W. Oscar Thompson JR served in pastoral ministry for 20 years before founding the Oscar Thompson Evangelistic Association. He served as a pastoral consultant for the Cancer Counseling and Research Foundation and as a consultant for the Trinity Valley Hospice Association before cancer claimed his life in 1980. This book was released posthumously after a revision and update by Claude V. King, who is an evangelism teacher at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and co-author of the top-selling book Experiencing God.
If one were to ask Oscar Thompson what his book is about or what it contains, he would say, “relationships”. Everything in Thompson’s book, although about evangelism and discipleship, centers on the foundational principle of relationships. Thompson’s approach toward evangelism is to help the evangelist understand the importance of relationships in every aspect of their life. It is through relationships that the evangelist can show the love of Christ to their world – their concentric circles of concern.
Thompson begins by declaring that “the most important word in the English language, apart from proper nouns, is relationship”. Right relationships allow a person to experience the best life has to offer and to experience the very character of God in the Christian life. Broken or ruptured relationships with people result in broken and ruptured relationships with God. Thompson correctly contends that ruptured relationships are the cause of most of life’s major problems including broken marriages, broken homes, unsuccessful businesses, divided churches, weak governments, and chaotic nations. It is imperative that Christians have right relationships with both God and others so that they can experience all that God has to offer and effectively share the love of Christ and the gospel with others in their concentric circles.
Thompson, after discussing the importance of relationships in chapter 1, elaborates further on relationships in chapters 2-4. In chapter 2 Thompson brilliantly demonstrates how the gospel moves not only through the spoken words of an evangelist, but also through relationships. Thompson gives several examples of how lifestyle evangelism was successful in the New Testament such as with Andrew and Simon Peter (Thompson, 17), Phillip and Nathaniel (Thompson, 17-18), and Cornelius and his household (Thompson, 19). “The gospel moves on contiguous lines – on lines of relationship.” Right relationships open doors and opportunities to share the gospel, and are thus, as seen in chapter 3, a wonderful way in which to share the good news of Christ.
Beginning in chapter 5, Thompson shares the seven stages for making disciples. Stage one again involves relationships – relationships with God, self, and others. In order to share the gospel with someone, a person’s life must be right with God and others, as well as themselves. Thompson urges the evangelist to “Get right with God, self, and others” so that they can be used as a channel to show Christ’s love and to share the Gospel. When a person has a severed relationship with God, with themselves, or with others in their concentric circles, they “will be limited in their ability to be used by God to make disciples of others”.
Stage two involves surveying one’s relationships. It is in chapters 10-11 that Thompson introduces us to the “person x” (Thompson, 109). Thompson invites the evangelist to literally survey and list as many people as possible that the evangelist could share the gospel with. This includes those who are closest to the evangelist, such as persons in circles 2, 3, and 4, neighbors and acquaintances in circles 4, 5, and 6, and strangers in circle 7. Thompson reminds the evangelist that they should not forget about those persons in circles 2-6, and skip to person x in circle 7. Many evangelists will share the gospel with a complete stranger, but will not share with those people they are closest to. However, Thompson says, “If you are not the channel of God’s love to meet the needs of those in your family, forget about reaching Afghanistan for Christ. We get concerned about the ends of the earth, yet often we cannot meet the needs of our own families” (Thompson, 98).
Stage 3 involves prayer. The evangelist is encouraged to work with God through prayer. Prayer is a powerful spiritual weapon that breaks down strongholds and opens up opportunities to show the love of Christ and share the Good News. Thompson offers several real life experiences of a sovereign God who answers prayers and engineers circumstances to draw a life to himself. “When we join God in his work through prayer, the all-present God can touch people anywhere they are and draw them to himself” (Thompson, 120).
Stage 4 involves building bridges. Thompson encourages Christians to build relationship bridges to create opportunities in which they can be channels of God’s love. One can build bridges by simply “meeting needs in a person’s life or showing an interest in him or her in such a way that a relationship is established” (Thompson, 135). Thompson uses 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 where Paul stated he was willing to become all things to all men so that he could reach them. Building bridges allows the Christian more opportunities to share Christ with others while at the same time allowing them to experience more of the abundant life Jesus came to give.
Stage 5 involves showing God’s love by meeting the needs of people in one’s concentric circles. Thompson argues that love is not an emotion, nor is it a feeling. Love is an action by which one meets the needs of another. Meeting other’s needs allows a person to become a channel for God to share his love with others.
In stage 6, Thompson discusses the importance of making disciples and ways to help them grow. Introducing people to Christ is only the first step in making disciples. Christians must share the gospel verbally and not rely on lifestyle evangelism alone. Evangelists must realize that those around them are lost without Jesus and are headed for “A Christ-less eternity without God in hell” (Thompson, 184). If Christians really care about the lost and value human life, they will share the gospel. Christians must confront people in order to make disciples. Christians should be concerned with building disciples and not building “church goers”. Thompson, in chapter 17, discusses the great commission and its emphasis on the word “disciple”. When Jesus commanded people to make disciples, he was referring to a person who would have a personal relationship with him, would be totally under his authority, would possess and demonstrate his character, and be prepared to suffer for Christ (Thompson, 191). True salvation is about a personal relationship with Christ whereby someone becomes a disciple and grows in the Lord daily. Discipleship is not praying a sinner’s prayer with a stranger and leaving them never to return.
In the final stage, stage 7, Christians are reminded that the cycle never really ends. Christians are to begin again by helping new Christians make more disciples. “Making disciples does not end with the decision to follow Christ.” The decision to follow Christ is merely the beginning. The church should help new Christians grow into fully devoted disciples who will then take part in the church’s commission to make more disciples. Each time it seems that the cycle ends, the cycle begins again. Every new Christian should be discipled, and part of their discipleship training should involve making more disciples.
At the core of Thompson’s thesis is the idea that relationships are of the utmost importance in reaching a lost and dying world with the hope of Jesus Christ. Thompson does an excellent job proving his thesis throughout this book and remaining loyal to the intrinsic idea of relationships in evangelism. Thompson rightly begins his book with a discussion on the evangelist’s relationship with God. For if a person is not right with God, how can they encourage anyone else to be right with God? 1 John 1:3 reminds the believer that his fellowship is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. If a person’s vertical relationship with God is broken, that person’s horizontal relationships with others will most likely be ruptured as well thus rendering the person useless and ineffective in the evangelistic task. The beginning of Thompson’s book was a refreshing call for one to survey his or her relationship with the Lord and with others and immediately repair any damaged relationships in order that the love of Christ may flow through those relationships.
Thompson wasn’t just an author who wrote about evangelism. He was someone who lived out the evangelistic task each day in his life. The real life experiences of both he and his colleagues served as a type of “you can do this” pep talk for the potential evangelist. Thompson was always searching for opportunities to share the gospel, whether it is on the streets, at a family gathering, or on an airplane thousands of feet in the air.
A very strong point in Thompson’s book is the requirement that disciples, not just converts, be produced as a result of the evangelistic task. So often an individual church or a denomination of churches will carry out an evangelism campaign where x number of new believers are converted and baptized. Sadly, churches are impressed not with the number of disciples that are being made in the church, but rather with the number of professions of faith and baptisms. It’s no wonder that an alarmingly high number of those converts cannot be found in the church just one year later. However, if a church were to take Thompson’s advice and be concerned with producing disciples, this would not be the case. New converts should be taught to observe all of Christ’s commands and should be taught the importance of surrender, obedience, and commitment to Christ. Discipleship should be the goal of evangelism, not a tally of professions of faith or baptisms.
Thompson gives the reader a glimpse into his personal life, making the book warm and attractive to its readers. Thompson shares many experiences concerning his relationship with his wife, Carolyn, and his daughter, Damaris. Thompson takes his readers into a seminary class with him, to the streets of Las Vegas, on the airplane with him, and many other places. He does this undoubtedly to illustrate the success that relationship building has in evangelism and discipleship. Thompson even takes the readers back to his childhood and gives us a glimpse of his father and the loving relationship which they shared. With examples such as these, the reader has no means by which to challenge either the success of Thompson’s methodology or his credentials for recommending his methodology. He offers sound, Biblical advice and guidance as well as practical down-to-earth strategies to reach people in every concentric circle of their life. This reviewer felt that Thompson was my professor, that he loved me personally, and that he was personally sharing with me ways in which I might reach the lost members of my family.
This reviewer could find very little within the confines of this book that warranted a critique. After having read “Share Jesus Without Fear” by Bill Faye and “Radically Unchurched” by Alvin Reid, one might have expected to find some specific tools that could be used to lead someone to God, such as step by step evangelism methods. However, Thompson’s book was more concerned with the overarching idea of relationships and less concerned with specific methodologies for verbalizing the gospel message. Perhaps Thompson supposed the reader would find more one on one witnessing instructions in other evangelism resources.
Thompson is successful in supporting his thesis that believers should be concerned with building relationships – relationships with God, relationships with themselves, and relationships with others. Through these relationships, the love of God can flow to others, and God can be glorified. Every word in Thompson’s book is filled with love and compassion for God, and for those in Thompson’s concentric circles, whether lost or saved. Concentric Circles of Concern is an excellent tool in the arsenal of evangelism resources for any evangelist. The love of God and the importance of a strong relationship with him and others permeates through every page of this book. It is a must have for the library of any Christian serious about evangelism and discipleship.
Liberty University, Evan 550, Critical Book Review, Concentric Circles of Concern: Seven Stages for Making Disciples. Oscar Thompson. Evangelism and Church Planting.