By Trevin Wax
The term “evangelism” gives many Christians the willies. We immediately think of canned presentations that seem stiff and unnatural. We are paralyzed by the thought of knocking on a stranger’s door and talking about Jesus.
In response to these images of evangelism, we promote the idea of “building relationships” before sharing the gospel. We call it friendship or relational evangelism.
I think this development is (overall) a healthy one. We don’t share the gospel apart from who we are as witnesses. The most effective evangelism takes place within the context of relationships where the life of the Christian is on display.
But sometimes, I wonder if our emphasis on relationships might cause us to turn all our focus to relationship-building and indefinitely postpone gospel proclamation. So someone asks you, “Are you sharing the gospel regularly?” and you think, Of course! I’m building a relationship with an employee at a coffee shop; I’ve got a friend who watches football with me; I’m getting to know the parents in my child’s preschool class.
Weeks and months (maybe even years) go by, and we’ve made friends, but no disciples. We still haven’t spoken about our Christian faith and what it means to trust in Jesus.
It’s true that effective evangelism usually takes place after trustworthy relationships have been built. But something is amiss when we can “get to know” people well over a period of months and never talk about Jesus.
Does Your Life Make Sense Apart from Jesus?
When my son played T-ball, I struck up a conversation with the father of one of the kids on his team. We talked a little about his work, about his kids, about our community. I asked him why he had chosen our town. His answer? The church drew him here.
They had wanted to raise a family in a small town with a good church. Several family members had recommended a particular church, and so they upped and moved here.
This guy had no idea I was an associate pastor at another local church at the time. He didn’t even know I was a Christian. Yet within a few minutes of the conversation, it was clear that he was a believer and that his faith in Christ was central to his life.
As I thought about that conversation later, I realized that it would have been impossible for us to form a lasting friendship without talking about Christ. His Christianity was so central to his identity that it could not go unnoticed or unmentioned.
In ministry, I have the same “problem.” Whenever I talk to a neighbor or strike up a conversation with a stranger, I usually am asked about my occupation. As soon as I mention that I’m in the ministry, the relationship changes.
The conversation shifts. (Things either go uphill or downhill from there.) But there’s no sense in hiding. What I do is connected to who I am. To form a good friendship with someone, my occupation has to be on the table.
Don’t Wait Too Long to Talk about Jesus
I am all about building relationships and sharing the gospel within the context of those relationships. I’m not saying that every conversation has to end with an altar call. But it worries me when Christians can become “good friends” with non-Christians without revealing their Christian identity.
Waiting too long to talk about your faith is counterproductive. If I can get to know you well over the course of several months and yet never hear you speak of Jesus, then when you eventually do share the gospel, I will probably assume that Jesus is not very important to you.
On the other hand, when your Christian faith runs deep, Jesus has a way of making an appearance much sooner. Our identity in Christ should be such an integral part of our lives that it is impossible for someone to know us well without understanding how our Christian faith informs our lives.
So, yes. By all means, build deep relationships with unbelievers. But be up front about who you and are and what you believe. Don’t go in cognito in order to be a better witness. Let people see Christ in you and let them know Who it is they’re seeing.
Discipleship is living in a way that makes no sense to the world unless Jesus is King.
TREVIN WAX (@TrevinWax) is the senior vice president of theology and communications at Lifeway, as well as a visiting professor at Wheaton College. He is the author of several books, including This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel and his forthcoming B&H Publishing title, Rethink Your Self: Looking Up Before Looking In.