How quickly should we share the gospel? It’s an important question and one that we shouldn’t take lightly. As I read and listen to people talk about evangelism, it seems most folks fall into one of two camps, which Mark McCloskey calls “the relational-incarnational approach” and “the comprehensive-incarnational approach.” Both have good reasons for their perspective. The former has a tendency to emphasize the quality of evangelistic conversations, the latter the quantity of evangelistic conversations.
The first is motivated by a desire to see people encounter as convincing a presentation of the gospel as possible, the latter by a desire to see as many people as possible hear the gospel. Both seek to show the incarnational love of Christ, but the relational approach tends to lean towards building a relationship first; surely that’s better than forcing the gospel on a stranger. The comprehensive approach tends to lean toward sharing earlier, even without a relational basis at times; surely that’s better than the person never hearing the gospel. So which is it? How quickly should we share the gospel?
As with anything, if we want to be faithful to Christ, determinations of our practice ought to come first and foremost from Scripture, not our own reason or experiences. And as we survey Scripture, I believe the evangelistic encounters of Jesus and the early church put the burden of proof on those who believe we should do anything other than share the gospel as early as possible. One article couldn’t possibly be exhaustive of biblical examples, but I think a handful will suffice.
“As we survey Scripture, I believe the evangelistic encounters of Jesus and the early church put the burden of proof on those who believe we should do anything other than share the gospel as early as possible.”
Take the Samaritan woman in John 4 for example. Within one conversation, Jesus goes deeply spiritual and proclaims, in himself, the resurrection. In Luke 10, as Jesus sends out the 72, he commissions them to go and proclaim the Kingdom village to village. Even if they were to heal first, and only then preach, there is no basis to believe they were to stay for lengthy periods of time, prolonging their proclamation. In Acts 8, the Spirit simply prompts Phillip to stand near the passing chariot of the Ethiopian, but Phillip responds by immediately asking if the eunuch understands the Scripture he is reading and explaining the gospel.
“Those situations are different from ours,” we might argue. We live in a postmodern context, and all of those deal with others who already had some spiritual background in Judaism that might have allowed quicker proclamation. However, Paul’s interactions with those of completely different religious worldviews follow suit later on in Acts. In both chapters 14 and 17, Paul interacts with pagans by attempting to share the gospel as quickly as he had reasonable opportunity to do so, even while taking into account the cultural and religious differences. In Acts 26, Agrippa is even thrown off by how quickly Paul—-a stranger—-seems to be trying to convert him.
It is true that Paul prayed for an open door for the message (Col. 4:3), and he seemed to get a lot of “divine encounters” in response to prayer. But Paul also seemed to have a tendency to go places, proclaiming the gospel with full faith, only to be forced out of the city in an uproar. It’s almost as if Paul went everywhere with the assumption that his encounters were open doors until the moment proved otherwise. Rather than sitting around and waiting for some prolonged confirmation to act evangelistically (which is how I used to read 1 Peter 3:15 before I really dwelt on the aforementioned passages), he seemed to believe that God would answer his prayers for open doors and that the harvest was indeed plentiful. Could it be that he seemed to have so many more evangelistic opportunities because he sought to share on the front end of relationships?
“It’s almost as if Paul went everywhere with the assumption that his encounters were open doors until the moment proved otherwise.”
Of course, the whole dichotomy is false to begin with. Sharing the gospel early does not preclude an ongoing, loving relationship that gives credibility to the message being proclaimed. In fact, one of the most loving things we can do is to let someone know what we believe to be the most important truth in the world as quickly as possible; anything else is unethical. More than likely, the gospel will need to be revisited and shown by our actions many times before it is accepted. But by no means does this mean an extended friendship is a necessary prerequisite to evangelism.
Practically speaking, this means as early as possible I identify myself as a follower of Christ, seek to find out about the other person’s spiritual background, and try to share how Jesus has changed my life (a testimony) and how Jesus could change theirs through the gospel. It also means that I very often don’t go as deep as I’d like in a conversation because the person isn’t interested, or that I often take a few conversations to go deeper if I might have an ongoing relationship with that person. Most of the time, I get to build a friendship with them and show the love of Christ with my actions. But every time, it means I start going deeper as quickly as the person will allow me, having in mind the end goal of presenting the gospel and inviting a response.
I still remember the moment a college friend said, “I wish I’d known that’s what Christianity was about this whole time.” A mutual friend had shared the gospel with him over a meal, and even though we’d displayed the love of Christ to him for nearly two years and he’d been attending church, singing songs, and hearing the gospel in public settings, it never clicked until our friend clearly said what it was all about.
“I still remember the moment a college friend said, ‘I wish I’d known that’s what Christianity was about this whole time.'”
From that point forward, I’ve made it my goal to share the gospel as quickly as someone will let me. I don’t ever again want to leave a friend wondering “what it’s all about.” May none of us ever be content with such. More importantly, may we follow the example of Jesus our Lord by demonstrating the love of God and articulating the gospel—early and often.