In Christ God has worked powerfully in order to reconcile people to Himself (Ephesians 2:1-3:12); as God is One in relational unity, thus He desires to share in relational unity with mankind and for people to share in relational unity with one another (John 14:1-3, 21-23, 17:20-23).
Modern Christendom has made much of the vertical aspect of this relational unity: most forms of Gospel proclamation are to the end of encouraging a person to “make a decision for Christ,” to “get saved.” Such an emphasis makes sense in a culture which exalts the individual as him or herself, but it sits uncomfortably with the message of the Gospel itself. We can see why when we consider what happens to a good number of those people who make that decision for Christ and “get saved” in the moment of crisis: they are made to feel comfortable with their standing with the Lord, and do not participate in the life of the Lord’s Body, the church (Ephesians 1:20-23). Their individual condition and standing has been addressed, or so it would seem.
None should minimize the importance of a person making themselves right with God in Christ and coming to faith in Him; and yet the Gospel consistently calls for people to jointly participate in the life of faith with one another (Ephesians 2:1-3:12). Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23 is for people to be relationally unified with one another in God in Christ; not for nothing did Paul emphasize how all who are baptized are baptized in one Spirit into one body, and are to jointly participate in that body (1 Corinthians 12:12-28). Any Gospel which does not direct the hearer to relational unity with his or her fellow man in God in Christ is not sufficient or complete.
To this end relational evangelism is a powerful means by which the Gospel is communicated and embodied. Relational evangelism involves fostering and nurturing relationships in order to embody and proclaim Jesus as Lord and Christ.
Relational evangelism might well be a primary posture of evangelism for many toward those in their community. To this end Christians develop associations and connections with the people around them. They get to know these people and allow these people to get to know them. They can embody Jesus’ essential character toward their neighbors, manifesting sacrificial love among one another and toward their fellow community members (cf. John 13:31-35). In so doing they can gain the trust of those around them; if they gain trust, they will then look for the opportunity to share the good news of the life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return of Jesus of Nazareth with them. That moment might come because enough trust has been generated that the message can be heard. Perhaps the people themselves wanted to hear it because they noticed the distinctiveness of the life and ways of the Christian. Perhaps they would not otherwise listen but experience a crisis moment and turn to the Christian for wisdom and guidance. Regardless, the proclamation of the Gospel will come with greater power and influence in these situations because of the trust built up in the relationship: people anymore are inundated with information; they seek to figure out who to trust, and they will give a lot of credence to anything said by those in whom they have placed this trust.
Yet relational evangelism will also prove important for those who have heard the Gospel through other means. No matter how one has heard of what God has accomplished in Jesus, at some point the person must connect with the people of God in order to continue to grow in relational unity with God and with fellow Christians (John 17:20-23, Hebrews 10:19-25). A person who has come to faith through hearing the Gospel in a “cold call” situation, has been invited to hear of Jesus, or through any other means will develop some kind of spiritual relationship with the ones with whom they study or hear of Jesus. If no deliberate action is taken to incorporate such people into the lives of fellow Christians in faith, far too many will prove rocky or thorny soils, and the implanted Word will not bear fruit (cf. Matthew 13:1-8). Newer Christians must be incorporated into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-28); it is incumbent on more mature Christians to display the hospitality required to foster and nurture those relationships (1 Peter 4:9).
Relational evangelism proves powerful in its working; yet we must be on guard regarding the pitfalls of maintaining the pretense of relational evangelism without the substance thereof. We must be on guard lest we look at fellow human beings as “prospects” and develop transactional or utilitarian relationships in which our only purpose is to evangelize them. Our love for others must be without hypocrisy; we must show genuine love and interest in other people in our community, and prove willing to maintain that relationship even if the proclamation of the Gospel is rebuffed at first. If people have felt used as we have tried to proclaim Jesus to them, we have not represented Jesus well in our efforts. We must also keep the “evangelism” in relational evangelism: we should never assume that just embodying Jesus to people is sufficient for them to come to a saving faith in His name. We must look for the opportunity given in trust to actually tell the people with whom we have developed these relationships about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return. Knowing how and when requires patience, discretion, faith, and wisdom from the Lord; but if we never tell the people with whom we have developed relationships about Jesus, we have not truly participated in relational evangelism.
Ultimately, all evangelism ought to be seen in relational terms: Jesus lived, died, rose, ascended, rules, and will return soon in order to reconcile us all to God and to one another (Romans 5:1-11, 1 John 4:7-21). If our efforts in evangelism do not direct people to share in relational unity with God in Christ through the Spirit and also with one another in Jesus, then our evangelism is not accomplishing its mission (Ephesians 2:1-3:12). If we are not growing in relational unity with God in Christ and with one another in Jesus, our faith is not productive, and we cannot truly and effectively embody Jesus toward others in the proclamation of the Gospel (John 15:1-11, 17:20-23, Ephesians 4:11-16). Evangelism is never an end unto itself; to proclaim the Gospel is to invite our fellow man to share in life with us in Christ. God Himself, after all, is one in relational unity, and we are made in His image (Genesis 1:26-27); the portrayal of the consummation of all things features redeemed humanity in the resurrection basking in the continual presence and glory of God (Revelation 21:1-22:6). May we proclaim the Gospel of the Lord Jesus to all, manifesting relational unity with God and one another, and inviting others to share in that relational unity now and forevermore!
Ethan R. Longhenry