Should we only share the gospel after first forming close relationships with people?
There is the ideal, and then there is the real. Sometimes they overlap, but often they do not. This is true when it comes to how Christians think about and do evangelism. Let me begin by sharing three things (of many) that I have heard on this issue over the years.
Some decades ago a Christian gal told me she was not into evangelism – certainly not into sharing Christ with strangers, preaching on street corners, and so on. She said she preferred just building relationships with people. And some years ago a Christian leader told me that believers need to first earn the right to share the gospel with non-Christians.
And just days ago someone said in a comment on this site that she is into friendship evangelism, since she is done with ‘the wagging finger scenario’. How should we assess such remarks? Let me briefly look at the ideal, and then the reality.
Is it a good thing to make friends, build relationships with them, and in that setting share your faith? Yes, generally speaking it is. In one sense people may be more open to hearing the gospel if they know you and have a good relationship with you.
Hearing the gospel from a close Christian friend over a cup of coffee or a nice meal can make for a welcoming and receptive environment. And if non-Christians know you well, and can hopefully see your life of integrity and sincerity, that can be of help when you share the good news.
And since getting people to accept gospel truths can take some time as the Spirit works in that person’s life, having an ongoing relationship with someone as you try to bring truth into their life is also a good thing. So there certainly is a place for evangelising with those you know, know well, and have known for a while
But… the reality
All that I mentioned above is the ideal. And sometimes it can be real. But we have other realities to deal with as well. Let me mention several of them. First, we cannot ignore the many biblical commands to evangelise and to proclaim the gospel.
The Great Commission is of course one such clear command: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
There is no stipulation here that we should only evangelise after we have first established a nice relationship with our non-Christian friends, or that we can only evangelise after we have ‘earned the right to speak’ to them. We are simply ordered to go and to share the truth.
Sure, as with most things in the Christian life, we are to do so prayerfully and wisely and prudently. Some times may be better than others for sharing the gospel. If a person is running late for an urgent appointment with a doctor, waylaying that person and trying to pin him down for a half hour with a lengthy gospel presentation may not be very wise or helpful. So of course we need tact, discernment and wisdom as to when, where and how we share.
But simply consider Jesus, the disciples, and two thousand years of church history when it comes to evangelism. In so many cases they all simply started preaching and witnessing to complete strangers. They would go from place to place, open their mouths, and evangelise. For the most part they did not wait for a written invitation, and they did not seek to first establish a close personal relationship with their listeners.
When Jesus and the apostles and early disciples went up to complete strangers and crowds of unknown people and told them to repent (and that was indeed their core message), they of course would have upset many, offended many, and enraged many. But so what? Such ‘finger-wagging’ is just what they needed.
Again, there may be certain times that will be better than others to evangelise. But Paul said that we are to preach the word both “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). Or as the NRSV puts it, “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable”.
And then we need to keep in mind the urgency of the task. People NEED to hear the gospel, whether they want to or not. That unsaved neighbour that you have been meaning to share the gospel with for years, but keep putting it off, could die tonight. Then it will be too late.
In one way we need to capture a sense of urgency here. We need to see how everyone in a sense is living in a state of emergency. As such we do not always have the luxury of waiting around, hoping to one day build a relationship. Some things just can’t wait.
If you are driving home and spot a house on fire, you do NOT say to yourself, ‘Well, I don’t know this person and I do not have a relationship with him, so who am I to stop and warn him? That would be unloving of me and counterproductive to interfere in his life.’ Baloney, if you cared at all about the person – if you loved your neighbour as yourself – you would let him know immediately.
As I said last year when Israel Folau was under fire from some armchair Christian critics about the way he shared Scriptural truth:
Sure, we all want to be tactful and careful as we share biblical truth in public. But we also need some Holy Ghost boldness here. If you see a little girl playing on the street and a big truck hurtling her way, if you cared at all, you would yell, scream, jump up and down and do all you can to save her.
You would NOT try to be polite, respectful and calm, making sure no one gets offended. You would act quickly and sound the alarm because a life is at risk. Folau gets it: all people are sinners and they are all heading to a lost eternity unless they repent.
They must be warned. They must be told. Sure, it is always nice if this can be done over a period of time with a nice relationship established. But we do not always have that luxury. Some of the people who read Folau’s warnings today may well be dead tomorrow.
In the same way hoping to build a relationship with the little girl first would be madness. Whether she is a friend, relative, or a complete stranger, she NEEDS that warning or she will die. All unbelievers need such warnings too. Yet most Christians have never shared their faith even once.
They are far too cowardly and too spineless. They would rather keep people happy, even if it means watching them slide into a lost eternity. I may not always do things as Folau does them, but I will give him credit. He has more guts than most believers. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/04/11/israel-folau-the-apostle-paul-and-the-gospel/
In sum, while sharing the gospel with close friends and family members is part of our task as Christians, we are also called to share the good news even with strangers and even at a moment’s notice. While we do not minimise the place of friendship evangelism, we do need to get real here as to why so many Christians are not sharing their faith.
A good part of the reason why many Christians run with the ‘we must build a relationship first’ line is the simple fact that they are afraid to share their faith in public. They are intimidated about making a public stance for Christ. They are often ashamed of any public display of their faith. Often it is just plain disobedience to the clear commands of Christ that is involved.
If that is the case, making cheap excuses just will not do. The first step is to repent of our unwillingness to do what we are commanded to do. And we need to repent of our fear, our men-pleasing, and our desire to be liked by everyone. When you share the gospel you will be rejected, hated on, and rebuffed by many. That is just the way it is.
But some people will respond to the gospel message in the end, and you will be one link in the chain to their eventual salvation. Some people plant seeds, some water, and some others enjoy the harvest, as Paul said. We all have a role to play here – and we must play it.
By all means keep building relationships when and where possible with the lost. But stop rejecting the clear mandate to make disciples of all nations. We must instead emulate Paul when he said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).