Evangelism is inherently relational.
You, a relational being, speak to another relational being about a relational gospel given by a relational God. The best instruction on relational evangelism I know of in the Bible is in Colossians 4:5–6:
“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
Notice that the whole passage pivots on the two words “toward outsiders.” Paul is addressing how to speak to those outside the faith, to those who don’t yet know Jesus.
He does not in any way mean that unbelievers are to be avoided or that they are not welcome. In fact, the entire passage is an instruction on how to make outsiders insiders.
This is what evangelism is all about: helping those outside the grace of God come inside the grace of God...
I see five evangelistically relational exhortations in Colossians 4:5–6 to guide us into practical evangelism.
1. BE WISE
“Conduct yourselves wisely…” (Colossians 4:5a)
Wisdom is about living with skill. In this passage, the Apostle is instructing us to live (walk) with wisdom in the way we interact with those outside the faith. You might call this missional or evangelistic skill.
Many approaches to evangelism completely ignore the call to wisdom.
For example, imagine an angry street corner preacher holding a sign confronting cultural values. If you stop to talk to one of these guys, you can bet the conversation will focus on hell and damnation.
Or think about the cult member on a mission to litter a neighborhood or parking lot with tracts or to carry out a quota of door-to-door cold calls.
And of course there’s always the bait-and-switch event like the Christian rock concert. Once you have everyone there for the entertainment, a preacher arrives on stage and, to everyone’s dismay, explains the four spiritual laws. And you thought it was a rock concert!
I’m not saying that these methods have never worked or that they never work today. But each approach probably lacks wisdom in a secular society.
If you don’t believe me, just ask non-Christians about their impressions of Christians. You’ll quickly find that many evangelistic methods reinforce these unfortunate caricatures of Christianity.
Most of the evangelistic fruit I have seen comes from building friendships and sharing my life with others, which eventually translates into sharing my faith. In other words, living with missionary wisdom is living in skillful, intentional friendships with outsiders.
In part, living with missionary wisdom means that you don’t make it a goal to attack an unbeliever’s values. You may eventually challenge them, but you don’t expect Christian behavior or belief from an unbeliever.
Living with missionary wisdom also means being wise about how you interact with people. Are you humble, winsome, loving, content, generous, and filled with the knowledge of God?
None of us do this perfectly, of course. In fact, admitting your weakness and struggle, regularly asking forgiveness, and taking ownership of mistakes is part of what will make you winsome and wise.
2. BE PRESENT
“…making the best use of the time…” (Colossians 4:5b)
Missional living involves active use of time. Time is a gift that we only have so much of and it will pass us quickly if we are not present in it. To be present is to give the whole of your person to someone in that exact moment.
When the Apostle Paul says to make the best use of the time, he’s pointing out that we have only so much time with those outside the faith.
Think about the business of your own life. Between your spouse, kids, parents, family, local church, work, sleep, and personal time, your time with non-Christians is limited. Make good use of that time. Be present when they are present.
So, let’s get practical. Here are some ways to be present with unbelievers.
- Be Neighborly
Chances are you have neighbors, so act like one. Make the effort to go meet them. Offer to help them with yard work. Hang out outside until you get in conversations. Take walks in your neighborhood. Throw a block party.
Take the long-term approach of developing a good reputation in the neighborhood. Avoid unnecessary conflict, and be a good neighbor.
- Go to a Regular “Spot”
Get out of the house and go to coffee shops, pubs, restaurants, barbershops, salons, a golf course, the park, the court, or the gym. Get to know the staff and customers, tip well, be friendly, ask people about themselves, and be available to talk.
- Go to Work
Work hard and keep a good attitude. Show up to your shift on time, be reasonable in conflict, don’t engage in gossip, and be relationally available to people.
- Get Involved in the Community
Kids’ sports and activities, clean-up efforts, clubs, volunteer organizations, support groups, book clubs, or sports teams—these group activities allow you to develop friendships around common goals or interests without awkwardness.
Here’s the main thing about using time well with unbelievers: be present with them. Make your time together about them, not you or your “mission” to get them saved or to score points with God.
3. BE GRACIOUS
“Let your speech always be gracious…” (Colossians 4:6a)
Eventually, it will be time to share the gospel of grace, so communicate it graciously. Let your heart be so filled with the love Jesus has for you that when you teach others about his love they sense it in you.
Be kind and friendly. Don’t get frustrated if they argue or disagree. As the Apostle Peter says,
“Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15, emphasis mine).
Gentleness and respect are keys to any relationship, but especially in a situation where you are confronting a person’s core beliefs.
If someone has real questions about Christianity, see it as an opportunity to instruct rather than an argument to deconstruct. God can use a person’s contentions with Christianity and the gospel as the very thing that brings him or her back to Jesus.
Keep in mind that the people who usually are the most contentious are wrestling with the concepts. So, be gracious. They just need time and someone to help them talk things through, answer their questions, and spur them on to think about the things of God.
There’s no reason to be threatened by their pushback. Remember, you are trying to win a person, not a debate. Debates are about winning arguments; evangelism is about winning people.
Also remember that apart from the Spirit of God opening your eyes to the gospel, you would be just as lost. Humility is key. Graced people grace people.
4. BE INTERESTING
“…seasoned with salt...” (Colossians 4:6b)
Paul also instructs us that our speech should be “seasoned with salt.” So, add some flavor to your conversation. We use salt on food to bring out the flavor of the food; likewise, use salt within your gospel conversations to bring out the flavor of the gospel.
Be yourself, and let your personality come out. If you’re well-studied, humbly reference research from something you’ve read. If you’re winsome, persuade someone with your kindness. If you’re funny, tell a joke.
You will be an effective evangelist when you are you. God made you the way you are, so don’t try to be someone else. Be a Spirit-filled you.
5. BE INTERESTED
“ …so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6c).
Paul instructs us to “answer each person.” Of course, each person has different questions, issues, and struggles. Those we meet come from different cultures, races, and life-stages, which is why canned gospel presentations rarely work.
If you engage others with a canned approach, they’re going to see right through it. They’ll be able to tell that they’re just a project to you, not a person to be in relationship with.
Be interested, and let the Holy Spirit fill you and open the doors to talk about the gospel. Respond to each person individually. Make the conversation about them. Get to know their aspirations, dreams, disappointments, and questions.
Evangelism is a lot about listening, curiosity, and being interested.
Staying interested is also the best way to know how to get to Jesus in conversation with the person. You will get a sense of who they are, what they feel, and what they need. And when the opportunity comes, sharing the news of Jesus will come naturally.
This is an excerpt from Pastor Harvey's new book Friend of Sinners: An Approach to Evangelism