A word of caution concerning “Relationship Evangelism”

I can remember  Monday night visitation at church. We would all meet up at the church building to pair up and take any visitor cards from the Sunday before and go visit the new families and share the gospel with them. In addition, it was standard procedure to go door-to-door in the neighborhoods around their house and talk to people we had never met and attempt to share the gospel with them. We were given tracts, taught simple presentations, and armed with some questions that should allow us to get into a gospel conversation with a stranger.

That is not cool anymore.

Over the last couple of decades, “door knocking” has passed out of fashion and been replaced by “relationship evangelism.” Now, before you think I am a critic of developing relationships with lost people to share the gospel, let me take my stand as a fan of relationship evangelism. I am largely in favor of this shift. Often (but not always!) it better suits the culture we find ourselves in today. However, like all good things, the term “relationship evangelism” has its fair share of abuse.

Working at a seminary, I get to see a lot of students attempting to share their faith. Here are a few abuses I regularly encounter concerning “relationship evangelism.”

You can say you are evangelizing without actually evangelizing.

Some people hide behind this concept and never get around to sharing the gospel. There is a big difference between not walking up to a stranger and asking them if they have found Jesus and waiting until you are best friends with someone in order to talk to them about anything important. It is not uncommon to see students spends months, even years, with someone they met at Starbucks developing this relationship, calling it evangelism, and rarely if ever bringing up their faith.

We need to put the nail in the coffin on this whole, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words,” mess. St. Francis never said that… and neither should you. The gospel is, at its core, a spoken message. It is news to proclaim, and you are not sharing it if you are not speaking it.

It can come across as a bait-and-switch.

If you begin developing a relationship with a new lost friend and purposefully avoid your relationship with Christ and your desire for your new friend to accept Christ, then it can appear deceptive to bring it up later.

Think with me for a minute. Is your relationship with Christ not the central aspect of your life? Is it not the most important part of your being? Now, wait six months in a friendship and then try to tell this new friend the most important aspect of your life and tell them they need to accept Christ too. That seems disingenuous at best and makes the whole relationship seem suspect at worst. One of three responses can be expected:

  • First, they may think your friendship is shallow because you never mentioned this very personal detail.
  • Second, they may think you care little about them because you have this life changing “secret” you have kept from them this whole time.
  • Finally, they may think the whole relationship is a sham, simply designed for the gospel sales pitch coming at the end.

The longer you wait to introduce the gospel, the harder it is to transition.

Relationships form patterns of interaction. If your friendship forms around regularly watching football, you will spend a lot of time talking about football. If your new relationship starts with a work buddy, then work will regularly be a topic of conversation. This is natural. However, it also means that you have to be intentional about the gospel from the beginning. If not, it gets harder and harder to insert it into a conversation.

The relational stakes only get higher as you wait to bring it up. You feel it too. The longer the relationship goes, the harder it is to try and find a way to speak the gospel. The fear of rejection is stronger as the relationship gets closer, and the topics of conversation begin to cement in to place.

I believe many people expect this magic moment where the relationship is so close that this person cannot refuse to consider the gospel. I am not saying this never happens, but it is definitely the exception and not the norm.

A better way…

Speak the gospel quickly in the relationship. “But, is it still relationship evangelism if I share the gospel at the beginning?” you may ask. The answer is yes, if you try to be a friend to them.

Instead of waiting until you have a well-established friendship, go ahead and begin speaking pieces of the gospel into the conversation from the first or second time you talk to someone. This has several important benefits:

  • First, it is very honest. If part of your desire in this friendship is to share Christ, then it is integrity for them to see that on the front end. No bait-and-switch here.
  • Second, it demonstrates the importance of the gospel.
  • Third, it allows you to speak naturally about it going forward. No weird transitions this way.
  • Finally, it helps you navigate your friendships with new people and where to invest your time. By giving people the gospel at the beginning of a relationship, you see who may actually be interested instead of waiting 8 months to find out they have no interest in hearing about it.

So, next time you meet someone and decide to develop a relationship to share the gospel, get it in there quick and see how it benefits the relationship!

6 Comments

  1. Gabriel said:

    Very good article Keelan, thank you for sharing. I would like to know your opinion about relationship evangelism with muslims. Do you think that could be some cases when the appropriate would be to wait a little bit more until you express your faith in Christ, or do you think still being important to talk about that since the beginning? I really like to read your articles, thank you again and God bless!

    November 16, 2016
    Reply
    • Keelan Cook said:

      Excellent question, friend. I am having this conversation right now with a friend who is Muslim background. He became a believer after missionaries shared the gospel repeatedly with him overseas for a number of months. As he sees it, and I’m inclined to agree with him, the answer is that this applies even more in Muslim cultures. He points out the lack of a sacred/secular divide for Muslims and the fact that religion is very often one of the first things new relationships discuss. When I was serving as a missionary in a Muslim country, this was my experience as well. Of course, people who are culturally Muslim but actually humanists (I think about a lot of young, second gen immigrants to the US), may have an aversion to a religious conversation. Even then though, being quick to speak the gospel at the beginning of these relationships helps you decide which relationships are actually budding and which people are actually receptive.

      November 17, 2016
      Reply

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