This post is for those Christian parents in the US who have managed to make it this far in 2020 without yet getting a dog. You have bravely held out in spite of your kids’ tearful pleading, many of your friends getting puppies, and all those extra quarantine hours at home almost second-guessing your decision to go without a canine companion. Your resilience is admirable. As they say in Hobbiton, may the hair on your toes never fall off. Yet, while I commend your resilience, I will also attempt to provide a cultural-missional justification for getting a puppy – seriously – or at least why I would get one if I lived in the US.
You see, when you leave your own culture and begin to deeply study another, you can’t help but see your own culture back home in a new light. You also have no power over what kind of insights unexpectedly emerge as you, the metaphorical goldfish, get a chance to look back on the fish bowl. These insights are sometimes life-changing and other times, well, they more in the category of, “Aren’t Americans odd for never using their front doors?” Sometimes, these insights helpfully have to do with challenges believers face everywhere, such as how to share the gospel.
Living primarily in the non-Western world and traveling back occasionally, we have noticed a few things about when Americans feel its appropriate to talk to strangers. Generally, it feels like it’s harder to talk to strangers in the US than it is in many other parts of the world. The justification required for striking up a conversation with a stranger that could approach deeper things, things like Jesus, seems to be higher. Especially among the middle and upper classes, a good reason seems to be expected for the question, “Why are you talking to me?” This presents a challenge for those who want to regularly engage others with the good news, yet who also do not want to be unnecessarily rude or awkward.
The exceptions for talking to Western strangers that we have noticed are as follows:
- If that stranger is pregnant. If this is the case, not only can you strike up a conversation, but many also strangely impart a flood of unrequested advice and anecdotes. I don’t necessarily recommend this, but we have certainly observed it! On the other hand, go forth and multiply.
- If you have one of those amazing extrovert personalities, like my grandpa, and somehow random people just light up when you engage them. However, these charming extrovert types seem to be a small minority. If this is you, you have a gift.
- If that stranger has a dog, if you have a dog, or both. If this is true, than the high wall of Western resistance to talking to strangers seems to immediately disintegrate in an unexpectedly warm camaraderie of canine appreciators.
This dynamic about dogs is truly there. If you doubt me, try it out the next time you’re at the park. Approach that intimidating total stranger who is walking their dog. Ask a few genuinely happy questions about their pooch (while asking permission to shower said canine with affection). That scary suburban scowl will immediately melt like you had just dropped a polite greeting in the tribal tongue to the grumpy village grandma. Next thing you know it, you’re being invited to marry one of the villagers – or in the American equivalent, you’ll actually be shooting the breeze with a total stranger who just might become a genuine friend.
We’ve seen this confirmed as we’ve spent the last few months in the US. Even in the midst of a pandemic, those who have dogs, walk them, and take them to dog parks are regularly involved in happy interaction with neighbors and strangers. Dogs even make Americans warm up to families with lots of small children, which aren’t always appreciated by mainstream American culture. Friends who have recently acquired dogs have confirmed that it’s been one of the best things for getting to know their neighbors.
All of this leads me to this conclusion: In America, having a friendly dog is a big win for hospitality and meeting strangers. A canine might set you back if your primary ministry is with refugees, but if you live and work primarily among mainstream middle class folk or other similar demographics, a dog is a serious tool for mission!
We live in Central Asia and so far we still sense that a dog would be more of a hindrance to knowing our neighbors than a help. Dogs are traditionally viewed as religiously unclean and dangerous, due to an unfortunate hadith (authoritative religious tradition) where the angel Gabriel tells Mohammad that he hates dogs and won’t come in the tent where young Aisha has hidden a puppy. However, the younger generation is slowly beginning to adopt more of a dog culture.
But, if I lived in America, I would get a puppy and work so that he grows up trained and friendly. Then, as a family we’d think through what stepping-stone invitation makes sense next for the acquaintances we’d make at the dog park or in the neighborhood. Even before the lock downs, Americans were starved for community and friendship – though they are slower than internationals to accept a quick offer of hospitality.
Like when we lived in the US before, we’d probably aim to invite contacts to some kind of weekly or monthly open meal or coffee/chai time at our house or a park where we bring in our relationally-gifted international friends who are believers and pros at the art of good conversation and friendship-building around food. Then with that normal rhythm of hospitality, we’d have a way to simply bless our neighbors with good food or coffee and community. And as always, with prayer and intentionality, this simple yet rare kind of gathering would lead to many gospel conversations. In the past, pairing a regular time like this with a regular Bible study happening another time of the week led to a natural next step.
So, if you’ve been on the fence about getting a dog, let me add one more point in favor of doing so. When done well, having a dog in America can make you more approachable and even more hospitable. In a culture starving for genuine friendship and community, a dog, of all things, could be exactly what God uses to help you reach your neighbors. It’s a bridge of common ground that somehow helps Americans sidestep their normal avoidance of engaging strangers. It’s no silver bullet, but it could help in one of the hardest parts of engaging the lost in busy America – finding regular and natural ways to meet and befriend strangers. Meeting can lead to hospitality which can lead to Bible study which can lead to new birth – and to eternal friendship in the resurrection.
The first phase of mission is always access. So, consider the ways a furry and slobbery friend might increase your access to the lost.