Monday, August 5, 2013

Relationship Evangelism—Does it miss the point?

Through the years, it has been proven that the majority of faithful followers of Jesus were led to the Lord by a friend, family member, co-worker or neighbor. In fact the statistics on this are staggeringly high, in some cases over 90%. While stranger evangelism can be effective at times and conversion experiences that depend upon mass events or multi-media presentations can be effective at the point of decision, relationships influence people the most when they are a considering whether or not they want to follow Jesus.

The logical conclusion then is to train Christians in relationship evangelism. In contrast to things like door-to-door witnessing, handing out tracts, or organizing evangelistic rallies, the most effective evangelism strategy is relational. This is demonstrated by a book I read years ago entitled Making Friends for Christ. I've led seminars where I trained small group leaders to use a poster where group members would make a list of friends and neighbors for whom they could pray. I've befriended neighbors, restaurant owners, and co-workers with the intent of exposing them to the Gospel. If we want to see people embark upon a journey with Christ then Christians must develop relationships with non-Christians.

In my first book, I wrote about a strategy for relationship evangelism. It included five steps:
  • Target one.
  • Pray.
  • Pray together with your group.
  • Work on the relationship.
  • Do fun things.
I wrote: "Every group member is told to target one person. That small group member will spend time praying for this person, seeking God as to how to minister to her. The small group will pray together for all of the people that have been targeted. Each member will work on the relationship with the nonbeliever, and then the group will plan fun things that the nonbelievers would be willing to do."

These fun things are often called "Matthew Parties" because Jesus began his relationship with Matthew by going to a party that included religious outcasts. The goal is the create a non-religious environment where Christians can naturally rub shoulders with those who don't know Jesus.

Over the years, I've grown suspicious of this approach. Something about it did not feel right. I began to ask What kind of relationship are we actually demonstrating to non-Christians, the kind that only loves them because we want them to become one of us? However, I had not really thought though my intuitions until I read The Relational Pastor by Andrew Root. There are many, many great things I'd like to say about this book. Here I want to focus on a couple of quotes:

"So-called friendship evangelism does not love the person; the love of person has no ends, it only acts so that the beloved can live and love. Friendship evangelism actually loves the idea, the third thing it is trying to get people to know, do or come to. In friendship evangelism I don't really love the person, but the idea of church membership, the idea of converting you. I love not you but the thing I'm using the relationship to get you to do." (66).

Upon first reading this it might seem too harshly stated. These words are challenging long-held beliefs about the way effective evangelism works. In addition, isn't it loving to point them to the Gospel since Jesus is the only thing that can help them "live and love." However, he is not challenging the reality that the Gospel most easily spreads across relational lines. Nor is he saying that abundant life is not found in Jesus. He's actually pointing out the fact that if we are going to have loving relationships we need to relate to neighbors, co-workers, family members, and friends in a such a way that we actually encounter them in the relationships instead of using the relationship to get something from them. If we are trying to get them to line up with our beliefs and ideals and are not demonstrating the Gospel. We are peddling it.

In my book Difference Makers, I talk about two sets of relationships where we can make a difference through our relationships. The first is neighbors and the second is networks, which might include relatives, connections made through work, club memberships and the like. I then encourage readers to draw a tic-tac-toe box for each. For the one marked "Neighbors," write all the names of the people who live around you. For "Networks," write those closest to you in your various networks of relating.

I still believe that God will speak to those who don't know God through our relationships with them. I'm just no longer a fan of relationship evangelism because we so easily relate to get something from unbelievers, which means that we do not relate well. We don't befriend in order to convert them or influence them to change. Root states, "Friendship can have no goal of influence—it seeks only to share our place, to invite us to share in the life of the other." We befriend in order to love neighbors and those in our networks because we are created to give and receive love. This is who God made us to be. Love is only love when love is the end, not the means to the end of "getting people saved and in our churches." In this encounter, they may very well see Jesus. We might have opportunity to share the Gospel. But if our aim is to get people that point of hearing the Gospel, then we are focused not on loving the person, but on some kind of ideal that is less than God's kind of relational love.

No comments: