Relational Evangelism: the ultimate method?

The term generally used is “relationship evangelism,” which seems an awkward construct, employing a lengthy noun as an adjective. The term “relational evangelism” rolls much more trippingly off the tongue, I think. This blog includes a critique of the book, Witness to the World, published by Lifeway Press in 2008. The book is an extension of the work done in the 1970s by W. Oscar Thompson Jr., who developed a manuscript that his wife (Carolyn), after his death, turned into a best-selling book Concentric Circles of Concern. Finally, in recent years, Claude King worked with Carolyn to publish Witness to the World for widespread use in the Southern Baptist Convention and throughout evangelicalism.

I discovered this book while visiting an SBC church nearby. This church’s membership is primarily aging retirees, perhaps about 200 in attendance on Sunday. The morning service featured teaching that was sound in doctrine. The music consisted solely of traditional hymns, rich with Biblical themes. Ahh!! So refreshing and so unusual these days! What encouraged me was an announcement that the following week would be the first of a 7-week series for an adult Sunday School class taught by the pastor . . . on the subject of personal evangelism.

The principal reason I do “field trips” to various local churches is to try to find a potential partner for personal evangelism. You know, so we can go “two by two,” which is the preferred Scriptural pattern. This is largely a futile quest on my part, but I trudge on anyway. The announcement encouraged me, especially since I noted that everyone in the congregation, however old, seemed to be able to walk and talk. Everyone walked in and everyone walked out. That’s my preferred set of qualifications for an evangelism partner: someone who can walk and talk. In fact, walking is not essential. I’ll push a guy’s wheelchair if need be. And talking isn’t really essential either. My partner can simply hold out his hand with a tract in it.

I signed up for the course in the lobby and received the book, which I proceeded to read over the next few days. There is much in the text that is commendable. The basic model is a series of seven concentric circles to identify people you might share the Gospel with most readily. From inside out, the circles are labeled . . . Self, Family, Relatives, Friends, Neighbors & Associates, Acquaintances, and Person X. “Person X” is that stranger out there. You might cross his path just once. With the inner circles we can use the relationship to open a door for a Gospel presentation. Person X is a different matter. As the author says, “With Person X . . . our lifestyles do not have to be consistent. We can talk to Person X and then be on our way. There is nothing wrong with telling Person X about Jesus. We are supposed to do that. God brings these people into our lives. However, if we do not tell people in circles 2-6 about the Lord, we are hypocritical.”

True enough. I note, however, that in this model there simply aren’t enough circles. Person X might be an appliance repairman, a waitress, or someone else who just crosses our path. Why exclude the oh-so-Scriptural case of actually going out on the street or the campus or knocking doors in the neighborhood and actually seeking out people to share the Gospel with? Let’s call that case “Person Y.” The answer is that in evangelicalism, that is so ridiculously scary that no one would ever dream of doing such a thing. Even fundies rarely do that anymore, and when they do, the Gospel is seldom presented Biblically.

It is remarkable that the text never does explain how to present the Gospel to an individual. At the very end is a list of references to booklets and tracts for help if you actually want to do such a thing.

I collected a good sample of the church’s tracts from a stand in the lobby. The typical format is equivalent to a Romans Road presentation, with either little or no discussion of repentance. When mentioned, it speeds by quickly. For example, one tract closes with a typical “sinner’s prayer” that has embedded within the statement, “Help me to turn from my ways and follow you.” In my experience, and from Biblical precedents, that is simply inadequate. In tolerant, high self-esteem, self-justifying, rationalizing American culture, repentance from specific sins must be explained, pleaded, hammered, and camped upon.

The author (specifically Claude King (CK)) taught a course in evangelism while on a church staff. As he writes, “After going through the training course several times, I led the course for a while. From that perspective I made some observations. Although we saw a number of people pray to receive Christ in their homes, very few ever followed through with a public commitment to Christ. We were not very effective at helping these people get established in a local body of Christ where they could grow.”

Uh oh. The author simply doesn’t understand Scriptural evangelism. When you “pull the trigger” prematurely, you likely produce a false convert. No conviction, no repentance, no faith, but you’ve assured him that he now has eternal life because he stipulated to a few basic facts and prayed an apparently sincere prayer. But if he were genuinely saved, his life would be transformed. The old road gone, a new road to eagerly explore, a desire for Christian fellowship, and love and gratitude to the Lord for forgiveness and salvation from the fires of Hell . . . You can’t keep a real convert from declaring his joy to the world!!

The text asserts that the whole world can be drawn to Christ if every believer simply reached his or her concentric circles. That sounds good, but if that were the 1st century pattern, we wouldn’t be here today. The Gospel has spread around the world throughout history largely by deliberately traveling evangelists.

CK cites several New Testament examples of relational converts: for example, the family of the Philippian jailer. In this case and every other one he mentions, the door was opened by Person Y evangelism. The Philippian jailer heard the Gospel only because Paul and Silas traveled deliberately to Philippi to preach the Good News to complete strangers. Thank God.

Please hear me on this . . . I AM FOR RELATIONAL EVANGELISM!! What should be embarrassing to evangelicals is that they have to be cajoled and taught to reach out to lost relatives and acquaintances. Doesn’t every true believer know that already? Doesn’t a real believer have a burden for the lost Hell-bound people close to her? Do we need a course on this? What’s going on?

In my book Evangelism 121 (see the Free e-book store on this site) I point out that the best way to reach those close to you is to get some practice with “strangers.” Frankly, in order to be ANY GOOD at sharing the Gospel, you’ll have to practice a lot on Person Y. Don’t you want to do a good job with Grandma, with your lost sibling, with your co-worker? You won’t get a lot of opportunities, even with a relative. You can use the relationship to get a hearing, as I detail in the book. But if you’re weak, equivocal, unclear, and basically blunder through it . . . aren’t you fearful of the consequences of representing your Lord poorly? Aren’t you afraid that you’ll screw up your one chance with Grandma?

So even if you don’t really care about Person Y, you need to get some practice!! One young man who partnered with me for several years lamented at first that he presented the Gospel so clumsily, so badly. I told him to do it badly for 500 times and he might just achieve mediocrity. And then another 500 and he might develop some real competence. Consider all the schooling we go through in this life, all the essays written, book reports, oral reports, presentations, exams, etc. Isn’t the preaching of the Gospel worthy of a little effort and practice? In my experience most Christians who care only to reach out to those closest to them do the job very poorly, usually chickening out when the hard things must be said.

Another gigantic flaw in the relational evangelism mindset is this . . . If you get ahold of the concentric circles idea (not including Person X), and develop a bit of urgency, realizing that the souls of those dearest to you hang in the balance, then just how long will it take for you to reach out to the people on your list? I figure two weeks should about cover it for most people . . . four weeks at the outside. So then what are you going to do with the rest of your life?

The most interesting and receptive “people group” in America is that of college students. Collegians will engage on serious issues. They are thoughtful and immersed in a culture rife with ideas and philosophies – mostly corrupt, of course – but they are not shy about examining the “big issues of life.” As a sixty-two year old retired fellow, I don’t have natural opportunities to develop relationships with college students. Unless, of course, I simply walk onto a campus and start to talk to some students. Yes, it’s that easy. I pass out tracts and engage with students who are interested in chatting. In so doing, I get to share the Gospel with atheists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, New Agers, Mormons, Hindus, Muslims . . . Americans, Europeans, Arabs, Chinese . . . the whole world is represented at a typical university.

The author of Witness to the World writes, “It seemed to me that we always trained people in evangelism to go to Person X out there somewhere – someone they have never met. But no prior relationship had been established with Person X. Lifestyle evangelism in the New Testament did not begin with Person X. It worked through relationships that had already been established.”

How can he read the NT and see only relational evangelism? Certainly, Andrew found Peter and Philip found Nathanael. But John the Baptist first found the twelve, including those four, preaching repentance in a clear, non-relational way. It doesn’t start with relationships. It starts with reaching out beyond your relationships. The author has the gall to write, “Many of us would rather focus on circle 7 to salve our consciences, because we don’t want to deal with ruptured relationships in circles 2-6.”

He mixes truth and error so subtly. Come on, fella! In evangelicalism, no one is doing Person X or Person Y evangelism anymore. It’s been decades since that was part of the church culture. I mean, “many of us would rather focus” on witnessing to strangers?!? On what planet? The truth he cites, however, is that many genuine Christians are cowards with respect to preaching to their family members or relatives. Why? Because they fear rejection, they fear producing conflict in the relationship, they fear endangering the civility of the relationship . . . but apparently they don’t fear the prospect of mom or dad or Aunt Betty dying and going to Hell. Many do, in fact, prefer maintaining peace, even if it means someone close goes to Hell without a warning.

If that’s your problem, face up to it, repent, and seek out that loved one today . . . now . . . yes, I mean right now!!

The author seems to make a law, however, out of restoring damaged relationships in order to share the Gospel. He has some great anecdotes of how a Christian young man, for example, estranged from his father, went and restored the relationship, eventually leading his dad to come to know the Lord. Wonderful. I’m for that!

In practice and by Biblical precedent, however, relationships cannot always be restored, especially “at any cost,” which is effectively what the book teaches. Note Luke 12:51-53, for instance. Sometimes it is the Gospel that divides. The father may be divided against the son BECAUSE the son is a Christian. The worst thing the son can do, in that case, is to restore the relationship “at any cost,” namely by emasculating his own witness . . . playing by dad’s rules, perhaps, that we will never discuss the matter! Many Christians do play by such rules, keeping peace in the family, and making the relatives more comfortable in their lost condition, while the clock ticks toward judgment. From the lost relative’s point of view, since the Christian caved so readily, maybe his convictions aren’t so serious after all.

The text encourages the reader to prepare a personal testimony, “so that you will be prepared to share Christ when opportunities arise.” Sounds good, theoretically. But opportunities hardly ever “arise.” The witness must create opportunities. The worldly fellow doesn’t help you. And the only way to effectively create opportunities is to be well practiced . . . going after Person Y as a regularly scheduled part of your life.

The author includes an interesting anecdote about sitting next to a Hollywood producer on an airline flight. He was able to get the conversation steered onto spiritual matters. It turned out that the lost fellow had been under conviction, having actually prayed that God would send him someone to help him fix the relationship problems he had within his family and at work. He finally pleaded, “God sent you. Now what do I do?”

Wow. That’s a great opportunity, akin to that of the Philippian jailer with Paul and Silas, or the Roman centurion, Cornelius, with Peter. So what does our expert say?

”The first thing you have to do is surrender to the absolute authority of Jesus Christ and let Him be the Master of your life. You have to accept His conditions for coming to God. You cannot come on your own conditions. If you read the biography of every great Christian in history, you find something interesting. George Whitefield, John Wesley . . . intensely struggled in their search for God. All of them had one basic problem: though they were seeking God with all their hearts, they were seeking Him on their conditions. Only when they abandoned their conditions in coming to God did God accept them. When each one finally gave up and said, ‘I will accept your conditions, whatever they are and whatever they cost me,’ then instantly, immediately, God revealed Himself.”

When the fellow got off the plane, he said, “Thank you, Oscar. I have needed this all my life.”

Hmm. No explanation of God’s law, sin, judgment, repentance, faith, the shed blood and the resurrection of Christ, or the new birth. He never told the fellow that his BIG PROBLEM was not his relational issues with people, but that he was condemned under God’s law and needs forgiveness . . . he needs Jesus as Savior and Lord. And that repentance and the new birth would likely mean leaving the Hollywood cess pool behind . . . or getting kicked out because your co-workers can’t stand to have a Christian around them.

You might think, perhaps, that the author mentioned such truths, but didn’t tell us in this book. Please. When speakers or authors relate their best anecdotes, they don’t leave the good and important stuff out. This author clearly doesn’t understand how to present what man must do to be saved.

Other parts of the book do mention sin, forgiveness, and eternal life, but the explanation is not cohesive. For example, in a sidebar entitled, “Establishing a Relationship with Jesus Christ,” one of the bullets explains, “Ask Him to forgive you, and to release you from the guilt of your past.”
This is psycho-babble. The problem is NOT my guilty feelings that need assuaging. The problem is my just condemnation for willfully violating God’s laws. Another bullet says, “Invite Him to come into your life and become your Lord. Pledge to follow Him.” This is not the same as repentance, although there is a correlation. Frankly, the language is not Scriptural. Modern evangelists seem to despise Biblical language. Most tragically, his fifth and final bullet says, “If you need more help, talk to a Christian friend or a pastor.” Hopefully, someone who knows a lot more than what this book teaches!

The last point I’ll bring up is perhaps the worst of all. It is no coincidence that Circle #1, the innermost, is labeled “Self.” He cites Matthew 19:19 which includes, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Here’s what the author says about this verse: “God wants you to feel good about you. He doesn’t want you to try and cover up the real you. You cannot love others without first loving yourself. You have to feel good about you.”

Cringe. Gut-wrenching pain. Nausea. He just turned the Bible upside down, didn’t he? But this is where much of evangelicalism is today. Forget the consistent Biblical admonitions to humble ourselves (James 4:10), to not think of ourselves so highly (Rom 12:3), to esteem others better than ourselves (Phil 2:3) . . . I could go on . . . really, I could. I observe that the Pharisee in the parable of Luke 18 had plenty of self-esteem, but it was the publican, who abased himself, who went back to his house justified. Be honest. We all love ourselves. The everlasting battle is to squash that self-love and take on the mind of Christ. Only if we are suitably humble can we convey the vital need for humility and repentance that must envelop the lost sinner.

But enough of this book. Let me finish this blog with a little report on how my field trip turned out. I attended the first class session the next week. The pastor was gracious enough to give me a minute to share why I was there. This, approximately, was my 60-second pitch:

“My wife and I moved to Arizona a year ago. I was blessed several years ago to retire and do street evangelism in northern Illinois, especially in downtown Chicago, passing out tracts and sharing the Gospel 121. Since we moved here I’ve been doing 121 evangelism on a couple of local campuses. College students are really easy to talk to and I get to meet young people from all over the world. What I’m looking for is a man who can simply walk and talk, who might join me every once in a great while. I’ll do the driving. I’ll supply the tracts. I’ll coach him if need be. I’m just looking for someone interested. I’ll buy you lunch and we’ll talk about it. No need to make a commitment now.”

I could tell I had riveted the attention of everyone in the class. At the end of class, and for the next half hour before the morning service began, I wandered around the auditorium, making myself quite visible. One fellow approached me to shake my hand. He recognized my name, because he was the one who sent me the form letter I’d received that week, due to my previous visit. When I gave him a 30-second version of my pitch and asked him if he’d be interested in having lunch with me to discuss the possibility, he responded something like this:

Him: “You know, I’d probably be interested in joining you, but I’m just so busy around here.”
Me: “You mean here, around the church?”
Him: “Yes, you see, I’m the church’s administrator and treasurer.”
Me: “So you do that full time?”
Him: “Yes, full time, every week.”
Me: “You know, you need to be careful that you’re not so busy with church work that you can’t take even a couple of hours to do some of God’s work.”

He excused himself very quickly, in a hurry to go chat with someone about 20 feet away.

The previous week, another fellow, one of the deacons, had introduced himself. I asked him if the church were active in doing the Great Commission, whether they cared about lost souls. He assured me they were and answered my questions about the upcoming “Witnessing” class. I gave him a 30-second pitch, to which he responded . . .

Him: “The trouble around here is that there are so many gated communities. It’s hard to get access to people.”
Me: “Since we moved here last year, we’ve been driving around a lot and I’ve noticed how many un-gated communities there are! And also, there’s this big college campus just 20 minutes up the road where we can just walk and talk and witness to college students.”
Him: “They let you do that up there?”
Me: “Oh sure. The campus is open and lots of people seem to walk on and set up booths, pass out pamphlets . . . I’ve even seen open air speakers.”

He didn’t have any response to that, but encouraged me to sign up for the class since I was interested.

After the morning service, that second Sunday, I hung around the auditorium and then the lobby to make sure that anyone who wanted to find me would be able to. You see, there’s this little boy inside me that’s always hopeful. Silly, I know, but I kind of like the little guy. In the service, the pastor said quite motivating things about reaching out with the Gospel, affirmed their church’s commitment to missions, and received appropriate “Amen’s” and other affirmations from the congregation. This is a congregation that is committed to doing God’s work in getting the Gospel out!

One old fellow sees me and enthusiastically asks,
Him: “Are you that pastor from Chicago?”
Me: “I’m not a pastor, but I’m a guy from Chicago.” He explained that his wife had been in the Sunday School class. Clearly, she concluded that the only conceivable explanation for me doing street evangelism in Chicago was that I was a pastor there. He went on to say that we must have something in common. At that, the little guy inside got a little excited. But the “in common” was a hope that I knew some of the same pastoral types that he knew in the metro area. No such luck, it turned out.

So I gave him the 30-second pitch. He got really nervous, even when I just suggested lunch sometime. Rather than simply say that he had absolutely no interest in condescending to share the Gospel with no-account lost people, he explained that he had a hard time standing up for very long. This is a fellow who sings in the choir, had been standing up for several minutes after the service, and was standing and talking to me for several minutes. I explained that there were plenty of places to sit down on campus, and I could bring a chair along. Even if he sat down for 10 minutes for every 2 he stood up, we would have a good day.

Since he had no response to that, I gave him a couple of card tracts with my phone number and web site. Said he could call or email. I asked him if he had an email address. He got really nervous at that, saying, “Uh, uh, you’ll get my email address if I send you something.” I honestly wasn’t prying to get his email address . . . just wanted to make sure he had one. Anyway, he left in a hurry, too.

Sigh. I won’t be going back. Once the little guy recovers a bit, I’ve got another church to scout in the near future.

Comments are closed.