evangelism-1-300x225The 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?

A few months ago, I struck up a conversation with the father of one of the kids on my son’s T-ball 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. 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 pastoral 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 a pastor, 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.

~~~~~

Adapted from a post in November 2010

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7 thoughts on “Making Friends, But Not Disciples”

  1. Davina says:

    Thanks for this article. Perfect timing and much appreciated. We are having a youth training event.next week and there has been some debate over emphasis on bible (gospel) teaching v relationship building. I was talking to my husband today to try and get an analogy that would help emphasise the need to do both. The best we came up with was the song “love and marriage….can’t have one without the other”. Will be sharing this article too.

  2. Heleena says:

    I wholeheartedly agree – I have seen the impact of being upfront with my faith. However, I wonder what this looks like in longterm relationships? I recently graduated from college – in my freshman year, when people found out I was a Christian, they were curious about it and we had many great conversations about life and faith and I was able to share the Gospel with many of my peers. However, around my junior year, many of those same friends were just no longer interested in talking about it. I find it harder and harder to engage in those kind of conversations with my older friends.

    It suspect part of the difficulty is in getting to know about faith as a means of learning about me versus actually getting to know who God is for themselves. How do you engage in those Gospel-centered conversations when the relationship is longterm and the dynamics shift from “getting to know you” kinds of conversations to just living life in the classroom, workplace, dorm, etc.?

  3. Jonathan McGuire says:

    Very helpful and to the point. One wonders why this is not considered job one in our churches. I would argue that this is yet another example of a such a focus on the preaching event while losing sight of our prime directive.

    W. Edwards Deming taught us that “you can expect what you inspect” (I’ll estimate that less than 10% of folks in occupational ministry have heard of Deming). His point was that you will build in to your culture what you really believe to be important. Looking (“inspect”) at our churches, it is easy to see that we don’t place much of a priority (“expect”) on each member actively engaging in either evangelism or discipleship.

    But your church’s senior pastor might retort, “Every sermon is evangelistic!” and “We have discipleship groups, Sunday school classes, small groups, community groups!” Yeah, and the average person who pays for a gym membership rarely goes to the gym and has a house full of junk food.

    The basic truth is that our churches are not serious about this topic. Here’s how I know this (and here’s how you know this too): if you had to eliminate everything activity your church engages in with the exception of 1 thing, that one thing would be a congregational service built around a preaching event, not an ongoing training involving practice and active engagement where each member does learn how to share the Gospel to the unreached and then to help mature new converts into disciple making disciples.

  4. EricP says:

    Heleena,

    Once your relationship with someone matures, it will become much more about what you do than anything you say. Your friends are watching you and seeing if your faith makes you different. If it does, then when something big happens to them (and it’s definitely when, not if), that will be the time for conversation. Your best witnessing will be your worst experiences. How can you weather storms that tear down other people?

  5. Simon says:

    We make friends because we want to be friends, not as a vehicle to build a relationship in order to evangelize them. It’s not that you keep your faith private. It’s just that the purpose of any relationship is not so that one day you can have a Bible study with them. Whether you door knock or seek to befriend non-Christians in order to evangelize them, both have Amway written all over it.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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