Reaping & Relational Evangelism

Since our Church Planter’s Equipping Retreat, several people who attended the retreat or who’ve viewed parts of it online asked about how a church planter’s responsibility to focus on reaping impacts relational evangelism.  The underlying question seems to revolve around whether relational evangelism is effective and should remain a priority.  I believe the overwhelming answer is yes, but with some qualifications.  I’ll provide some context for the conversation.  Below you can read a few of John Worcester’s quotes from the retreat:

Jesus began with reaping those who were ripe, planted those people, and those people cultivated the field.

Good deeds are a planting objective but not a primary planting strategy.  

Even relational evangelism is an objective but not a strategy.

We harvest the ripe by proclaiming the gospel. To reproduce, we pick ripe fruit and plant it.

Search for God prepared persons of peace.  Believe God has called you and believe He’s prepared people to respond to the gospel.

Relevant scriptures:  John 4 (especially 34-38), Luke 5:27-39, Matthew 13:36-43

When we look at both Jesus and Paul’s church-planting ministries, we see they focus on reaping ripe fruit.  We can rightly conclude then that one of our primary responsibilities as church-planters is to reap ripe fruit.  This requires “skimming” large groups of people to identify who is responsive (a.k.a. persons of peace), pursuing those persons of peace, then planting them in their network of relationships.  Although good deeds and relational evangelism are part of following Jesus (and something all Jesus-followers should do), as church-planters we need to focus our time and energy on the people God has already prepared to respond.  Not coincidentally, as we reap and plant those people who respond, this often serves as a catalyst and encouragement for people to engage in relational evangelism.

As we’re reaping, we also must equip those who are already follow Jesus and new followers to engage their relational networks with the message of Jesus.  

Unfortunately, most Jesus-followers never do this.  According to a study by Lifeway Resources:

80 percent of those who attend church one or more times a month believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, but 61 percent have not told another person about how to become a Christian in the previous six months… Three-quarters of churchgoers say they feel comfortable in their ability to effectively communicate the Gospel, while 12 percent say they don’t feel comfortable telling others about their faith. Despite a vast majority believing it’s their duty to share their faith and having the confidence to do so, 25 percent say they have shared their faith only once or twice, and 14 percent have shared three or more times over the last six months.  

If that’s true, should we as church planters expect the people we lead to personally share Jesus in their relational networks and make disciples?   The answer both historically and scripturally is yes.  Reaping will provide us with an initial response, reaping serves as a catalyst for spreading the message of Jesus, but long-haul relational evangelism is how the overwhelming majority of people come to know Jesus.

Rewind to the 1st century church.  One of the most common terms we see connected to church in the New Testament is households. This term is translated from the Greek word oikos, which literally means family, kindred, household (including servants).The oikos played a central role in Greco-Roman culture. This extended family of 40-50 people included not only the immediate family, but “also other relatives and domestic slaves plus a coterie of freedmen, hired workers, and business associates and clients.”  Not surprisingly, the oikos was central to the spreading of the gospel in Jesusʼ ministry, the book of Acts, and Paulʼs church planting efforts.  A few examples include  Luke 14:1-4, Luke 19:5-10, Acts 10:1-2, Acts 16:4-5, Acts 16:31-34.  In each instance we see reaping ripe fruit, then relational evangelism beginning in that person’s relational network.

As we look at the viral spread of the message of Jesus in the first century, new disciples appeared in cities prior to apostolic leaders showing up and churches being planted. This is because ordinary people took responsibility for sharing the message of Jesus and making disciples in their relational networks.  That’s whey we see the exponential growth in a movement growing from few thousand in the first century growing to 20 million by AD 310. Sociologist Rodney Stark observes the following in The Triumph of Christianity (pp 68-69):

People tend to convert to a religious group when their social ties to members outweigh their ties to outsiders who might oppose the conversion, and this often occurs before a convert knows much about what the group believes… Social networks are the basic mechanism through which conversion takes place.  To convert someone, you must be or become their close and trusted friend. Consequently, when someone converts to a new religion, then they usually seek to convert their friends and relatives, and consequently conversion tends to proceed through social networks… Mostly, the church spread as ordinary people accepted it and then shared it with their families and friends, and the faith was carried from one community to another in this same way

Charles & Win Arn in The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples observe the same in modern day America:

Webs of common kinship (the larger family), common friendship (friends and neighbors), and common associates (special interests, work relationships, and recreation) are still the paths most people follow in becoming Christians today In America today with some variation by region, culture, and class, between 75% and 90% of new members surveyed report a friend or relative as the one factor  most responsible for their evangelization.   

Reaping remains a necessary priority for us as church-planters… but it’s the beginning and not the end of a church spreading the message of Jesus.  Ultimately the message of Jesus goes viral when ordinary people become overwhelmed by His message and cannot help but share it with others.

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