Relationship or friendship evangelism, I am often asked why I speak out against them so often. Clearly, I speak about it a fair bit if I am asked if I reject them. So, I suppose the best way to address this is to begin to define terms and I want to start with relational evangelism.
What Is Relational Evangelism
In a previous article I gave a brief summary of what relationship evangelism looks like in the modern church. I don’t want to be accused of building strawmen just to burn them down. However, I will give a brief outline of what modern western relationship evangelism looks like.
Chiefly, relationship evangelism is the practice of first establishing ties to a person. Whether it is through work, proximity to one’s home or through friendship. Once one has developed that relationship and displayed that they are genuinely interested in getting to know the person and share in their lives, the Christian can then proceed to talk about their faith. The author of a recent book about evangelism suggested asking permission to share the Gospel with your friend.
This methodology is often defended by reciting the adage “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care…” The implication is that a person will not be interested in the Gospel unless you display interest in them.
The Problem With This Model
The biggest concern I have with modern relationship evangelism is that it rarely leads to actual Gospel proclamation. This seems to be backed up by several recent polls. These polls indicate that almost ninety plus percent of Christians have never shared the Gospel with anyone. Of course, statistics are easy to come up with, but not always easy to support.
However, if we look anecdotally across the USA we are seeing sharp declines in formerly strong and healthy denominations. In one case the SBC, the largest protestant denomination in the USA, reported that they are seeing progressively fewer baptisms annually. This happened because the SBC has moved away from the roots of her founders. It abandoned solid men who were strong on Gospel work. The SBC went towards the seeker sensitive model of relational evangelism.Even the Roman Catholics are reporting dwindling numbers.
So, based on the way relational evangelism is practiced today, yes, I do reject it. Modern relational evangelism is the tool of the pragmatic. Whatever it takes to get the decision is what we will pursue. This is antithetical to the Scriptures, the early church fathers and to even more recent theologians. Whitefield is oft quoted as saying, “God forbid I should travel a quarter of an hour with a stranger without speaking of Christ to them.” Make no mistake, when Whitefield says speaking of Christ he meant the Gospel.
The Answer To The Question
Now, to the true question. Do I reject relational evangelism? No. However, it must be defined according to scripture. Biblically defined relational evangelism is a wonderful tool. Not all of us have the opportunity or gifting to go into the public arena and preach the Gospel. Women are forbidden from open air proclamation because it is a form of preaching. Preaching is reserved for men. However, no one is precluded from one-on-one evangelism in the public arena.
However, all of us have relationships. If you don’t you are dead. In the context of those relationships the Gospel should be in the forefront of our minds. In the same article I mentioned previously I spoke about front-loading the Gospel into all relationships. What I didn’t do is define that in a tangible way.
Front-Loading The Gospel In Relational Evangelism
Peter in his epistle to the Jews speaks about how we are to live our lives. He is commending holy living to us. Peter is telling us to conduct ourselves in such a way to provoke questions from unbelievers around us. This provoking is intentional. It has as its’ end goal the advancing of the Gospel into the world around us. This is how you define relational evangelism biblically. This is front-loading the Gospel into each of our relationships.
Yet, we can front-load the Gospel in more direct ways as well. In the first example front-loading the Gospel is always on your mind. Like a person playing chess you are thinking several moves ahead. You are looking for an opening to ostensibly position the person in checkmate. Not because you only see them as a goal. Biblical love motivates us to look out for their best interest. In the second example you are starting the relationship off with the Gospel.
Are You Of Christ Or Of Your Occupation
In our culture it is normative for us to meet a new person and identify ourselves by our occupation. Often this stems from our deeply abiding passion for the work we do. A woman blessed to be a stay-at-home-mom will often hear “So what do you do?” Her passion for the well-being of her children will often gush out of her in that moment. She will respond “I am a stay-at-home-mom and I home-educate my children!” Doctors and lawyers rarely need prompting to tell others what they do. (As a side note neither do Cross-fitters or Vegans…)
Yet think on this. What if we Christians practiced leading with the reality of our relationship with God through Christ. Imagine meeting a new neighbor. As you exchange pleasantries they say “I work at XYZ Inc and I am the vice-president of Sales. What do you do?” Instead of telling them your occupation you say “That sounds very important. What do I do? I am Christian who is passionate about reaching others with the message of Christ.”
That sounds awkward and difficult doesn’t it? Yet, tell me why it is so easy for us to identify with our occupation? Why is it so hard for us to boldly proclaim our faith? Could it be that it is easy for us to recite Romans 1:16 but not so easy for us to believe it?
I Fail All The Time
Look, I am guilty of this too. I recently met a neighbor for the first time. The introductions quickly turned to our careers. We discovered that we work for the same entity, just in vastly different capacities. Frankly, I led with my occupation. I didn’t lead with my missions work. I didn’t identify myself as belonging to my Lord and Savior. It was the perfect time for me to do what I am commending to you my dear reader. Yet, I didn’t. Am I in sin? No. Furthermore, either are you. However, what are we doing to remedy this? Who should we be identifying with? Our employer or our God?
What Does Relational Evangelism Really Look Like
I recently had the occasion to have two conversations that stemmed from my openness about my faith. In the first instance an individual was watching a sitcom. There was a character in that program that was flaunting their sexuality. The person watching the program asked, “Man Todd, what is that makes this so in-your-face these days?” I asked him to explain. “Well you can’t turn on the TV. You can’t open a book or listen to the radio without someone bragging about being gay. Why is that?” he asked.
Always Ready To Give An Answer
Praise God for that question. I didn’t see it as a means to bash homosexuality. Instead I saw it as a road-map to the Gospel. He knew that asking me would result in a spiritual reply. Why? Because he had heard me speaking about my faith in the past. So, what did I do? I took him to Romans 1 and used that to launch into the Gospel.
Another situation arose a few days later. It was with a young lady that knows me to be Christian. She doesn’t claim to be a Christian, but she has expressed interest. On this occasion she told me that her favorite verse from the bible is “for I know the plans I have for your says the Lord…” This led to a conversation that lasted several hours. During that conversation I was able to explain to her why that verse doesn’t apply to her. Instead I walked her through the Gospel. I explained why she had a better hope if she would turn to Christ and live.
In both of these encounters the conversations took place because I had front-loaded the Gospel. They knew me to be a Christian and they knew my replies would flow from that.
Here is my challenge in this area. Are you content to be identified by your occupation over and above Christ? If so, why? If not, what are we doing about it?
I really want you to think about this. Do you truly desire biblically defined relational evangelism? Or do you much more prefer having just the relationship? Are you holding out hope that someday that person will recognize your Christianity?
Does every conversation with every person need to centered on the Gospel? Not in the least. Yes! Take an active interest in the life of the other person. Yet, always have the Gospel in mind as you converse and look for the window when it opens. I have lost friends and family members, not every conversation with them is “Repent and believe!” However, you can rest assured there isn’t a lost friend or family member that I haven’t proclaimed the Gospel to. At least not one I interact with on a regular basis.
Truly biblical relational evangelism has at its core the desire to see every person we know converted. If that isn’t your heart for every person you have a relationship with you have a heart problem. Furthermore, if you aren’t actively pursuing the advancement of the Gospel into the lives of the people you are in relationship with, what you are practicing isn’t relational evangelism, it is merely friendship. Therefore, you have a heart problem. And that is what I reject…
Soli Deo Gloria!