When the word “evangelism” is uttered, a lot of our people immediately think of street preachers, passing out tracks in the mall, or riding a bike through the neighborhood wearing a white shirt and black pants. Or, worse yet, they assume it is a job for the pastor and staff because they have been trained to do it. Others might even equate evangelism with marketing and assume that is a function of the church’s strategic plan.
Obviously, all these are common misconceptions about evangelism. It’s a church word that most lay people don’t understand fully and it can be quite intimidating. Add the word relational to evangelism and it becomes downright terrifying. But this is exactly what Jesus commanded us to do as his followers; to relate to people that are hurting or hopeless and connect them with the miraculous Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, our evangelism efforts are falling short because fewer people are going to church and worse yet; thousands of churches haven’t created a new follower of Jesus in years. So how do we change these trends? All of us as followers of Jesus have to tell our stories to people that aren’t followers of Jesus. It’s easy, right?!?!?
What is relational evangelism? It is simply introducing the people that you know and love to the story of Jesus and how a relationship with him can change their lives. When pressed to share their stories with their friends, most in our congregation will respond, “I let the way I live my life do the talking.” That is definitely part of the process because we have to be authentic and genuine in our faith, but we aren’t always good and some situations or parts of our lives aren’t very Christ-like. The reason that we have to motivate and encourage our people to be proactive is that our actions only tell half of the story. Others see us loving our neighbor and serving the poor, but they don’t understand why! We have to tell them how a relationship with Jesus changed our life and is the motivation for doing the things we do.
A great example of relational evangelism is found in the story I related in my last blog post, Will My Story Help?, about the Apostle Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. We don’t know if Phillip had a prior relationship or meeting with the Queen’s emissary, but we do know that he was following the lead of the Holy Spirit. The example Phillip sets for all of us is that he got into the chariot and helped the man connect the writings of Isaiah to the life and grace of Jesus Christ. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying, we shouldn’t jump into cars with strangers all the time and start teaching out of Isaiah. What I am suggesting is that we follow the lead of the Spirit into situations where we can share our stories to connect people to Jesus.
Why is this important? Unfortunately in our society today, we don’t regularly encounter non-Christians who are studying the Bible and need help understanding what they are reading. As a matter of fact, the days are long gone when we could erect a steeple on a new church building and people from all around would flood through the doors. In today’s post-Christian culture, there are many ways that we can “soothe our souls” from self-help courses to drugs and alcohol. We are bombarded with hundreds of messages daily about how we can live longer and better lives through the remedy of the day. Plus, we all have our “wilderness experiences” and we assume no one else would understand or we don’t want to bother anyone with our problems. Men are particularly prideful when it comes to enduring the tough times. You may not have an Oscar-worthy transformation story, but we all have endured the wilderness and sometimes the best way we can “tell our story” is to shut up and listen.
These alternative gospels and wilderness journeys are exactly why we need to help our people understand relational evangelism and how they can connect people with Jesus. We all have friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, or whoever that are struggling in life and we don’t how to help. At some point in time, the opportunity will arise when they will ask for advice or help or a conversation will turn serious and they will be transparent about their issues. Will the people in our churches “jump into the chariot” with these people or will they deflect the conversation to something less dangerous?
How do we teach our people to engage? One of the biggest reasons that our folks won’t engage people with their story is because they aren’t prepared to tell their story. We haven’t given them the opportunities to explore their stories, to prepare for situations to tell their stories, and understand the life-changing impact their story can have on another human being. In many situations, (especially us guys), when someone becomes vulnerable and opens up to us it can make us feel somewhat uncomfortable. Part of the discomfort comes from our lack of understanding how to best respond in those sensitive situations. Understanding our own stories can at least mitigate some of the discomfort and help us to share thoughts or ideas that can be truly helpful.
How do we help prepare our people for these conversations? I think first and foremost, we as leaders have to model this behavior with our people and help the folks closest to us master this skill. If our people don’t see us living out this core value in our lives, they won’t live it out in their lives. If it is important (and it is), then we should make it a priority by offering classes on sharing our stories or resources to our Sunday school classes and small groups. A tried and true resource is the book and accompanying study, Becoming a Contagious Christian, by Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg. The biggest benefit from this study is that participants will actually work through verbalizing their own stories. There are many great books, videos, and studies out there, find one or record one yourself that fits your church and culture.
So, when was the last time you jumped into a chariot…