Which is better sharing Jesus with someone as soon as you meet them (first encounter evangelism) or sharing Jesus in the context of an already established relationship? Before you knee jerk an answer consider one underestimated factor...the situation.
If I'm on a plane, in a shopping mall or meet someone at a restaurant and get into a conversation there's a good chance I'll never see that person again. This may be my only opportunity to share Jesus with them. So, if the Lord opens the door to a spiritual conversation, I want to walk right through it.
On the other hand, if I move into a new neighborhood I may want to think twice about baking cookies for all our neighbors and delivering them door to door with a "God has a wonderful plan for your life" speech. In this particular situation I most likely have a little more time to get to know my neighbors and bring up the message of Jesus in a more relational way.
But there are a few things we should keep in mind when doing either kind of evangelism:
First of all, we need to do both brands of evangelism as relationally as possible. When Jesus did "first encounter evangelism" with the woman at the well he took time to build a relational bridge by asking her for a drink of water. A Jewish rabbi talking to a Samaritan woman was unheard of in this era because there was extreme prejudice against these half-Jewish, half-Gentile people. But within seconds Jesus demolished the racist stereo-type and reached out to this desperate woman with his message of hope and forgiveness.
In the same way we can begin a conversation with others, ask great questions, listen deeply and then gently steer the conversation toward Jesus. By the way, the free Dare 2 Share mobile app has simple ideas for you to learn how to do this. This is a learned art that I'm still learning because my penchant is just to bring it up. But God is teaching me the power of asking questions and listening first. It breaks down walls and opens up real conversations. That's the goal right? Not just a robotic evangelistic presentation but an authentic Gospel conversation!
Secondly, we should gently bring Jesus up early on in the context of every relationship. I've seen people make the mistake of just waiting and waiting and waiting to bring Jesus up to their neighbors, co-workers, classmates, family and friends and, when they finally do, it seems awkward, out-of-the-blue and, in many ways, disingenuous. To mitigate this awkwardness we can leave breadcrumbs by letting them know we are followers of Jesus early in the relationship. Maybe that means we tell them we go to church at such-and-such a place or share part of our salvation story. Whatever breadcrumb you choose to drop it can lead them to a full on gospel conversation with you at the right time.
Thirdly, realize that the advantage of relational evangelism is the ability to disciple those you lead to Jesus. It is very difficult to effectively follow up and disciple the strangers you lead to Jesus on the street, in the plane or at the restaurant. I personally shared Jesus with about 5,000 people by the time I graduated from high school. Yes, I tried to follow many of them up by getting the names and phone numbers of those I led to Jesus to invite out to church or youth group. And, sadly, I can count on one hand the number of those who were willing to come out to church with me or meet later on. Does this mean they were not genuinely converted? No! It means that we had no established relationship so it was difficult. The advantage of relational evangelism is the ability to follow up new believers so that we can help them grow in Jesus. With relational evangelism we can make disciples and not merely converts.
Finally, don't underestimate the power of either brand of evangelism. Sure it's easier to disciple someone you lead to Christ in the context of a relationship but the seeds you sow with a stranger can spring to life as well. The Holy Spirit can bring other believers into the lives of those random strangers you brought to Jesus and help them grow in Christ and get connected to a local congregation. If you think about it Jesus didn't disciple the woman at the well, Philip didn't disciple the Ethiopian Eunuch and Paul didn't disciple the Philippian jailer. They did what they could and then they trusted the Holy Spirit to do his job...because he always does.
I'll never forget Kevin. He was drunk at a mall with a couple of buddies. I shared Jesus with him but he was too drunk to really have a conversation. So I left him with a More than Carpenter book by Josh McDowell to read when we sobered up. He did and put his faith in Jesus. I didn't find out until a decade later when he figured out it was "the Dare 2 Share guy" who talked to him that day. Today Kevin actively shares his faith and carries several More than a Carpenter books in his car to give to people he encounters along the way.
To be honest, I think that evangelism should be the way that we live and breathe. We need to constantly reflect the message of hope to those around us with our lives and our lips. We need to be good news people living good news lives while sharing the good news message.
Jesus told his disciples in Acts 1:8, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He was reminding them that the epicenter of this spiritual encounter with him should first impact our closest relationships (our "Jerusalem.") It should impact our friends, family, neighbors, classmates, teammates and co-workers. But then it should reverberate out to "Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Let's do both first encounter and relational evangelism depending on the situation. Let's be sensitive to the Holy Spirit and push for the right mixture of relational and relentless in every conversation. As we do, we'll witness God transform lives and advance his kingdom in amazing ways.