Looking for a semester of “cross-cultural” experience, non-Christian college student Kevin Roose transferred to Liberty University. As an undercover unbeliever, Roose’s goal was to understand how Christians think and get a sense of the evangelical culture from a firsthand “insider” perspective.
As part of his cultural experiment, Kevin decided to go on a weeklong outreach adventure over spring break with a group of 13 other Liberty students. Their mission? To bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the beer-guzzling, body-baring, sand-loving sinners on Daytona Beach. The team was trained to share the gospel and then unleashed to comb the beach on a spiritual search-and-rescue mission.
After a solid week of almost constant rejections, the group consoled themselves that they had planted spiritual seeds that would sprout later. Roose concluded that these well-intentioned street evangelists had really not made any converts. Even the few who had ostensibly said “yes” to Jesus were not followed up on or plugged into local churches. In his words,
“The issue of post-salvation behavior is an interesting one. I thought, when Scott was teaching us to evangelize, that we’d be told to do some sort of follow-up with successful converts, if we had any—guide them to a local church, maybe, or at least take their contact information. But there’s no such procedure. If Jason had decided to get saved (he didn’t), Martina would have led him through the Sinner’s Prayer (“Jesus, I am a sinner, come into my heart and be my Lord and Savior” or some variant thereof), she would have let him know he was saved, perhaps given him some Bible verses to read, and they never would have seen each other again. Cold-turkey evangelism provides the shortest, most non-committal conversion offer of any Western religion—which, I suspect, is part of the appeal.” (Source: salon.com)
Clearly he didn’t write his article out of vindictiveness or venom. He seemed to actually like these evangelicals and was exploring why they were willing to go through all the pain and strain of being persecuted without seeing tangible results. His conclusion was that the prospect of saving someone from hell was enough witnessing fuel to keep them going in the face of mockery and disdain.
Before I give my perspective on all this, let me explain that I was born and bred on street evangelism. I did my first cold-turkey evangelism when I was 11 years old. I was terrified and trembling as I shared the gospel. But I was hooked. This was the closest thing I had experienced to extreme sports, and I loved it.
The church that reached my entire beer-drinking, body-building, tobacco-chewing family (and that’s just the women!) was a street evangelist training ground. My tough, ripped Uncle Jack was led to Christ when the preacher at this church went to his house, knocked on his door, and started sharing the good news of salvation. That began a domino effect of salvation in my large extended family.
As a result, I was immersed into this pre-evangelical world of fundamentalist Christianity and loved it. Why? Because now I not only had a real Heavenly Father (I was the product of a one-night stand and never knew my biological father), but I had a purpose: the salvation of souls from hell.
From that first witnessing experience as a fifth grader to my freshman year at Liberty University, hardly a Friday night went by without me and my Christian compadres going “soulwinning” at local malls across Denver. We would gather together, train the newcomers, and head out to do cold-turkey evangelism. While sharing my faith, I have been hit, spit at, picked up by the throat, pushed down, laughed at, and mocked relentlessly. But these became battle scars for my adolescent soul. I could talk about them and show them off later to my fundie friends. After all, every rejection was worth it if just one person put their faith and trust in Jesus. And, unlike Kevin Roose, we were trained to try and get the people we led to Christ plugged into our church, where they too could be trained as street evangelists.
I estimate conservatively that I personally witnessed to 5,000 people from the time I was 11 until I left for college. I was an expert at serving cold-turkey evangelism sandwiches. But to be honest, out of all of the street evangelism I have done, I am only aware of a handful of stories when someone who got saved actually got plugged into a faith community.
So do I think street evangelism works? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I have seen countless people look me in the eye and say “yes” to Jesus. In my heart of hearts, I know that many of them were sincere. As Romans 10:13 reminds us, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” It makes no preconditions about location or depth of the relationship. If they genuinely believe in Christ, then they truly receive the gift of eternal life. So, yes, I believe street evangelism works when it comes to making converts. But I don’t believe it works well when it comes to making disciples.
Does that mean that I think we shouldn’t do street/mall/park evangelism? No. I just think we should try to do it differently.
To be honest, God has been taking me on a journey of reflection over the last several months, and I am trying to figure out where He is leading. You see, my goal is to make as many disciples, not as many converts, as I can before I die. Making converts is merely additional (souls added to the Kingdom). But making disciples is exponential (souls multiplied through disciples who make disciples who make more disciples). And the street and the shopping mall are not the best places for making disciples. Again, we may have opportunities with various strangers and we should make the most of them to wisely and gracefully share the good news. God may be using you to plant a seed, water the seed, or reap the harvest with those strangers He brings across your path. But I am more and more convinced that sharing Christ with strangers must be done in a very specific way.
Relational and Relentless
About the time I started Dare 2 Share Ministries, I also married a special girl. Debbie was everything I was not. She was sweet, quiet, intuitive, and ultra-relational. She loved to ask questions and listen. I, on the other hand, was confrontational, loud, and ultra-clueless. I loved to give answers and talk. When we went to the mall together, I would say, “Let’s witness!” and she would say, “Let’s shop!” I loved her deeply but secretly thought she was wimpy when it came to evangelism. She loved me deeply but secretly thought I was obnoxious in my approach.
Then something strange began to happen. Over the years, we began to rub off on each other. She became more relentless in sharing her faith and I, ever so slowly, became more relational. Debbie is a fifth-grade public school teacher, and in one school year, she led 21 kids to Christ, brought five families out to our church, and never got one complaint. Why? Because the conversations she had were student-initiated (they saw the light of Christ in her) and all the parents, teachers, and administrators loved her.
She’s the reason I first began to consider the power of relationships when it came to evangelism. She had done more in one school year on a discipleship level (plugging five families into our church) than I had done in a lifetime of street evangelism.
Another milestone along my journey toward relational and relentless evangelism was the filming of GOSPEL Journey Maui. Dare 2 Share gathered seven complete strangers (a Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Seventh Day Adventist, New Ager, and evangelical Christian), most of whom we found through a Craigslist ad, for eight days of spiritual conversations on Maui.
The Maui cast became my friends, and they remain so to this day. Yes, one of them trusted Christ and is on the pathway of discipleship, but I remain committed to keeping in contact with each of them. We are still having spiritual conversations more than 12 months later.
During the filming, I tried hard to listen as much as I talked. This was especially hard for a rapid-fire evangelist like me. I kept reminding myself of my wife. I imagined her by my side whispering, “Don’t talk yet, honey. Listen to them. Don’t just pretend to listen—really listen. And love them no matter what. And when it’s your time to talk, you can be your relentless self. They’re more apt to listen to you because you’ve done such a good job listening to them.”
The results were amazing. The more I listened, the more they listened. Pretty soon we were in genuine conversations, not just the typical “my facts are better than yours” apologetic showdowns. At one point, Emma, our yoga-instructing Buddhist from Boulder, said something like, “One of the reasons that I am considering Christ is because of the love I feel emanating from you and Zane and the camera crew and production team. I sense there is something to this whole Jesus thing.”
Wow. Who would have ever thought of love being the ultimate apologetic? Oh, yeah. I guess Jesus would have.
We live in an either/or world. But Jesus’ approach is both/and. He was both relational and relentless. Read the Gospels and see how Jesus was relational at times (washing mud-encrusted feet) and relentless at others (like when he told Peter, “Get behind me Satan…”).
Did Jesus do cold-turkey evangelism? Yes! But in a relational and relentless way. Consider how He approached a total stranger in Samaria, the woman at the well. He was relational when He broke the huge cultural taboo of a Jewish man talking to a woman. By asking her for a drink of water, He was treating her as a person, with respect, and she wanted to know why.
But soon Jesus shows His relentless side: “Go and call your husband.” She responds, “I have no husband.” ”You are right in saying you have no husband,” Jesus replies, “you have had five husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband.”
After valuing her as a person, He pressed in. He added relentless to His relational. Like nitrogen and glycerin, the mixture was explosive. She ended up not only becoming a convert, but becoming an evangelist herself. John 4:39 tells us that, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony…” In less than a few minutes, Jesus made not just a convert, but a disciple. That’s effective street evangelism.
I challenge you to read the Gospels and the book of Acts with these two seemingly opposite words, relational and relentless, in mind. You will see passage after passage drenched with both. Jesus, the disciples, and the early church were a strange, Spirit-filled mixture of both.
People tend to think of the apostle Paul as more relentless than relational. After all, he was running around Jerusalem, Judea, and the uttermost wreaking holy havoc evangelizing. But look deeper and you’ll see a very relational guy who loved those he was reaching out to. Check out 1 Thessalonians 2:6-8, 11-12: “As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us…For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”
What’s amazing is that this was after a mere 21 days of intense evangelism and discipleship. In 21 days, a church was born and deep relationships were established, deeper ones than most church members have after 21 years of ministry together.
So I don’t think the question is whether street evangelism is valid or not. The real question is whether the kind of evangelism we employ, wherever it happens, is relational AND relentless.
Too often Christians wave their get-out-of-jail-free cards by claiming that they are earning the right to be heard. This often leads to never-ending relational bridge-building. And once the bridge is built, it sometimes seems too awkward to cross with the precious cargo of Christ’s gospel, for fear we will be accused of bait-and-switch trickery. The relational/relentless knife cuts both ways. And, if we are honest, relational evangelism that sneaks in the back door can be just as damaging as relentless evangelism that kicks in the front door.
The great evangelist George Whitefield used to pray, “Lord give me the mixture of the lion and the lamb.” And that’s what we need, the relentless lion and the relational lamb battling it out for a holy balance in our souls as we seek to reach those around us.
God has been doing a work of honing, pruning, and reconsideration in my soul when it comes to evangelism. Let me sum up what I’m learning:
1. Street evangelism can be effective in making converts but is rarely effective in making disciples.
I believe that thousands of people have trusted in Christ over the years through our door-to-door outreaches at Dare 2 Share. But very few of these people have been integrated into local churches. This has not been due to a lack of trying, but a lack of relationship with them.
2. Evangelism should start with our immediate circle of influence: our friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.
I am guilty of sometimes using cold-turkey evangelism as a cheap substitute for the “meat and potatoes” of relational evangelism with my own neighbors. Don’t get me wrong—I have witnessed to many of my neighbors. But if I applied the same relentlessness I have with my street evangelism to my neighborhood, then I believe many more of those who live around me would not only know Christ by now, but be plugged into healthy, growing churches.
That changes today.
I choose to make my primary base of evangelistic operations my neighborhood and the Starbucks that I frequent. These are the lost people that I know. No longer will I use my spontaneous conversations with strangers as a salve for my hit-and-miss evangelism with my neighbors and barista buddies.
3. As God allows, we should share the gospel with the strangers we encounter and do our best to disciple them if they accept Christ.
Jesus was constantly sharing the good news with strangers, but He did this in the context of meeting their needs and engaging them at the deepest level. He never hesitated to turn a conversation from water to “The Living Water,” from bread to “The Bread of Life,” from the earthly to the heavenly. He was immensely relational and undeniably relentless.
With this in mind, I will still share Jesus on the plane, in the streets, anywhere and everywhere as God opens the door. But I will do my best to make sure others genuinely understand the message of Christianity. My goal is not for them to say “yes” with their mouths so I can feel good about my witnessing opportunity, but to genuinely say “yes” in their hearts. After all, Romans 10:9-10 reminds us “…that if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
4. Our evangelistic efforts should be done relationally and relentlessly.
Whether we are sharing Christ with our friends, family, neighbors, or strangers, we must depend on the Holy Spirit to give us balance. Some situations require more relentlessness and some a more relational approach.
As I read Kevin Roose’s article, my heart hurt. It hurt for this young man who was turned off by his Christian buddies’ blindness to the wake of resentment they left when they did cold-turkey evangelism in a sometimes cold-hearted way. And it hurt for the wakes that I have left, as well. Have I alienated the very world that I have been seeking to reach in my quest to reach as many as possible as quickly as possible? Sure, there have been genuine conversions, but there have been genuine aversions as well, not just to the gospel (an aversion I am glad to live with), but to my lack of sensitivity.
Just like Philip was relentless enough to run up to the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot and relational enough to wait until he was invited in to talk, God can help us learn how to balance relational and relentless evangelism. Let’s genuinely wrestle with the challenge of melding the relational and relentless aspects of evangelism as we share our faith with a world in desperate need of Jesus’ message.
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