Erin Wheeler, author of The Good Portion: The Church, counsels us to respond to other people’s stories with the greatest story the world has ever known.
“I like your ink,” I say casually as I walk past the woman in my exercise class. “Thanks,” she mumbles, eyeing me with that look.
It’s the look people give when someone notices their tattoo. They wonder if the person really means the compliment, or if they just happened to notice their purposely and permanently pigmented skin.
At the gym, our conversation continues for a bit. She tells me her tattoo reminds her of a family member she lost a few years ago. I tell her I got my tattoo to remember how God saved my marriage at a time when I thought we might not make it. I have interactions like these frequently: at the gym, at the coffee shop, at the community pool. As a Christian, I’m hoping these tattoo conversations might lead to a more important conversation. A conversation about the gospel.
As we go through our days, looking to speak to others about Christ, maybe it’s time we considered how asking about someone’s tattoo could be intentionally evangelistic.
Artwork on the skin continues to rise in popularity. According to The Wall Street Journal, the number of people getting tattoos is increasing around 7.7 percent annually. That’s a lot of tattoos!
Tattoos can provoke a negative reaction among some Christians. Some see them as a rebellious act, something only prisoners or drug lords would get, or as something unbiblical. Whatever our feelings or convictions, we can’t ignore the culture. Tattoos have become more and more mainstream, particularly with millennials, and especially in the United States. We must see this growing trend and understand our need to engage people—no matter what they look like on the outside.
Tattoos present a marvelous gospel opportunity for us. As my coworker, a former tattoo artist, said, “99 percent of people get a tattoo for a reason. There’s a story behind the artwork.” And that, my Christian friend, is an open door! Why not walk through it?
Learn Someone’s Story
Why not ask the barista you order coffee from each morning (whose name I hope you know by now), “Hey Sam, I’ve noticed that tattoo on your arm and have been thinking about it. What is it exactly?” Depending on how he responds, follow up with, “What made you decide on that design?”
Or how about a coworker or neighbor you’ve gotten to know a bit? Why not take the risk of possibly sounding nosy or weirdly curious: “Hey Laura, I’ve seen those words on your wrist. What made you choose those? I’m curious.” And then shut your mouth and listen. There’s a story behind that tattoo.
Even if they don’t share their story with you right then and there, it might be the thing God uses to open a door and give you an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s amazing what you can learn about somebody with that simple prompt.
In response to my questions, I’ve heard people’s whole life stories. I’ve had a man tell me about his tattoo in memoriam for the infant daughter he tragically lost. Others have shared their love of nature—or “Mother Earth” as they called it. I even had a fellow nurse explain her love for Dr. Who because of how he cared for others, particularly the innocent. According to her, that’s what led her into nursing. Even if someone doesn’t remember getting their tattoo, that drunken night or wild weekend is part of their story.
We can respond to each of these stories with gospel truth. Jesus, the ultimate caregiver, has made a way for the dead to come to life through his own death and resurrection. He knows what suffering is like. He can identify with the broken. He’s the Creator and Sustainer of this amazing world. All we see, he has made. He’s the master storyteller, and he’s at the center of it all.
Why not use a tattoo story as a bridge to invite others to become a part of God’s larger story?
Look for the Spirit’s Work
Because tattoos can have such personal significance to the owner, some people don’t want to share. That’s okay. But you won’t know unless you ask. What’s the worst they can do? Stare strangely at you? Shame you for asking? That’s hardly a tough cross to bear for Christ.
On the other hand, your question might come at a moment of transparency or vulnerability. It might just crack the door of their soul a tiny bit so you can walk in with the gospel. Your questions might land exactly where and when the Spirit is already starting to work. In that case, listen. Watch. Ask questions. And most of all, pray for God’s Spirit to enable you to respond with truth and love. You never know what gospel opportunities might linger behind those colors and lines marking that stranger’s skin.
Regardless of how you feel about tattoos, the people displaying them are image-bearers in need of gospel truth. Their biggest problem isn’t the gun imprinted on their neck, or knuckles marked with foul language. And a beautiful flower design doesn’t mean all is well with their soul. Their biggest problem is their separation from a holy and good God.
As Christians, we have the message of hope for our friends and neighbors. Why not take the risk and ask someone to share the story behind the artwork on their skin?
The story they tell you might allow you to tell them the greatest story the world has ever known.
Erin Wheeler is a pastor’s wife, mother and nurse in Fayetteville Arkansas. She loves people, theology and tattoos. Her article is reprinted from The Gospel Coalition, August 25, 2020.