When You Cannot Preach: A Case for Relational Evangelism

Introduction
I have been a pastor for almost twenty years. I was trained to preach—in fact, I was trained to take the truths of the gospel and present them in the clearest and most convincing manner I could. I have viewed the task of proclaiming the gospel as one of the most critical functions that every minister (and believer) should fulfil.

However, when I moved from pastoral ministry to teaching at a university, and later, to working in a large company, I realised I had very few opportunities to preach to the people among whom I worked every day.

In fact, most Christians live their lives in an environment that is hostile to the proclamation of the gospel. Two of the many challenges include:

  • Some contexts are hostile to proclamation evangelism. Many Christians live in nations (e.g., Turkey and China) that forbid Christian evangelism; others simply work in environments that discourage evangelism (e.g., workplace, university, or school).

  • The effects of postmodernism are a threat to proclamation evangelism. Traditional evangelistic methods are based on “propositional evangelism.”1 In its basic form evangelism by proclamation relies on a Christian making “truth statements” about God and God’s love for the world, and then challenging his or her hearers to respond to those propositions.

For example, someone may say, “God loves you and wants to forgive your sins and give you everlasting life.” The person being evangelised to would then have to respond to this proposition: “Do I believe what I’m being told? Does it make sense? Will I choose forgiveness in Christ, or continue life without him?”

The problem with propositions is that they are very difficult to understand if they have no context. For example, if I tell someone that God loves him or her and he or she has never experienced God’s love, it is difficult for that person to make an informed decision based only on a statement.

What further complicates the matter is that Western media has begun to convince the world that the Church and Christians are not to be trusted. There have been many scandals and struggles in the Church in recent decades. Ed Silvoso sums up the problem as follows: “Preaching the good news without love is like giving someone a good kiss when you have bad breath. No matter how good your kiss, all the recipient will remember is your bad breath.”2

These realities, however, don’t mean that we should stop evangelising. Not at all! They simply mean that we must find more creative ways of presenting the unchanging gospel of Christ in an ever-changing world. It is in this context that relationship evangelism makes so much sense. The biggest changes come through love.

Introducing a Seemingly Upside-down Model
It is a mistake to think that the majority of people come to faith in Jesus through crusades and evangelistic outreaches. Of course these events are effective. But they are less effective than we imagine. For instance, when did you last attend an event like this? How often do they happen in your town or city? More importantly, when did you last invite someone to go with you to a church service or an evangelistic outreach?

Ask ten of your Christian family or friends who introduced them to Jesus. Likely, the majority will tell you they came to know of Christ’s love through a close friend or family member. Most people come to experience the truth of the gospel through loving people and acts of blessing and service long before they’re convinced by theological truths such as the divinity of Jesus and the concepts of salvation and forgiveness through faith.

In my experience, faith is most often caught before it is taught.

Coming to Grips with Relational Evangelism
What do you think of when you hear the words evangelism and evangelist? Most of us tend to think of evangelism as a form of preaching in which one shares truths about God’s love for people and the world with individuals or groups. When we think of an evangelist, we tend to think of people like Billy Graham preaching to massive crowds of eager listeners. As incredible a gift as persons such as this are to the Christian faith, they are the exception rather than the norm. I am convinced that God’s evangelistic desire involves far more than just a few gifted preachers.

I encourage you to read one of the clearest and most accessible images of evangelism in the Bible. It is the one Jesus himself taught his disciples when he sent them out into the world to witness to his love for the first time. You’ll find this remarkable model of evangelism in Luke 10:5-9.

You may be surprised to see how simple, yet different, Jesus’ model of evangelism is when you compare it to many of the more popular models used today.

The Greek word used in the Bible, from which we get our English word evangelism is the verb euangelizo, which means to bring “good news.” The more popular understanding of ”preaching the good news” comes from another Greek word, kerusso, which means “to proclaim” or “to preach.”

This second understanding of “preaching the good news” has become an almost exclusive approach to evangelism in much of the Church. There is little doubt that it can be effective in many situations. However, as stated above, there are some contexts in which this is neither possible nor effective in introducing the good news of Christ.

So, what is the solution? I’d like to introduce a method of bringing the love of Jesus to people that has had powerful and lasting results in our context. I first learned about this approach when I read one of Silvoso’s books.3

Luke 10 Transformation: A Model of Friendship Evangelism
If we were to describe the most common models of evangelism used by Christians, they would probably fit the following pattern:

1. Preach the gospel → 2. Minister to those who respond → 3. Facilitate fellowship and relationship → 4. Bless

This pattern may work fairly well in the church, but it is not very effective from Monday to Saturday, during which Christians spend most of their waking hours.

When you look at Jesus’ model of evangelism in Luke 10, you see that he encourages his disciples to apply a different strategy.

First, Jesus says we should start by blessing people: “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house’” (10:5). Everybody longs to experience blessing, acceptance, and love. This is simple and easy to do—sometimes it is just a sincere compliment or a practical act of caring (like helping a co-worker to reach a deadline). Very few people resist genuine and sincere blessings from others. You can also bless a person by offering to pray for him or her. I have even blessed people by praying for them without them knowing it.

Next, Jesus encourages us to build relationships with people: “Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you…” (10:7). I have made a habit of cultivating friendships with people who don’t know the Lord. I belong to a cycling club. I also engage in M.B.W.A at work each day (I say it is better than an M.B.A, it is Management By Walking Around).

I take five minutes each day to say hi to people who work in our company. I make a point of getting to know their names and the names of their spouses and children, and hearing about their interests, challenges, and joys. I keep two simple principles in mind: (1) treat each person as special (Phil. 2:5-7) and (2) always share the fruit of love (Matt. 7:16).

Third, Jesus says that once we’ve blessed people and built friendships with them, we should minister to their needs: “…heal the sick who are there…” (10:9). This is the most amazing step in this simple process.

When people have experienced what it is to be blessed, and they trust you because you’ve built a relationship with them, they suddenly start opening up. They start asking questions about faith: “Why are you so calm when things go wrong? Why is it that you cope so much better with conflict than other people?”

More importantly, they ask for help and prayer. I have prayed for many colleagues, friends, and staff over the years simply because they feel they can trust me, and they know that my desire is to bless them.

One further encouragement is to try and respond to people’s “felt needs” first. Hardship, struggle, stress, and pain have a tendency to cause people to adopt a narrow focus. For example, the Salvation Army had the approach of offering people soup, soap, and then salvation. They knew that a person who was hungry and dirty would be less likely to respond to an invitation to salvation than someone who felt fed and cared for.

Finally, Jesus ends up where we most often start—preaching and teaching: “…tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you’” (10:9). In 1 Peter 3:15 we read, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

When a person’s need is met, you will have a golden opportunity to share the good news. When a prayer is answered, or a person finds the help he or she needs, you can gently tell him or her about God’s power and provision. My experience is that the most effective preaching you can do is to either give a testimony of something God has done for you or help the person to recognise what God is doing for him or her.

Conclusion
Relationship evangelism cannot replace the proclamation of the truth of Christ’s love. However, it can function as another wonderful resource for evangelising in places where preaching is not possible, or among people who struggle to relate to the propositions of the Christian faith.

Endnotes

1. See www.dionforster.com/blog/2010/7/22/between-the-pew-and-the-pavement-praising-with-the-people-of.html for a discussion of the concept of propositional evangelism.

2. Ed Silvoso in Power, Graham and Dion Forster. 2010. Transform Your Work Life—Turn Your Ordinary Day into an Extraordinary Calling. Cape Town: Struik Christian Books, 126.

3. Silvoso, Ed. 2000. Prayer Evangelism. New York: Regal Books. Also see Transform Your Work Life for information on the Luke 10 model and testimonies of how it has been used effectively. Also see Willem Joubert’s 2007 DVD resource, Luke 10 Transformation. Ekurhuleni: The Better Way foundation trust.


Dr. Dion Angus Forster is a minister and academic. He is the former dean of John Wesley College, the seminary of the Methodist Church of southern Africa, and a research associate and lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Stellenbosch (BUVTON). Forster serves as a chaplain to the Global Day of Prayer and the Power Group of companies in Cape Town, South Africa. His most recent book on ministry in the workplace is entitled Transform Your Work Life: Turn Your Ordinary Day into an Extraordinary Calling (Struik Christian Books, 2010).