LONGVIEW, Wash. — Ted Cotten reached a milestone — witnessing to 10,000 people — on Christmas Eve. By the second week of January: 11,000. “If God lets me live long enough, my goal is to reach 50,000,” said Cotten, an 85-year-old retired pastor.
Cotton believes Christians “constantly get witnessing mixed up with preaching or with sharing the gospel. We have the impression that we're not witnessing unless we’re presenting the plan of salvation.”
Wherever he goes, Cotten simply asks people if they’d be willing to read a short prayer that he says changed his life more than 70 years ago.
The prayer card says: “Dear Lord Jesus, I know I have sinned and done wrong. Please forgive me of my sin and give me eternal life. I now trust You Lord Jesus as my Savior. Help me to have a growing relationship with You, and to become the Christian person that You want me to be. In Jesus' name, Amen.”
Keeping a daily log of contacts helps Cotten track the numbers. “In the beginning when I was sharing with only five or 10 a week, I could recall each day how many I had shared with,” Cotton said. “But when it grew to larger numbers, I would put 15 prayer cards in my pocket, then 30. Now, it’s 40 or 50 so I know how many people read the card every day.” He estimates that about 6,000 of his contacts have been in the town where he lives, Longview, Wash.
Cotten’s unusual approach was featured in a 2007 Baptist Press article in which he spoke of his motivation and method of witnessing. At the 2005 Northwest Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Spokane, a speaker challenged the audience to do something significant in the coming year. Cotten committed to tell 100 people about Jesus — a goal he reached in six months. By April 2007, he’d witnessed to 2,500 people.
“I made no conscious effort to design this prayer,” he said, explaining that it was a last-ditch effort some years ago to win a man to Christ whose friendship he had been cultivating. “I asked him, ‘May I share a prayer with you and see how it resonates with you?’” The man agreed, heard the prayer and then gave his heart to Christ.
Carmela Mongold is married with three children and a college student who manages a fast-food restaurant that Cotten frequents almost every Sunday night.
Last December, Cotten asked Mongold if he’d ever given her the card. He never had, but she’d collected 17 copies of it from various locations around town.
“I believe God was speaking to me through those cards,” she recounted, “kinda like asking me, ‘Where are you?’”
Mongold said she came to Christ as a young girl but had spent years away from the Lord and the church. But stirred by Cotten’s card, “I asked God for forgiveness and to renew my life to Christ,” she said.
“It’s not just a card to Mr. Cotten,” added Mongold, who now regularly attends church with her family. “This is his mission — to get people to go to Jesus.”
Approaching another employee, Cotten asked if he’d shared the card with him. “No, you haven’t, but someone else has,” the young man told Cotten. “I realized God was working on him, too, and he came to Christ right there.”
Cotten witnesses with the prayer card at restaurants, grocery stores, sporting events, banks, social clubs “and anywhere else I meet people,” he said.
“I went to Wal-Mart because we needed a few things. But really, I just went there to witness,” he said. “I shared with 43 people. Three were Hispanic, so I used my Spanish prayer cards. Everyone’s responses at the store were so positive that I was near tears.
“I also went to Target and had 50 prayer cards, and I ran out,” he said. “I could’ve shared with 75 people easily.”
Cotten even uses the card on ocean cruises. In May 2008, Cotten and his wife Alice flew to Istanbul, Turkey, and boarded an ocean liner. “We saw it as a true mission field,” Alice said, noting that the 3,500 passengers and crew represented 65 countries.
It didn’t take long for Christian crew members to ask Cotten if he’d lead their off-duty devotional time. Cotten said about 60 of them crowded into a small room for the 11:30 p.m. service.
The staff captain approved the use of the ship’s theater for the next meeting. More than 100 attended. Cotten preached, read the prayer and asked how many prayed it sincerely. Ten raised their hands, he said.
The staff captain, who gave his Christian testimony in one meeting, told Cotten he wished more pastors would do as Cotten had done. “He invited me to take many more of their cruises and do the same thing again,” Cotten said. So, Ted and Alice are planning a 2009 cruise for the express purpose of witnessing to lost people.
Cotten’s method has garnered the attention of numerous pastors as he has visited more than two dozen churches, giving a PowerPoint presentation on how to use the prayer card. Cotten also has received encouraging reports from pastors in several states.
Noting that some people are concerned about the effectiveness of the card, Cotten said, “They don’t realize that many people need the witness of your changed life and how it was done before they can process a longer presentation of the gospel.
“I believe I could’ve led hundreds to make decisions for Christ,” Cotten continued. “But I’ve seen too many situations where people made what I believe were premature decisions. So, what we’re primarily doing is sowing the seed and giving the Holy Spirit something to work with. If we have time to deal with them at length, then we seek to lead them to the Lord.
“We cannot do the work of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “It’s our job to share our witness, however briefly or as long as it takes.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Miller is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va.)