne conversation with anthropologist Margaret Mead that contributed toward her becoming a Christian.
Presbyterian pastor D. James Kennedy's Evangelism Explosion International developed two questions that will be familiar to people on either end of door-to-door evangelism: Do you know for sure that you are going to be with God in Heaven and If God were to ask you, "Why should I let you into My Heaven?," what would you say?
In a brief article for Campus Crusade for Christ's Worldwide Challenge magazine, Darcy Larson writes of her regrets about not speaking of God to a Russian family she saw in passing at an airport.
At the more bizarre end of the spectrum is the urban legend that a pastor's wife led a planeload of people in a prayer of salvation before Alaska Airlines 261 plunged into the Pacific Ocean.
In short, some of us feel regret or even guilt if we fly next to someone and do not at least attempt a conversation that mentions God. We do not feel this same pressure about speaking of God in a restaurant or in a line for a movie. No, there's something about flying -- the adventure, the forced intimacy of sitting next to total strangers, the possibility of a sudden, violent death -- that makes us confront our faith anew and ask whether we're telling enough of our neighbors about the God we worship.
But even as evangelicals, we would find any attempt at compulsory evangelism disturbing. We would resent a pilot turning a commercial flight into a pop quiz on whether we're ashamed of Jesus. We would cringe at the prospect of treating a fellow passenger as a sales prospect. Although we have spoken of God during flights, and have prayed with people who told us about their crises or fears, we feel no longing for a a conversational jump-start.
Ultimately we know that if the Holy Spirit has led us to a moment for sharing the gospel, like Saint Philip's speaking with an Ethiopian eunuch, then God will open the doors of circumstance for us. Otherwise, we may very well read a book or watch the in-flight movie.