I am ashamed to confess that I have left more than one conversation gospel-less, even this week. I knew the Holy Spirit was impressing on my heart the opportunity to share the hope that is found only in Christ Jesus, but I chose to talk about something else—anything else—instead. In the moment, I was convinced that we just did not have the kind of relationship that was really needed for that kind of spiritual conversation. Besides, our time together was too short. There was too much noise. Or too much baggage. And I was busy doing good, spiritual things. No worries, though, since he had probably already heard it a hundred times anyway. So why would he listen to a guy he had never even met? “Relationships are key,” I exonerate myself. Then I commit to praying that one of his friends who is a Christian will find the courage to share with him what my cowardice robbed from him.
And another appointed moment fades into missed opportunity.
In a recent study, Barna Research reported that more than sixty percent of practicing Christians prefer to have “spiritual conversations” with “a friend.” To be sure, holding spiritual conversations with trusted friends lowers the likelihood of anxiety for the gospel-sharer. Trust is both the root and the fruit of deep relationships. It follows then, the author suggests, that the more trust one builds with a friend the more appropriate it becomes to hold a spiritual conversation with him or her. “One implication of this research is the importance of Christians being friends with non-Christians. Not only are Christians called to ‘love our neighbors,’ but developing trusting friendships with our neighbors is an important precondition for having spiritual conversations. We have to gain a hearing before being able to share our faith… trust is a prerequisite for spiritual conversations.”
Are we placing too much importance on building relational equity when it comes to personal evangelistic witness? I have no problem with the author’s exhortation for Christians like me to be more intentional about building friendships with non-Christians. Neither would I question, in the context of gospel-sharing, the value of gaining the trust of friends through intentionally building relational equity over time. But as a “precondition” to or a “prerequisite” for sharing the gospel? As a necessity to “gain a hearing before being able to share our faith”?
Does the gospel not have the power to win its own hearing?
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Throughout the pages of the Bible the words of God thunder with majestic roar (Ps. 18:13), whisper in solemn stillness (1 Ki. 19:12), engrave with stone-cutting authority (Du. 9:10), and dissect with surgical precision (Hb. 4:12). Jesus rebuked the wind, and it hushed (Mk. 4:39). He blessed the loaves, and they multiplied (Lu. 9:16). He spoke to illness, and it left the body (Mt. 8:13). He admonished demons, and they fled (Lu. 8:32). Wherever and whenever God speaks, power and authority follow.
If the words of the gospel are life-giving truth, revealed in the word of God and testified-to by the witness of faithful men and women through the ages, shouldn’t we have confidence that the power of that word can pierce through the awkwardness of any moment? Shouldn’t we believe that the word of God is powerful to affect its purpose in any and every circumstance? Shouldn’t we have more confidence in the faithful sharing of the simple gospel message than in our own ability to bank and eventually draw upon relational equity with friends?
“I am not ashamed of the gospel,” declared the most renown evangelist of his day, “because it is the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). Did you catch that from the Apostle Paul? The gospel doesn’t just have power. The gospel is power. Meaningful relationships have no power to offer the gospel. Rather, it is the gospel that offers power and purpose to meaningful relationships. Sure, the power of God can often ride the backs of healthy relationships, and it is a gift from God that it would! But it doesn’t need to. It doesn’t have to. The gospel is powerful and effective, all on its own.
In Acts Chapter Eight, had Philip strategically built relational equity with the Ethiopian eunuch before sharing the gospel with him? No. To the contrary, the Spirit of God told him to go, so he went and shared the gospel. The simple message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ raised that man from death to life at the moment of his belief. Power.
In Acts Chapter Eleven, does the narrative allow for the strategic building of relationships over time before scattered Judean believers proclaimed the good news about Jesus to the inhabitants of those faraway lands? No. Rather, they went, “proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord” (Ac. 11:20-21). Power.
In Acts Chapter Sixteen, had Paul invested any length of time into building relational capital with Lydia before she heard him speak the simple gospel message on the banks of the river? No. By contrast, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying,” then “she and her household were baptized” (Ac. 16:14-15). Power.
Much could be said about the New Testament’s record of those who came to faith in Christ on the shoulders of meaningful relationship built over time: from “home to home” in Jerusalem (Ac. 2:46); Crispus beside the synagogue in Corinth (Ac. 18:1-8); Zacchaeus and Matthew’s evangelistic house parties (Lu. 19, Mt. 9); and many more. It is not my intent to disregard evangelism done in the context of meaningful relationship. I do intend to disagree, however, with the increasingly popular notion that relational equity is necessary for, or is in some way a “prerequisite” to, the effective sharing of the gospel with non-Christians.
Relational equity is not preconditional to effective gospel witness. Certainly, the trust that comes along with seasoned, healthy relationships can build effective bridges to the gospel. But the gospel message itself can part even the most tumultuous of interpersonal waters. We don’t make a way for the gospel. The gospel makes its own way, and we are invited into the joy of that moment through obedient and consistent, faith-filled witness.
The trendy argument that healthy relationships are necessary for effective evangelism is more ad populum than ad veritatum. It’s what we want to hear, not what we need to hear. I am thankful for those who put so much effort into statistical Christian research with an eye on strengthening churches toward effective evangelistic growth. But as the Bible teaches and history demonstrates, as important as healthy relationships are to the human experience, relational equity is not a prerequisite to effective gospel witness. Gospel power transcends relational equity.
The gospel doesn’t need your relational influence. It just needs your faithful witness.
“The gospel doesn’t need your relational influence. It just needs your faithful witness.”Tweet
Don Everts, The Reluctant Witness: Discovering the Delight of Spiritual Conversations (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2019), 70.
Everts, The Reluctant Witness, 69-71.