What picture pops into your head when you hear the word “evangelism”? Someone shouting through a bullhorn downtown? Door knocking and handing out religious tracts? Arguments about evolution and radiocarbon dating with non-believers? As a youth, I only pictured these types of things. I’m sure there are people who have come to faith by these methods, but personally I sort of cringe at the thought of doing them. That cringe is only partly because I’m not brave enough to stand on a street corner shouting through a bullhorn. Mostly I cringe because of how impersonal and potentially abrasive these methods can be to non-believers. For those of you who also may cringe at the aforementioned methods, you’ll be happy, like I was, to hear that this is not the only way to evangelize. For those of you who are big believers in these methods, let me explain why we have concluded that they may not be the most effective style in metropolitan Arequipa, Peru in the year 2016.
Our mission team strategy is to use relational evangelism. Relational evangelism is very… relational. It capitalizes on the intimacy and trust of existing relationships as a platform for sharing the gospel of Jesus. The idea is that you start sharing the gospel with friends and family. They, in turn, share with their friends and family, and so on. It’s sort of a six-degrees-of-separation strategy of getting the word out, ending with everyone right down to Kevin Bacon having a chance to hear the gospel. We also believe that if we make a friend and he/she isn’t interested in becoming a Christian, we end up with a friend all the same. We believe in being open about our faith, but loving people unconditionally, as God does (Matt. 5:45), not just for the sake of conversions.
I recently came across two separate studies that concluded that about 75-90% of converts to Christianity directly attributed their conversion to the efforts of a close friend or family member. The problem is that we moved to Peru where we started with very few friends and no family. That’s why one of our team goals is to involve ourselves in several social networks (i.e. neighborhood associations, sports teams, savings groups, etc.). The late Christian writer and evangelist Chuck Colson wrote, “We must enter into the stories of the surrounding culture, which takes real listening. This means we build relationships with people who don’t believe and we connect with the literature, music, theater, arts, and issues that express the existing culture’s hopes, dreams, and fears. This builds a bridge by which we can show how the Gospel can enter and transform those stories.” I think the apostle John describes Jesus doing this when he says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
In a similar study to the one Justin cited in his newsletter article in January, the World Values Survey asked the question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” In Peru, only 6.3% of people surveyed said that they thought most people could be trusted. This was the fourth lowest average among the 58 nations surveyed. In our experience thus far, we have found it true that people here are distrustful. Trust, or “confianza,” must be cultivated in a relationship before you have the right to be heard. Evangelism in the context of confianza is all the more important in Arequipa.
Jiali Wang, a participant in the Chinese underground church movement, when reflecting on the explosion of church growth under a hostile communist government in China noted, “In a society of information explosion, relational evangelism is more effective than propositional preaching. Modern people are immunized by mass media and bombarding advertising. They are not able to differentiate between what is true and what is false. Too often the Christian message is trivialized as one more piece of junk information. But people are serious about information received from acquaintances, people who are not thought to spread that information for personal gain. Such relational evangelists simply say what they believe. To the listeners, their witness is more intimate, contextual, and credible than the words of public speakers.” Wang said this in a paper in 1997. How much more true is his observation now, as we find ourselves 19 years deeper into the information age!
I plan to write a follow-up article reporting on some of the ways we’re putting relational evangelism into practice because we have already started to see fruit from the friendships we’ve formed in the first couple of years in Arequipa. We are involved in various teams, clubs, and programs and it’s usually the people we have confianza with who are most open to hearing about Jesus and our faith in him. Of course other opportunities to share faith often arise, but we have made relational evangelism our main focus for three reasons: factors of distrust in this society, the information age we live in, and the fact that most current Christians came to Christ because of a family member or close friend.
Everyone has people already in their life who need to hear about Jesus. Relational evangelism is incarnational and effective. I encourage every Christian to write down on paper what the good news is to you, make a list of friends and family, pray hard over it, and start sharing the good news.
Charles Colson and Ellen Vaughn, Being the Body (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2003), 371.
Wydick, Bruce “The Key to Prosperity” Christianity Today May 2015 <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/may-web-only/key-to-prosperity.html>
"The House Church Movement: A Participant's Assessment" by Jiali Wang, 1997