Pre-Evangelism: Building Relational Trenches


One of my kids’ favorite pastimes is building trenches on the beach and watching the waves fill them with water. 

Pre-evangelism is like building trenches in the sand, giving the water of the gospel a channel to go in. 

I get to teach on evangelism often. When I mention skills to build relationships, some Christians think, “Does this really need to be said? I’m here to learn how to share the gospel. I want to see people converted. I’m not here to learn how to build friendships.” 

Do “people skills” matter in evangelism? I think they do, especially in today’s world. Why? 

First, the Bible promotes friendship. 

Paul says that elders—those men expected to be models for the whole church—are to “be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:7). I trust part of the elder’s witness is that he has built meaningful relationships with non-Christians who see him as a man of integrity. 

Second, our technology prevents friendship. 

I work with college students and see it up close. Americans have become more social, but less personal. Christians with good people skills stand out in a world where many are more focused on their phones than the person in front of them. 

Lastly, effective evangelists prioritize friendship. 

Take this as my opinion. Evangelism is my job. I love evangelism. And from my seat, those who do it most effectively tend to spend a lot of time thinking, planning, and praying about building trusting relationships with non-Christians. The most effective evangelists don’t just ask, “How many people can I share the gospel with?” but also, “Who trusts me enough out there to call me when God starts to work in their life?” 

With those reasons in place, here are eight ways to build more relational trenches in your family, workplace, or neighborhood. 


I know. This is embarrassingly practical. Really, 9Marks? Yes, it makes sense that Christians would, every once in a while, smile. 

The most surefire way to make your presence positive in a non-Christian’s life is a smile. It’s the expression that is most recognized from a distance. It’s a universal sign of happiness. This isn’t pop psychology; Proverbs says, “A glad heart makes a cheerful face. . . A cheerful look brings joy to the heart” (Prov. 15:13, 30). 

Small Talk 

Small talk is an underrated ministry. I say underrated because pastors typically focus more on “God talk” than small talk. This makes sense! We love to talk about grand truths of the faith, and we should. And yet small talk is the portal through which almost every significant non-familial relationship will enter your life. Witnessing well involves being attentive to and appreciative of the everyday texture of people’s lives. 

To excel at small talk, assume the role of “host.” When you understand yourself to be the host in the conversation, it becomes more natural. You initiate questions, you nod your head and make eye contact, you seek to relieve stress rather than inflict it. Small talk is where evangelism often begins. When we do it well, we become the type of people others want to talk to about more serious matters. 

Suspend Judgment 

Recently over lunch, a brother and I opened the Word and were discussing a passage together. A stranger at the table next to us leaned over and asked, “Do you have the time by chance?” I did have the time, but when I looked at him, I could tell he didn’t really need the time. He had a watch on. 

I asked him how his lunch was (small talk!), and then he said, “I’ve never seen people actually take the Bible seriously before. What you’re doing is really interesting to me.” What ensued was a twenty-minute conversation about the gospel and our worldviews, mostly with him talking and us listening. 

Toward the end of the conversation, which I thought was going well, I leaned back and folded my arms. He said, “Wow, it looks like I’m offending you or something.” I tried to assure him he wasn’t, but the conversation soon ended. Without realizing it, I had begun to view our conversation as a battle to emerge victorious in, instead of an opportunity to love and better understand a person. I could have done a better job suspending judgment. 

Show Interest 

There are basically two ways to build relationships with strangers. One is to build it over commonalities. If I were to meet a middle-aged white guy who loves golf, goes to church, likes to read, enjoys good BBQ, and is a father, it wouldn’t be long until we were friends. The problem is, of course, there aren’t too many of those people in my life. 

A better approach, I’ve found, is not to pretend to have commonalities with everyone, but to be interested in everyone. After all, that’s the kind of friend you want, isn’t it? We’d all love a friend who sees us as worth their time and concern. 

I’ve also learned to adjust my expectations; I should be interested in their life before expecting them to be interested in mine, especially my spiritual life. 

Share Weakness 

We typically conceal weakness, especially with non-Christians. There is wisdom to that instinct. But it can also expose a belief that, to be a good witness, we need to be a never-ending source of competence and strength. Just because you’re a Christian doesn’t mean you can’t struggle to understand something at work or respond “I don’t know” to a hard question. 

Sharing weaknesses brings people closer. If you expect others to share weaknesses with you, why wouldn’t you do the same? But beyond the pragmatics of it all, sharing weaknesses broadcasts that our gospel is for weak people like us, and that I am living in a strength not my own. 

Surrender Credit 

Proverbs 11:24 captures a fascinating paradox: “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.” 

As a point of general wisdom, generosity leads to prosperity and stinginess leads to poverty. 

This principle has great relevance at work. When a leader has a habit of taking credit for successes and dishes out blame for failures, he or she will lose their influence fast. Do the opposite. Be quick to surrender credit and entrust the results to the Lord. Remember: we’re not playing the same game as the world. Work isn’t about status; it’s about glorifying God and doing good to others. 

Sincerely Appreciate 

Just because people aren’t saved doesn’t mean there’s nothing praiseworthy in them. I remember having lunch with a faithful pastor at a popular restaurant in town. We noticed there was a group of mothers with their kids at the table next to us. This pastor leaned over, got their attention, and said, “Thank you for your work as a mother. I’m a pastor and parent myself and see all the ways mothers are a blessing to their children.” 

What a good witness for the gospel! Think about it: the people you criticize the most don’t call you when they are feeling down; it’s the people who you genuinely commend. And if I’m honest, the reason I don’t appreciate others more often is less about a fear of flattering them than a lack of attention. 


The campus ministry I lead hosts annual programs over the summer where we seek to build up Christians in the basics of the faith. It is remarkable to see students leave with new resolve to tell their friends and family about Jesus. 

Yet before going home and sharing all the finer points of theology they’ve come to understand, we tell them a better path forward would be to start doing things like taking out the trash, cleaning up their rooms, walking the dog, and doing the dishes after dinner. Especially for family members and close co-workers, actions often speak louder than words. 

That’s what Peter thought wives married to non-Christian husbands needed to hear. “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Pet. 3:1–2). 

“Won without a word.” Now, our non-Christian family, friends, and co-workers must hear the good news, of course. But many times, they already have, maybe even from you. Interest might be piqued not through the newest tip you picked up from that apologetics book you read, but through humble service. 


People are increasingly skeptical of institutional religion. Could God still bring multitudes of lost people into our churches overnight? Easily. But more than likely, it will require something from you and me. We’ll need to build some trenches. And that work might start with something as small as a smile. 

Paul Billings

Paul Billings is the director of Campus Outreach DC and an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.

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