The Problem with “Friendship Evangelism”

I have a problem with what has been called “friendship evangelism”

The idea of friendship evangelism is that you develop and nurture friendships with people in order to eventually proclaim the gospel and evangelize to them. So churches encourage people to get to know their neighbors, connect with their community and also even join local interest groups in order to infiltrate the community, ultimately then tell the gospel, and bring them to church.

“Targeting” or “Getting to Know”?

Why does this make me feel uncomfortable? After all, we do want people to know about Jesus. We do want to tell the story of the reign of God and then invite others to join with us on that journey. We believe that Jesus is the truest expression of God, he points to and incarnates God. We know that God’s rule is the best possible outcome for our world and the most meaningful existence for us now and to eternity. Why shouldn't we then target people, build friendships and tell them about Jesus? Click To Tweet

Since I moved into a new neighborhood recently, I have been getting to know my neighbors, hanging out at the cafes and talking with staff, shopping locally, walking the place rather than driving, connecting with community groups and even making friends.

When Christians asked me why I moved into the area I initially would tell them that I wanted to plant a church and so I wanted to get to know the neighborhood first. They would congratulate me for “connecting” with the place and people and even admire me for my bold move, but many of them would immediately start asking me about my plans for evangelism and starting a church service. It seemed like what some of them were more interested in was impact, influence, church style and structure as well as plans for making converts.

I felt as though getting to know my neighborhood, caring for the built environment and the people, and serving the community was given an approving nod but what really mattered was souls saved. After all, that’s what should be most important to Christians, according to particular expressions of Evangelicalism anyway. Paradoxically, when I first moved into my new neighborhood, I was cautious about telling my neighbors about what I was doing, however now, I’m finding that I’m in fact much more cautious in telling Christians my reason for moving into a new neighborhood.

A lot of conversations I am having these days with leaders center around the practice of evangelism within a missional framework. Essentially the question posed is often this:

Have we become so ‘missional’ that we have now marginalized the importance of evangelism?

I think it’s a good question and we need to be exploring this much more deeply. We need to be thinking about what evangelism looks like in a post-Christendom, post-modern context. But while many have quickly reached for friendship evangelism as the strategy, I don’t think this is the answer. Have we become so 'missional' that we have now marginalized the importance of evangelism? Click To Tweet

Turning Relationships into a Task

Christians are some of the most task oriented people I know. I put myself in that category also. God is still teaching me about the priority of relationships, the value that God places on friendships and also on community.

Friendships with an agenda are never true friendships. The joy of friendship is that people accept one another regardless of differences and are mutually open to learning from each other. Even if a friend does not come around to our way of thinking and living, we still maintain and practice true friendship with them. Yet friendship evangelism conveys that the agenda is conversion and if this does not occur, the friendship is discarded. We must move on, having limited time, to making other friends who we need to convert.

People are treated like projects rather than complex and relational human beings. This smacks of duplicity and in a culture that values authenticity, people will see through our mixed motives. Author and professor Elaine Heath says,

Genuine friendships are relationships without an agenda. Friendship evangelism is never really about friendship when it has a church growth agenda. We have to give that up. It’s just not the way of Jesus. What we do find in the Gospels is a way of Jesus who offers friendship to all sort of people, some of whom decide to follow him.

Friendships with an agenda are never true friendships. Click To Tweet

Overcoming “Gospel Anxiety” in Evangelism

Why are we so anxious about the gospel? I was telling someone that I am thinking about running a program at my local community center which looks at the broad life-giving principles that you would find in Scripture, however I would not be telling people about Christianity in that context. My friend told me he struggled with that. He wasn’t sure if he felt comfortable with running a program for people who are not Christians which did not make the gospel evident and name it in that context. In other words, he felt uncomfortable with a program for non-Christian people that was not primarily evangelistic. His thinking was that if we don’t take every opportunity to share the gospel we fail. This kind of evangelistic anxiety, in my view, is not in accord with the Jesus who said that we come to him because his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30).

Perhaps we have this anxiety about the gospel as a result of all those guilt and shame inducing sermons on evangelism we heard which fed to us that if we didn’t tell people the gospel as soon as possible and at every chance, we would be robbing them of eternal life. No wonder Christians cringe when they hear the word evangelism these days! We are made to feel that the pressure is on us to save people from eternal separation from God. This urgency placed on us, I think, has become an insecurity and an anxiety which betrays our faith in a God who is always at work wooing people towards his salvation.

My thinking is that God is much more interested in bringing the person I am friends with into his kingdom than I am, even if I love the person very much. God loves my friend more and God will do his work whether through me or through another person. Evangelistic anxiety is not in accord with what Jesus said and did. Click To Tweet

Our Truncated View of the Gospel Needs a Story

Often our definition of the gospel is a set of propositions looking for a story. We know the four or five points of salvation through Christ and we have been told that whenever we can, we are to rehearse these points and convey them to friends. I think, however, we might do better if we see the gospel as a story which we invite people into, welcoming them into the rule of God. This is a much more holistic way of living out and proclaiming our Christian faith.

In Vision and Virtue Stanley Hauerwas says,

Our character is the result of our sustained attention to the world that gives coherence by the stories through which we have learned to form the story of our lives.

Stories are what we listen to, they shape us as we absorb them and then live them out. The gospel is a story that we embody and proclaim; it is much bigger than the plan of salvation—though this plan is an important part we must not neglect.

If we think in this kind of holistic way about the gospel and this includes understanding humans as relational beings, then we will not compartmentalize or marginalize evangelism in a missional framework. They must both always be in our thoughts. As the Spirit leads and prompts us, the Spirit will make it his priority that we remain simultaneously faithful to God, our neighborhood, and our dear friends. We must (re)learn the gospel as a story we are inviting people into. Click To Tweet

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