“Boots on the ground.” No doubt you have heard this phrase bandied about in the news since 2001. It was of originally derived, of course, to describe overseas military operations pertaining to the level of commitment of ground troops versus air strikes. It has become a catch phrase ever since. On the con side, it is meant to indicate a lack of resolve by an administration in rooting out terrorism in a comprehensive full on commitment. On the pro side, the same term has come to mean or a sign of wise military engagement that would be less costly in terms of human life and duration.

But I have also seen it appropriated in the civilian world too as a way of symbolizing commitment and sincerity. Recently at a fast food parking lot, my friend and I were beset upon by some ardent ladies handing out pamphlets on joining their new church location as well as reviewing the ABC’s about becoming saved and finding salvation.

Most notably, these ladies emphasized that they were doing a “boots on the ground” approach to meeting people on the street level and spreading the good news.
All of this I found laudable of course. And both ladies were very nice. But it got me thinking about the whole notion regarding the civilian side of “boots on the ground” both as missionary work and as persuasive engagement. After all the message was unavoidable as it was the bold, brightly colored headline in their church bulletin. That same phrase—“Boots on the Ground” as headline and photo just seems to be constantly springing up as a major theme nowadays.

And despite all of the undeniably noble intentions and courageous work ethic it would take, (which I am in sadly short supply of) I found myself thinking that this approach misses the mark for me in terms of what I believe matters most about what really enriches people’s lives and makes the biggest difference.

Surely we have enough crusading people that push their way into COLD CALLS and carefully positioned campaign tables by grocery exit doors and sidewalks—all beseeching us to consider their cause and position. Heck–even when we enter a grocery store and do a transaction we are asked by the clerk if we would like to donate to some specific charity as a way or rounding up our total bill.

I say this because frankly, despite their best intentions, I don’t think that this type of self-advocacy, taken as a whole, is what really matters most from a quality and substance standpoint.

You see it on the news and everywhere you go. Pundits and pontificators that polarize one side of the fence or the other. We live in an age of false advocacy that gets us very little except for more off track.

Perversely, we can actually trace the same brand of assertiveness that marketers and missionaries practice as being on the same continuum which (when taken to the far end), includes muggers and thieves and homeless pan handlers, as examples of more aggressive manifestations of public encounters in which someone wants to bend you towards their will.

And this is where I diverge away from the civilian “boots on the ground” approach. While it may occasionally save some desperate souls—it more often than not renders something as momentously radical as Christianity into a 2 minute sales pitch that too often simplistically misrepresents the people being addressed.
Too much persuasion and convincing bombards us everywhere we go.

Instead–it’s those indirect, impossible to quantify little moments of leading by example that provide the REAL selling job. This is the type of life affirming encouragement we need. The kind that does the best kind of testifying.
That is the where the real wheels of democracy turn best. Those unofficial, clip board free moments of social interaction and communion where people are freely going about their routines.

And this is where creative ideas spread and hearts become re energized. It’s also when we feel most alive–through the validation of being together and feeding off each other. Unassumingly and naturally.
The real “boots on the ground” are making the most difference by NOT seeking formal attention or bringing up their official stance or even saying that their “boots are on the ground” in the first place.

They let the meditations of the Holy Spirit work itself out by just being themselves and spreading the “ripple effect of kindness.”

So while it is the right approach to minister to folks that need it ( and very healthy for the giver too) in every day places like taverns and stores as well as parking lots, this one-on -one approach only performs its optimum, miraculous best, when it steers clear of mission statements and shouting street callers.
Otherwise we are just so many fashionable protesters and salesmen that get quickly forgotten while the really good stuff continues to flow on unimpeded all around us.


About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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