The word “relational” gets thrown around a great deal when discussing evangelism. Just what that means deserves a closer examination. Allow me to illustrate one way I have in mind. I had many questions about faith before I made a decision to follow Jesus in my early 20s. One of the things that compelled me to become a disciple of Jesus Christ was the honest and open engagement with Christian friends who cared about me. Just such a relationship was as much a force in my Christian conversion as anything else. Maybe I am not alone.
As I reflect on those days, one incident sticks out. I was out for dinner with a group of friends. As we sat out on the balcony enjoying a beautiful fall evening, we could hear someone preaching on a nearby corner. We could not make out much of what he said, but it was obvious that his message was one of condemnation for all in earshot. I listened to my friends ridicule him and the message he was offering.
A few days later, these same friends and I were having deep conversations about faith with a Christian neighbor. Her steady, calming, loving answers to our doubts and questions about faith told us that she cared about us. You see, my friends and I were not disinterested in faith, as our dismissal for the street preacher may have suggested. Rather, we wanted to engage in discussions of faith with someone who cared about us and was willing to be involved in our lives to prove it.
A recent survey (see Bryan Stone’s work at Boston University’s Center for Practical Theology has affirmed that the role of relationships is paramount in faith sharing. Across all major streams of American Christianity, mainline, Catholic/Orthodox, and evangelical people frequently reported that making a decision to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is an inter-personal matter. The survey revealed that the three most influential things that lead to Christian conversion are:
- A spouse/partner
- A minister (especially that minister’s preaching)
- A particular congregation
Near the bottom of the list were things like television/radio and evangelistic events. Notice that the more personal and relational aspects of the life of faith have a greater impact on one’s decision to follow Christ. The more programmatic or impersonal seem to be less effective. I share this not to cast aspersions on the efforts of those who hold large-scale evangelism events or broadcast a Bible study over the radio. However, I do offer it to challenge some of the assumptions about who are the evangelists in our churches and our communities. It often is not the “professional” who is all but unknown to the members of the audience pushing people to make a decision. Maybe the cliché has credence: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
So how can we translate such findings to our own ministry contexts? First, the role of a spouse in the role of faith formation can be vital. For those of you who are praying for your spouse, keep it up! Be encouraged as you minister to your spouse and know that you are not alone. Lean on your pastor or a trusted friend to walk alongside you in this journey.
Second, if you are a minister serving a church, your relationships with the believers and unbelievers in your community (and the pews) are so important. Stone also reminds us of the importance of preaching in evangelism. The opportunity to preach week in, week out is a gift. While there are dozens of pressures that may demand your time each week, preaching is tantamount. Be intentional about the time you set aside for the sacred space of sermon preparation. Notice the difference between this type of preaching and one I mentioned earlier is the personal relationship of the minister. Take time to unpack your sermons through conversation in the public spaces: the coffee shops, soccer fields, and park benches in the community where you serve.
Third, the culture of the congregation is crucial. Many visiting a church will decide if they are coming back long before the notes of the first song are ever played. Rather, the greeting they received at the front door, the help they got finding the nursery, or the handshake they got as they found their seat all go a long way to helping them determine if they will return.
Thinking of faith-sharing along these lines also leads us away from looking for another off-the-shelf program to try next month in our churches. It encourages us instead to think of faith-sharing as a way of life. I am thankful for my friend who saw it that way. I pray that someone sees you and me that way too.