Francis Chan tells a story from when he was a young pastor. He was speaking to another, much older pastor who was telling Chan about the older pastor’s church’s Christmas play. The pastor said that they spent thousands of dollars and had hundreds of volunteers putting in 15 hours a week practicing. Then when Christmas came, everyone invited people to this play and the church was able to share the gospel and people came to faith.
It sounded like a really neat idea, but Francis Chan (being Francis Chan) was bothered a little bit. He asked, “what if you just had all your volunteers put 15 hours a week inviting their neighbors over for dinner and telling them the gospel, wouldn’t you have more people come to Christ?” The pastor looked at Chan and answered, “of course that would be more effective, but our people wouldn’t do that.”
Let’s put a bookmark in that story and talk about “relational evangelism.” Relational evangelism is a framework in which you share the gospel in the context of a relationship. At its worst, it can mean that either you become friends with someone simply because you see them as a project to share the gospel with or you just become friends with them and never actually talk about your faith-you just hope they “see how you live” and then believe in Jesus.
However, at its best, relational evangelism creates strong, real relationships, and in the context of those relationships, you both show your good works and you are able to speak about Jesus, answer questions, and serve the other person. You take on the problems of the other person, you invest in their life, you weep when they weep and rejoice when they rejoice.
The alternative to relational evangelism would be contact evangelism. This is where you meet someone, and share the gospel, often without any underlying relationship. This is the “cold call” of the evangelism world. This may look like giving a tract to a passerby, talking about Jesus to someone on the subway, or just striking up a conversation with someone in the grocery store line. Or it can be event driven, the Christmas play above is a prime example.
Now, I think that there are times where contact evangelism is useful. Some people you may never see again, and they also need the gospel. Some brief contacts can turn into relationships. But, on the whole, I think our disposition should be towards relational evangelism.
So, let’s go back to Chan’s example of the people who wouldn’t invite their neighbors for dinner. What stops them? My suspicion is that while we would say that we love our neighbors and coworkers, we don’t actually like them. We don’t want to hear about their kids performance in school, we don’t want to hear about the cyclical problems in their marriages, and we frankly don’t want to hear about anything going on in their lives. We have our own problems. If that sounds harsh, I would ask you to look at your own heart. Do you really want to take on a stranger’s struggles, joys, and fears? I know the default answer in my own life, and I know that answer needs to change.
Contact evangelism is scary, but it does not carry the messiness of relational evangelism. Who wouldn’t often rather tell someone the gospel and not deal with them again? But that’s not what we are called to. We need to actually like the people we share the gospel with. We need to invest in their lives, help them through their struggles, share in their joys. In a word, we need to love our neighbors. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “So being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” (1 Thess 2:8 ESV) Can we say that to those we share the gospel with?
Jesus calls us all to die. Some of us he will call to give up our physical life, but all of us are called to give up our preferences and comforts in the service of love. We die to our comforts, die to our privacy, die to our personal space, and die to our free time. And not once, but daily. (1 Corinthians 15:31 ESV) But why sacrifice all this? Is it even worth it? Wouldn’t it be better to simply take care of our own business, care for our family, and live a relatively care-free life? Jesus answers that, for himself and for us.
“And Jesus answered them, The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (John 12:23-26 ESV)