So, What about Friendship Evangelism?

So, What about Friendship Evangelism?

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Published:
July 14, 2020

Flying planes can be dangerous! We enjoy playing around with ambiguous phrases and sentences. But have you noticed the ambiguity in the title of this quarter’s lessons? Making Friends for God. At first, I thought it would be about the process of developing friendships. Near the end of the quarterly it would explain how to be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to initiate talk with these friends about the gospel and other Bible truths. I thought it was going to be about how to deepen friendships and share our faith with friends as the opportunity presented itself: “friendship evangelism.”

But after doing a little checking I realized the focus of the quarterly was on personal witnessing for evangelism, not on making friends. The introduction on pages 2 and 3 said nothing about making friends. None of the weekly lesson titles contained the word, friends or friendship. The first lesson was entitled, “Why Witness?” not “Why Make Friends?” And I couldn’t find friends or friendship in any of the headings of the ninety-one daily lesson pages. I concluded the quarterly was about God’s need for friends, and how we can witness and  evangelize to enlarge God’s circle of friends. And, secondly, it was about people’s need to have God as a friend. Both of these points are excellent, but the ambiguity of the title threw me off.

I did find the term friend used in the text of Lesson 3, “Seeing People through Jesus’ Eyes,” however. Sunday’s lesson mentions the blind man of Mark 8:22-26 and his friends who saw his need and brings him to Jesus. In more than half of Jesus’ twenty-five miracles, a relative or friend brings the person to Jesus. “Many people will never come to Jesus unless someone who has faith brings them. Our role is to become an ‘introducer” and bring people to Jesus” (Finley, Making Friends for God, p. 23).

Tuesday’s lesson (p. 25) focuses on what I would call “friendship evangelism” perhaps more than any other page of the quarterly. “Witness where God has planted you.” “Start with those around you. See with divine eyes the possibilities closest to you.” The page then applies the story of Andrew bringing his brother to Jesus, to us bringing our friends. It talks about the importance of “building positive, caring relationships.” When we share Jesus with our friends, we make friends for God and they become Christian friends and some may become Adventist friends as well. The appeal at the bottom of the page says, “Have you been successful in sharing Jesus with any of your family members or close friends [italics mine]? Share any principles that the class might find helpful.” The rest of the quarterly contains good general counsel on witnessing, some of which can be applied to friends, but without explicit linking there seems to be an assumption that it applies equally well to witnessing to strangers.

So, then, what about friendship evangelism? In 1990, Monte Sahlin published two books: Sharing our Faith with Friends without Losing Either (Review and Herald) and Friendship Evangelism (Concerned Communications). In the latter book, he defined friendship evangelism as “Simple, practical ways to share the language of caring with people around you—to let them know that God loves them, that hope is not lost” (p. 6). The book has chapters on learning to care, listen, and share; and on the friendly, evangelistic church. The second section presents how people come to Christ, asks what keeps us from sharing, and has a chapter on bridging skills for building a relationship with a potential friend. It concludes with helpful suggestions on skills needed for sharing Christ with friends or close relatives.

Others have followed up on the theme; Joseph Kidder, a professor at the SDA Theological Seminary, offered three major lessons: seize opportunities, be intentional about building relationships, and allow a considerable amount of time. He also made eight suggestions for effective sharing with friends: 1) identify the fact that you are a Christian in the course of normal conversation; 2) don’t hesitate to speak of the benefits and blessings of being a Christian; 3) when appropriate, give God the glory as you discuss good things you experience; 4) don’t try to say everything at once; 5) ask questions (seek first to understand); 6) be sensitive to their reactions; 7) seek wisdom in prayer; 8) when asked, explain the plan of salvation simply and clearly. Kidder urged his readers to invite people to social activities at church, special worship events, home Bible studies, and evangelistic meetings or small group fellowships. He concluded by urging patience! (“Friendship Evangelism: Is There Any Other Kind?” Review, June 16, 2014).

Some Evangelicals have been critical of the Friendship Evangelism movement on the grounds that it is not a good strategy. See, for example, Karina Kreminski’s article where she critiques it on the grounds that it “turns relationships into a task.” She says, “Friendships with an agenda are never true friendships.” She assumes that “Friendship evangelism conveys that the agenda is conversion and if this does not occur, the friendship is discarded.” But, from my perspective, friendship evangelism need not be colored so negatively; it can dispose of  the notion that friendships may be discarded if conversions don’t happen! (“The Problem with Friendship Evangelism,” Missio Alliance, Oct. 3, 2016). https://www.missioalliance.org/problem-friendship-evangelism/

When my wife and I retired, we moved to a small town in California. We didn't know anybody, and were open to forming new friendships. I felt called to focus on making friends, inquiring about spiritual matters, and inviting people to attend a prayer group—when and if the Holy Spirit should lead in that direction. God seemed to be asking me to focus on relationships in retirement rather than academia. We have made some wonderful friends and some of them have joined a small group of ten that is currently meeting weekly in our neighbor’s back patio area (outdoors because of the pandemic). Two others are studying the book of Revelation with me on Zoom. We’re having a great time! One couple in our group has opened up their driveway for a block party every Tuesday from 5:00 to 7:00 (with physical distancing). People have a need for contact and we have discovered that physical distancing does not have to mean social distancing! I have concluded that friendship evangelism is a good, natural way to make lifelong friends and establish lines of trust where people are more open to talking about spiritual truth.

What biblical books mention making friends and witnessing to friends? In the Old Testament, the story of David and Jonathan immediately comes to mind. We first read of their friendship in 1 Samuel 18:1–4 where it says, “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David” (RSV) or “Jonathan and David became bound together in close friendship” (NET). In this case, there was deep affection, a mutual agreement, and an exchange of gifts. Their friendship was marked by mutual good will, a risky willingness to work together, and loyalty (1 Samuel 20). When these principles are actuated, strangers become acquaintances, acquaintances become occasional companions, and companions become friends. David and Jonathan shared spiritual realities with each other also. Note the mention of “the Lord” six times in their conversation recorded in 1 Samuel 20:12–17.

In John 15, Jesus made it clear in his farewell teaching that his “disciples” were also his “friends.” After all, he had now been with them for three and a half years! Friends are expected to love one another (v. 12), but friendship with Jesus involves costly love. Friends are willing to die for each other (v. 13), Jesus said, pointing forward to his crucifixion—but also to the martyrdoms of many of his friends. Finally, Jesus pointed out that friends share secrets and confidences. Jesus told them he was no longer calling them servants, but friends, because he was sharing with them “everything he learned from the Father” (Jn 15:12-15).

Paul’s letter to the Philippians has a great deal to say about friendship. It has been called “a hortatory letter of friendship” (Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Eerdmans, 1995), and careful study reveals it has much to say about making and keeping friends. Many of the friendship ideals mentioned in the letter are characteristic of those found in contemporary Greco-Roman literature. Philippians compares positively with other “friendly letters” of the day. For example, 1) The letter is obviously based on mutual goodwill between Paul and the members in Philippi. 2) This friendship is based on partnership: the members have participated in Paul’s mission through their witness and their financial support for Paul’s church-planting efforts. Friendships are built on working together. 3) Friendship is further noted by the expressions of deep affection (“I have you in my heart” (1:7); “I long for you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8); “Therefore my brothers [and sisters], you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” (4:1). 4) We note examples of reciprocity between Paul and his friends in Philippi: he prays for them (1:4), and they pray for him (1:19). Read through the four chapters and jot down all of the principles of friendship that you find. These lessons can be adapted to the making of friends—and sharing with friends—in neighborhoods, workplaces, and other social venues.

Until my retirement, I customarily focused on my work to such a degree that I found it difficult to take the time to make friends with my neighbors. Now I have accepted God’s call to “friendship evangelism.” With it comes the recognition that it is God’s work. I am only here to cooperate with him. It is exciting to get acquainted with new people. But even more so, to see God at work—telling me where to go, what to do, and what to say, when and who to invite.  I am sure I have missed some of the messages. But I am reminded of the word that was given to each of the seven churches: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

We can “make friends for God” as we develop friendships with neighbors, work mates, and other acquaintances. And we can depend on the Holy Spirit to provide the prompting we need to share when the time is right.

 

Doug Matacio is professor emeritus of religious studies at Burman University, Lacombe, Alberta, Canada. He writes from Rio Vista, California.

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