Relational Evangelism

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I was first introduced to the idea of real-life or relational evangelism in college when I read Rob Bell in Velvet Elvis say, “So the issue isn’t so much taking Jesus to people who don’t have him, but going to a place and pointing out to the people the creative, life-giving God who is already present in their midst,” and Brian McLaren in More Ready Thank You Realize, “Good evangelists are people who engage others in good conversation about important profound topics such as faith, values, hope, meaning, purpose, goodness, beauty, truth, life after death, life before death, and God.” Before these ideas entered my faith, evangelism was reduced to door knocking, neighborhood outreach, and apologetic debates.  As such evangelism was on the spectrum of religious abuse, lodged somewhere between cheesy-gimmick and shameful-judgment.

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Here’s Ryan, 22 years old, hiking in the Tuolumne area.

After college I had the chance to live in Yosemite National Park.  Steve Hughes invited me, and at the time he was a missionary with the Southern Baptist Convention.  By most Baptists’ standards Steve was considered “liberal,” especially after publishing the book Oh Shit! It’s Jesus!  The invitation was quite simple: come out to Yosemite, live and work in the park, and be yourself.  In that sacred and secular space I began to see real-life evangelism beautifully exemplified in others, sowing it into my spirit. Steve Hughes provided the hypothetical question that is the root of my evangelistic convictions: “What if all the copies of the Bible disappeared and the only way to communicate the message and life of Jesus was through your knowledge and practice of what Jesus said and did?”

From Steve Hughes I learned the practice of using “Jesus stories” for spiritual guidance.  I would later understand this is an exercise in Ignatian Spirituality, but at the time it seemed mystically attractive and hippy-like.   The practice includes reading a Gospel story, meditating upon it by continually imagining it from start to finish, and asking God to reveal your position in the story.  The simplicity of this practice makes it approachable to all ages and abilities, but it is far from ordinary.  In fact, too often we stop at the first interpreted moralistic platitude and say, “That’s good,” but we never plant our spirits in the cultivated ground of the story.

Amazing things happen when you consistently pray Jesus stories.  They begin to dictate behavior, and they are recalled like movie quotes.  It’s amazing how easy a Jesus story flows in and out of conversations on important profound topics such as faith, values, hope, meaning, purpose, goodness, beauty, truth, life after death, life before death, and God.  If you ever want to till beneath the surface of a casual friendship ask, “What’s the most exciting thing that’s going on in your life right now?”  It may lead to a deeper relationship, or it could lead to an opportunity for a simple, personal invitation (evangelism).  The conversation may go nowhere, but it could go anywhere.

I confess I don’t find these opportunities as much as I once did.  Maybe it’s because casual conversations take inevitable turns when someone asks, “What do you do?”  “I’m a minister.”  “Oh, okay.”  But that’s a lousy excuse.  It’s more likely that I’ve let my Jesus story discipline lapse like my workout routine.  And…I’m in too big of a hurry.  My conversations are brief and terse because I falsely perceive time as a commodity to be protected and success as solely dependent on personal effort.

You know Jesus said something like:

The harvest is huge, but there aren’t enough workers. Pray to God for more harvesters.  Then go on your way!  But be careful – this is a risky journey together.  Travel light.  Don’t just loiter.  When you enter a home, greet the family in love; say “Peace be with you.”  Wherever you find yourself, be gracious and kind, and while you are there do the work of healing, and dream – dream with anyone who is willing, dream the kingdom of God’s for it’s already there.

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