This semester I would like to compare and contrast the different styles of evangelism. In so doing, I hope you can learn to understand and respect those who think and act differently than you and, more importantly, be challenged to broaden your style of evangelism. I hope to move you from “either/or” thinking to “both/and” thinking.
Those who believe in “relational evangelism” find their support in verses like these where Jesus and the disciples did ministry and shared the gospel in the course of every-day life. Jesus taught his disciples and shared the good news while he doing normal things like working, eating , and partying.
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way. Luke 14:1-4
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. Acts 17:16,17
Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. I Thessalonians 2:8,9
Throughout the gospels we see Jesus and living and sharing the gospel with people he knows personally. He met people while attending weddings and parties. He went into the homes of tax collectors and prostitutes and was nicknamed the “friend of sinners.” He had friends, and he shared the gospel with them relationally.
The disciples and Paul shared the gospel relationally too. Paul met people in the synagogues and the market place. He worshiped and he worked, and he made friends in both places. He believed that the gospel was revealed even more powerfully when he shared life with friends and let his life be a testimony to the gospel.
Truth and Pitfalls
The advantage to relational evangelism is that the gospel can be shared many times over and in various ways, with our lives and our words. Those who embrace this philosophy do so because they believe it is a most holistic way to live live, integrating evangelism into everyday activities and friendships. The simple advantage: they know the people they are talking to and can thus share the gospel more clearly.
There is no doubt that this is Biblical and it’s an important evangelism strategy, but those who only practice relational evangelism are prone to a few errors too. Sometimes they never actually share the gospel. Sometimes they fear starting spiritual conversations and sharing the gospel will jeopardize their relationship. Commitment to relational evangelism can actually just become a smokescreen, a clever way to keep from actually doing evangelism.
Sometimes they do not know how to share the gospel. Spiritual conversations can be vary random in relational evangelism and sometimes they are caught off guard, not knowing what to say or how to share the gospel clearly. Those who practice contact evangelism usually have way more practice having spiritual conversations and thus are much more equipped to do so.
Sometimes they compromise their convictions. In the name of relational evangelism I have seen friends compromise their convictions in order to make friends. Jesus and Paul were “friends of sinners” and spent time with people on their turf, but did not fall into sin.
Those who believe in “contact evangelism” find their support in verses like these when the disciples were sent out to people town by town to minister and share the gospel with strangers. Jesus started spiritual conversations with random people as he was passing through towns and he sent his disciples to do the same.
Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” J0hn 4:4-6
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. Luke 10:1
Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. Acts 19:8-10
Throughout the gospel we see Jesus have conversations with strangers (of course Jesus actually knew them). He would pass through a town and walk right up to strangers and initiate conversations with them. Jesus initiates spiritual conversations with people like the Samaritan woman (John 4), Zacchaeus (Luke 19), Matthew (Matthew 9), Peter and John (Matthew 4 and John 1), and many others.
When it came time to train the disciples, he taught them to do the same – to go from town to town to talk with strangers. He gave them specific things to say and do, and he even instructed them to move on from those who were not willing to listen. As a missionary, Paul did the same thing in even more public ways by preaching in synagogues and lecture halls. He, too, would move on if people were not willing to listen.
Truth and Pitfalls
The advantage to contact evangelism is that it enables a campus ministry or church to sow broadly. Those who embrace this philosophy do so because they believe they will talk to more people this way and will be able to find those people who are really spiritually open. The simple advantage: they talk to more people overall and are able to find more people who are ready to respond to the gospel.
There is no doubt that this is Biblical and it’s an important evangelism strategy, but those who only practice contact evangelism are prone to a few errors too. Sometimes they are not able to make friends with unbelievers. Some prefer contact evangelism because they simply do not have many unbelieving friends. Contact evangelism lends itself to more debate and arguing. Sometimes these folks do not know how to disagree with someone and still remain close to them personally.
Sometimes they can treat people like projects. Because they do not really know the people they are talking to, they are more prone to treat people like projects. They do not know the backgrounds or the people they are speaking with let alone their current pains, worries, concerns, fears, goals, etc. Therefore, it is naturally harder to be sensitive.
Sometimes their evangelism can be more of a duty or an event, rather than a natural overflow of their lives. Because contact evangelism is more programatic, you clearly know when you have done it or not done it. Therefore, if can slowly morph into a religious duty or something done to appease God rather than a true overflow of the heart.
Justin Christopher is the National Campus Director for Campus Renewal Ministries and the author of Campus Renewal: A Practical Plan for Uniting Campus Ministries in Prayer and Mission. He gives leadership to the Campus House of Prayer and the missional community movement at the University of Texas.