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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Friendship Evangelism

Feb 3, 2020

Should we only share the gospel after first forming close relationships with people?

There is the ideal, and then there is the real. Sometimes they overlap, but often they do not. This is true when it comes to how Christians think about and do evangelism. Let me begin by sharing three things (of many) that I have heard on this issue over the years.

Some decades ago a Christian gal told me she was not into evangelism – certainly not into sharing Christ with strangers, preaching on street corners, and so on. She said she preferred just building relationships with people. And some years ago a Christian leader told me that believers need to first earn the right to share the gospel with non-Christians.

And just days ago someone said in a comment on this site that she is into friendship evangelism, since she is done with ‘the wagging finger scenario’. How should we assess such remarks? Let me briefly look at the ideal, and then the reality.

The ideal

Is it a good thing to make friends, build relationships with them, and in that setting share your faith? Yes, generally speaking it is. In one sense people may be more open to hearing the gospel if they know you and have a good relationship with you.

Hearing the gospel from a close Christian friend over a cup of coffee or a nice meal can make for a welcoming and receptive environment. And if non-Christians know you well, and can hopefully see your life of integrity and sincerity, that can be of help when you share the good news.

And since getting people to accept gospel truths can take some time as the Spirit works in that person’s life, having an ongoing relationship with someone as you try to bring truth into their life is also a good thing. So there certainly is a place for evangelising with those you know, know well, and have known for a while

But… the reality

All that I mentioned above is the ideal. And sometimes it can be real. But we have other realities to deal with as well. Let me mention several of them. First, we cannot ignore the many biblical commands to evangelise and to proclaim the gospel.

The Great Commission is of course one such clear command: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

There is no stipulation here that we should only evangelise after we have first established a nice relationship with our non-Christian friends, or that we can only evangelise after we have ‘earned the right to speak’ to them. We are simply ordered to go and to share the truth.

Sure, as with most things in the Christian life, we are to do so prayerfully and wisely and prudently. Some times may be better than others for sharing the gospel. If a person is running late for an urgent appointment with a doctor, waylaying that person and trying to pin him down for a half hour with a lengthy gospel presentation may not be very wise or helpful. So of course we need tact, discernment and wisdom as to when, where and how we share.

But simply consider Jesus, the disciples, and two thousand years of church history when it comes to evangelism. In so many cases they all simply started preaching and witnessing to complete strangers. They would go from place to place, open their mouths, and evangelise. For the most part they did not wait for a written invitation, and they did not seek to first establish a close personal relationship with their listeners.

When Jesus and the apostles and early disciples went up to complete strangers and crowds of unknown people and told them to repent (and that was indeed their core message), they of course would have upset many, offended many, and enraged many. But so what? Such ‘finger-wagging’ is just what they needed.

Again, there may be certain times that will be better than others to evangelise. But Paul said that we are to preach the word both “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). Or as the NRSV puts it, “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable”.

And then we need to keep in mind the urgency of the task. People NEED to hear the gospel, whether they want to or not. That unsaved neighbour that you have been meaning to share the gospel with for years, but keep putting it off, could die tonight. Then it will be too late.

In one way we need to capture a sense of urgency here. We need to see how everyone in a sense is living in a state of emergency. As such we do not always have the luxury of waiting around, hoping to one day build a relationship. Some things just can’t wait.

If you are driving home and spot a house on fire, you do NOT say to yourself, ‘Well, I don’t know this person and I do not have a relationship with him, so who am I to stop and warn him? That would be unloving of me and counterproductive to interfere in his life.’ Baloney, if you cared at all about the person – if you loved your neighbour as yourself – you would let him know immediately.

As I said last year when Israel Folau was under fire from some armchair Christian critics about the way he shared Scriptural truth:

Sure, we all want to be tactful and careful as we share biblical truth in public. But we also need some Holy Ghost boldness here. If you see a little girl playing on the street and a big truck hurtling her way, if you cared at all, you would yell, scream, jump up and down and do all you can to save her.

You would NOT try to be polite, respectful and calm, making sure no one gets offended. You would act quickly and sound the alarm because a life is at risk. Folau gets it: all people are sinners and they are all heading to a lost eternity unless they repent.

They must be warned. They must be told. Sure, it is always nice if this can be done over a period of time with a nice relationship established. But we do not always have that luxury. Some of the people who read Folau’s warnings today may well be dead tomorrow.

In the same way hoping to build a relationship with the little girl first would be madness. Whether she is a friend, relative, or a complete stranger, she NEEDS that warning or she will die. All unbelievers need such warnings too. Yet most Christians have never shared their faith even once.

They are far too cowardly and too spineless. They would rather keep people happy, even if it means watching them slide into a lost eternity. I may not always do things as Folau does them, but I will give him credit. He has more guts than most believers. billmuehlenberg.com/2019/04/11/israel-folau-the-apostle-paul-and-the-gospel/

Conclusion

In sum, while sharing the gospel with close friends and family members is part of our task as Christians, we are also called to share the good news even with strangers and even at a moment’s notice. While we do not minimise the place of friendship evangelism, we do need to get real here as to why so many Christians are not sharing their faith.

A good part of the reason why many Christians run with the ‘we must build a relationship first’ line is the simple fact that they are afraid to share their faith in public. They are intimidated about making a public stance for Christ. They are often ashamed of any public display of their faith. Often it is just plain disobedience to the clear commands of Christ that is involved.

If that is the case, making cheap excuses just will not do. The first step is to repent of our unwillingness to do what we are commanded to do. And we need to repent of our fear, our men-pleasing, and our desire to be liked by everyone. When you share the gospel you will be rejected, hated on, and rebuffed by many. That is just the way it is.

But some people will respond to the gospel message in the end, and you will be one link in the chain to their eventual salvation. Some people plant seeds, some water, and some others enjoy the harvest, as Paul said. We all have a role to play here – and we must play it.

By all means keep building relationships when and where possible with the lost. But stop rejecting the clear mandate to make disciples of all nations. We must instead emulate Paul when he said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).

[1522 words]

18 Responses to On Friendship Evangelism

  • Thank you for this powerfully important challenge, Bill. Just being nice to people is not enough to save their souls. I for one am so grateful that faithful and bold, in many cases strangers, were links in the chain that brought me to Christ. Your challenge is God’s message to us all!

  • In one encounter I had with a self-confessed atheist I’d just met, he challenged me over my motivation for talking with him. I.e., he doubted I was ‘sharing the gospel’ out of concern for him. “You do know,” I replied, “that according to the Bible you are blind, and I can see?” (He evidently had sufficient Bible background to agree that’s what it says.) “For the sake of the argument, then, imagine our positions are reversed, i.e. you can see, and I’m the one who is blindly walking towards an open pit. Would you not care enough to shout a warning?”

    He grudgingly accepted the point, if not (yet?!!!) the message.

  • Not sure I agree. Sometimes it could be appropriate to witness to a stranger in the right context but for the most part you’ve got to be there for the person, which means you’re in it for the long ride. I came to Christ through people I trusted and knew. We can all impart wisdom to people on the fly but when it comes to actually seeing someone become a christian, truly seeing that seed grow I think you have to be there. People are to unpredictable to just randomly share the gospel to unsolicited. You dont know what their situation might be. They could’ve just walked out of a court case they lost to a rapist who was a “christian”. Trust is important. People who just throw the gospel out unsolicited and then take off seem to be escaping the actual hard graft. Not to mention some of the worst christian advice I ever had was from street preachers. “You’re not a Christian because you haven’t had the lord’s supper”. I’ll never forget that one. Red eyed and frothing at the mouth!

  • Thanks Gareth. I am not sure if you fully read my article, but as I said, perhaps most evangelism that we read about in the New Testament and in church history involves sharing the gospel with strangers. Indeed, your rather disparaging remark about “People who just throw the gospel out unsolicited and then take off” would pretty well describe the way Jesus, the disciples, and most Christians have evangelised over the past 2000 years. So if I have to choose who I will run with here, it might be them and not you!

    Sure, obviously anyone who evangelises will also try to see to it that any converts are funnelled into a local church for discipleship, and so on. And while it is nice that you came to Christ via people you know, it is also nice when people come to Christ by means of strangers. It is somewhat silly to extrapolate from one’s own experience and demand it to be the same for everyone else. Countless millions of people came to faith from hearing the gospel from a stranger. Whatever way the gospel is presented, I rejoice when it is presented.

    And as if to reinforce my point that so many Christians in the West are simply ashamed or unwilling to share their faith, we must contrast this with real deal believers elsewhere. I just saw this article online about Christians in China who are willing to die as they share their faith – even to strangers: https://www.christianpost.com/news/pastors-in-china-prepare-to-lose-their-lives-for-preaching-the-gospel-defying-communist-crackdown-227501/

    But thanks for your thoughts.

  • Bill, I got goosebumps reading this! Was having a conversation after church yesterday on this very subject…..and this paragraph in your article…” But some people will respond to the gospel message in the end, and you will be one link in the chain to their eventual salvation. Some people plant seeds, some water, and some others enjoy the harvest, as Paul said. We all have a role to play here – and we must play it.”…..was almost word for word what I was saying!

  • Many thanks Jan. Bless you.

  • I’ve heard it said the the most effective method of evangelising is relationship evangelism, that does make sense. I don’t know if there is proof of that though. Evangelism is a gift, but that doesn’t give us a reason not to do it if we think we are not gifted. I’ve evangelised complete strangers, as well as people I’ve taken the time and effort to build relationships with. I’ve had the same reactions with both types, i.e. indifference, curiosity or outright rejection that is bordering on demonic. I’ve also had people with religious backgrounds being upset with me for doing it, but then strangely still being attracted to me, even though they have repeatedly denigrated me. Actual conversion can also take a long time, some seeds planted needs tons of water to blossom.

  • I have found help in my evangelism: Here’s a street preacher who has given significant thought to the actual process of street preaching, and who puts up videos of his efforts by the beach. He even runs a weeklong school of evangelism every now and again.
    These short little public presentations have helped me understand the essence of the biblical message, and I offer bits of it as I am able in short conversations along the way, trusting God to put the story together in the other person’s life.
    I have often been silent with identifying as a Christian, and offering biblical content – I started choosing to say “God bless you” instead of “good-bye.” This little phrase was such an effort and so awkward at the beginning. But it has helped over time to bring me a Christian mind to my dealings with others… It marks me as a Christian, and that has opened up spiritual conversations later.
    The long, but core message from Ray Comfort on effectiveness in sharing the gospel has to do with getting people to feel contrite, to see that there is a wrath to come, that the gospel is a cure for a disease, and not that God wants you to be happy. So I have needed the lessons in his famous “Hell’s best kept secret.”
    https://www.livingwaters.com/

  • “Go Now!”

    “Now go, I will HELP you SPEAK and will TEACH you what to say”

    Exodus 4:12

    Cheers & Blessings

    Eric Hansen

  • Thanks Bill for another great article. All makes sense.

    I think the best role model for evangelism is our Blessed Lord himself. I haven’t come across any evidence in the Gospels of Jesus commanding us to befriend people before evangelising them, nor taking that step himself. Sure enough, there were people whom Jesus had special affection for (John the apostle, Lazarus, Martha and Mary, etc), but this wasn’t a prerequisite for preaching to all the nations and making disciples of them. Friendships are a great thing, but perhaps the only hope we ever have of making a good impression is when we stop trying to make a good impression.

    Lk 10:27: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind: and your neighbour as yourself.” There is an order – not of importance but of priority. Jesus didn’t say to love your neighbour (or yourself) with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.

    Lk 12:51: “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” So it’s quite clear that Christ’s teachings will not unite people under comfortable truths. Rather, his teachings will lead to division because of uncomfortable truths.

    Jn 6:66-67: “And after this, many of his disciples withdrew and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, “Will you also go away?” I don’t really see much concern for friendship here. Jesus had just finished preaching a very hard saying, and who could listen to it? Take it or leave it.

    Mt 10:14: “And if any one will not receive you or listen to your word, shake the dust off from under your feet as you leave that house or town.”

    Of course, one must consider the other person’s position in life and any underlying issues that require understanding and a certain level of compassion, but in the end everybody has a conscience and it must be founded on the Truth, irrespective of their backgrounds or experiences. All have the ability to repent, for all know the moral law, and thereby their own sin.

    Jesus was not a squishy evanjellyfish. And I really don’t think any servant can be greater than his master…You don’t have to like people and they don’t have to like you, but you have to love them. That is, you must pray for them and wish the greatest good for them, which is eternal life. All because you wish eternal life for yourself. Hence, you shall love your neighbour as yourself.

  • A couple more thoughts: there is a practical limit to the number of friends a person can realistically have. Also the real risk that friends may ‘cut their friend adrift’ if they perceive that things are becoming a bit heavy at all from the Christian perspective. Ray Comfort is certainly a role model to aspire to!

  • This is a well balanced take on the issue (as usual).
    Just recently I was reading up on ‘love-bombing’ as a manipulation technique (in personal relationships) and when I started googling, I realised it was a cult practice to make converts.
    So I went down that internet rabbit hole for awhile, and ended up reading ‘evangelism’ manuals and advice for JW’s and Mormons. The scary part is how close to these tactics (heavy love-bombing and making deep relationships with the ulterior motive of converting them into cult members) some Christians are in their ideas of what evangelism looks like.
    So I am wary of ‘friendship evangelism’ as a principle.
    The second thought I have always had is that, we shouldn’t necessarily be forming close bonds (deep friendships) with unbelievers. This is being unequally yoked and scripture warns against it multiple times. So forming a deliberately close relationship in order to attempt to bring someone to Christ could be a double edged sword.
    (I am thinking here of the word friendship in it’s true sense- such as the bond displayed by Jonathan and David- but I am aware that this sort of bond may not be exactly what people mean when they say ‘friendship evangelism’.)
    Also it seems insincere. If the shoe was on the other foot- would I want a Mormon, for example, to make efforts to befriend me with an ulterior motive of converting me?
    To me, evangelism should ideally be natural. Be loving to all- be friendly in your manner if the situation suits- but then speak, as you said, in season and out of it. If we are much in His Word- it should just come out of us.

  • “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” (Ephesians 4:7 ESV)
    There are 5 spiritual ministry gifts mentioned in the bible, of which every believer has at *least* one (generally 2 or more): evangelism, pastoral, prophetic, teaching, apostolic. For believers these are NOT limited by sex or age. It is only our level of faith that limits them.

    GIFTS: In Romans 12:6-8 we see Paul explaining the use of “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us”. Some people call these the motivational gifts. On top of that there are manifestation gifts from the Spirit “who apportions to each one individually as he wills” in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11

    But don’t we must not ever think that these individual gifts that we may have been given trump the clear and absolute commandment that Jesus gave us to preach the gospel and disciple others, and love one another. That was given to every last one of us *regardless* of physical, mental or financial capacity.

    I have a real problem with the term “friendship evangelism”. As well stated in the article, we are to preach the gospel in and out of season. We are to have an urgency about us for the souls that are heading to hell. And we are not on a pleasure cruise but are meant to be in a spiritual war. Prayer is the starting point of our day and for all our endeavours – it is the place to work out Christ’s redemption in us and to intercede for the souls of man.

    If our lives do not directly reflect the key commandments that are given by Christ, that being… to love one another (which is actually the *only* way that Jesus said that others would know whether we were His or not), and to preach the gospel and disciple others, then we can know that we are being disobedient to his commandments. And if we ultimately refuse to surrender our lives and do these things then we can know that we are not his. “Our Jesus” needs to look exactly like the Jesus in the bible – He is our model and we are to be made in His image – otherwise he is actually a “Jesus” made in our image.

    So when it comes to “friendship evangelism”, by definition as a believer, all my friends should be in no doubt that I am a believer because it is central to who I am and my lifestyle reflects that. As such close contact with me should result in me sharing who Jesus is to me, and why we all need Jesus. It’s a great way of seeing who is actually a real friend. But let me be very clear… *my life* will never save anyone – it is only the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that will save anyone. So when people tell me that we must make friends with people so that they “trust” us to “speak into their lives” I say baloney. Sure, they should see that you love others as you love yourself (otherwise where is the authenticity), but beware that you are setting yourself up as the model, as the example, for that is not what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about. Frankly, on that basis, if we want to be real, it is my experience from my many years of being around people who profess to be Christians, many Christians will have more traction evangelising strangers and not their friends, precisely for that reason.

    Yes Jesus befriended sinners and led them to God. Jesus also preached to the crowds and led people to God. We need to be doing the same. But his lifestyle wasn’t built around sinners, and all of his close friends were believers and his life was built around his calling. His only advantage over us, being divine, was that He could know the hearts of men (though the insight given us by the Holy Spirit is similar). Believers are imbued with the Holy Spirit and should be seeking the fullness of His presence in our lives that we are like Christ and walk in His power and authority. He said that we would do even greater things. His 12 disciples then went on to evangelise the known world, and there are lots of missionaries all over this world doing just that whether they felt up to the task or not – because it’s not about us or our strength, but Christ and His strength. We were bought with a price.

    John 14:12-14 ESV
    “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me[a] anything in my name, I will do it.”

    Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
    “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”

    “The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires.”

    Some good questions:
    • If my friends can’t tell whether I believe in Christ from my lifestyle then am I kidding myself? AM I being obedient to Him?
    • If I am afraid to share Jesus with my friends or acquaintances), why is that?
    • What did Jesus actually command us to do, and am I doing it? Do I actually take God at His word?

  • Thanks Bill. Well said. Overcoming our own fears is often the biggest barrier for sharing the gospel, even for those of us who do it regularly. Taking others with us to “do Evangelism” can help them see it is not that hard and is very rewarding, both to the listener and the speaker, although good evangelism is as much about listening as speaking in many contexts. Bless you and may these words of your bless and encourage many of your readers. Regards, Geoff

  • As far as friendship their are basically four levels: acquaintance, casual, regular, close. Acquaintance would be someone at work or group you get together with that you don’t see outside of there (save for a accidental meeting ie just happen to be in the same place at the same time). Casual is someone you sometimes hang out with or do something with but don’t know too well but better than an acquaintance. Regular is a friend you spend a God amount of time with and know quite a lot about and knows quite a lot about you. Close would be the David and Jonathan friendship. Friendship evangelism most likely would be in the first two levels as the last two should know you are Christian.

  • Weird thing is if we knew where the fountain of youth was and that there was a extra reward for us based on how many we told we would tell EVERYONE we came across. Or if we learn a way to earn a million dollars easily an we received a reward for EVERY person we told we mention to EVERYONE we saw EVERY day! Yet we have something even BETTER than those and we hold back. Young forever – I wanna tell ya. Million dollars – I wanna tell ya. Eternal life – I don’t want to impose myself on you. Whether it is a total stranger, a friend, or an enemy WE are God’s witnesses WE have an obligation to speak out!

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