Is Friendship Evangelism Really God-Centered?

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Several years ago a student explained that he was prohibited from teaching evangelism in his Sunday School class unless he taught Friendship Evangelism. In other words, he was told that he could not discuss how to share the gospel without affirming that a Christian must first have a friendship with another person prior to sharing the gospel.

That same student then admitted that when he looked for Friendship Evangelism in the Bible he could not find it—so he went ahead and taught what the Bible said about evangelism.

Was that not an interesting pickle for this Sunday School teacher to find himself in?

The core of the issue is as follows. The church leader requiring this student to teach the necessity of friendship prior to sharing the gospel was, in fact, placing a human friendship in the divine Order of Salvation (aka. Ordo Salutis). However, when one studies the Order of Salvation, a long fought over concept for the Protestant Reformers, nowhere is there included in it the need for human friendship. In fact, requiring human friendship effectively injects a man-centered addition into the Ordo Salutis.

The Reformers, for their part, were protesting the man-centered additions of Catholicism, the Sacraments, priests, the Pope, Mary, the saints, Holy Water, and other add-ons into the Order of Salvation. Luther’s focus on Sola Scriptura (Scriptures alone) made God’s Word the only intermediary between God and the soul of man. It is through the very words of the Bible that the Holy Spirit works to bring men to justification and sanctification. The Holy Spirit works in, with, and by the Word of God. Yes, Jesus is the one and only Mediator between God and man. And this mediation is explained in, with, and by the gospel proclaimed.

The Christian, through evangelism, becomes a spokesperson for God by communicating the message of the Scriptures. Nothing should be added to this message and nothing subtracted from it. The gospel must-needs remain pure and unadulterated.

However, in recent generations it seems like we have re-injected a human addition into the salvation process by requiring friendship.

This man-centered approach was taught by Joseph Aldrich in Life-Style Evangelism in the early 1980s. He used Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” as the basis for his approach to evangelism.

“I have used Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs for years as a teaching tool. I find it helpful in determining what level of need a person is struggling to satisfy. Motivation to act appears to be directly related to need. If I can link a solution (the Gospel) to a felt need, I have created a favorable climate to meet that need. … Maslow’s model also lets us see how important genuine Christian fellowship can be as it is specifically targeted to meet these needs.” (pages 90, 94)

So armed with Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” Aldrich came to the decision that proclamational evangelism was no longer the most useful methodology:

“Although the proclamational approach to evangelism will have validity until Jesus comes, it is not a means by which the majority of Christians will reach their own private world.” (page 78)

Apparently, the words of Jesus to “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached unto the whole world as a witness” (Matt 24:14), or “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), or “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations” (Luke 24:47) do not fit the paradigm of Abraham Maslow.

So who wins? Maslow or Jesus? Aldrich or Jesus?

A generation later Steve Sjogren of Conspiracy of Kindness taught people to do “Acts of Kindness,” borrowing his thinking from a paradigm similar to that of Aldrich. Again a man-centered approach built on secular psychological foundations. Here is what Steve Sjogren, Dave Ping, and Doug Pollock wrote in their 2004 book, Irresistible Evangelism:

“Many Christians talk about developing an intimate personal relationship with God, but the message they present to not-yet-Christians focuses almost exclusively on explaining how the atoning death of Jesus satisfies the requirements of God’s justice. … Talking about doctrines such as justification by faith and atonement by the substitutionary death of Jesus is usually unnecessarily confusing.

“…Relationship is the true heart of the matter. … Following Jesus is more than just a handy way to gain admittance into heaven or to avoid hell. It’s more than a magic formula for salvation.” (page 149)

So, according to Sjogren, Ping, and Pollock, talking about justification by faith is “unnecessarily confusing”! What of the book of Romans? Consider the great words of Paul in Romans 1:16-17:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” (Rom 1:16-17)

Again who wins? The Apostle Paul or Sjogren, Ping, and Pollock?

This author commends Paul and Jesus. Similarly, Luther’s concept of Sola Scriptura provides a helpful foundation for evaluating methodologies of evangelism.

We live in a day of Young, Restless, and Reformed, for which I am very grateful. In that light, it is quite odd that such a man-centered approach to evangelism prevails. Ours ought to be a Bible-centered approach to evangelism. And if our approach to evangelism is truly Word-centered, then it will automatically be God glorifying and Christ-focused.

For example, there are 52 personal evangelism conversations in the Gospels and the Book of Acts. The Greek verb “evangelize” is found in the New Testament 54, 55, or 56 times, depending on which Greek text-type one is using. There are literally 149 biblical verbs and 20 nouns that explain what evangelism is. Surely, God has not left Himself without a witness.

In fact, adding a human relationship to the order of salvation makes our efforts at building a friendship the reason for the election or predestination of the person with whom we are seeking to build a friendship. The issue does not become their acceptance or rejection of the gospel, but rather our efforts in building a relationship. Inversely, our failure to build a proper friendship then becomes the reason that our would-be-friend is consigned to hell, not their rejection of the gospel. Therefore, through Friendship Evangelism, the Enemy lays a guilt-trip on the evangelizing Christian for the eternal salvation of those he does not properly befriend before evangelizing. Quite a Catch-22!

The example of Jesus shows that proximity does not predestine or elect people. In fact, rather the opposite:

“Then He went out from there and came to His own country, and His disciples followed Him. And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue. And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this Man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands! Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?’ And they were offended at Him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.’ Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marveled because of their unbelief. (Mar 6:1-6 NKJ)

In this case the people of Nazareth (1) were astonished at Jesus and (2) were offended by Him, and (3) Jesus marveled because of their unbelief. Proximity to Jesus was not helpful. So also with the towns were Jesus ministered:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades” (Luke 10:13-15)

In the case of Jesus, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were the cities were Jesus accomplished much of His ministry. Proximity to Jesus and experience of His teaching and miracles did not cause them to be more open to the gospel, but rather it was a cause for Jesus calling for their judgment!

Yes, nature abhors a vacuum. If we take God out of the equation, then we put ourselves into it. Yes, it is dangerous to build on any other foundation than that of the Word of God. The following words of Christ make sense in light of the dangers of competing views of evangelism:

“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.” (Matt 7:24-27)

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A Friendly Response to Darrin Patrick

Recently Darrin Patrick published a short article titled “Make Friends, Not Just Converts” at the “For the Church” website (ftc.co). I consider Darrin a friend, though I only know him from afar. I respect his work and ministry. However, at the request of a former student and due to its methodological content, I have felt the need to write a kindly word of response to this article.

Darrin shared about his past as a “tract boy” who was “obsessed with evangelism.” He then explained that he is now much more incarnational in his evangelism, teaching a house-based-style of friendship evangelism. He spent several paragraphs anecdotally explaining Jesus’ incarnation into this world to build friendships, using the example of Jesus’ “lounging around” in the house of Matthew as His primary evangelism strategy.

The theme sentence of his article may be this one: “Jesus was intentional about the relationships he formed.” Therefore, by transference, our evangelism strategy, in order to be like that of Jesus, needs to focus on intentionally building relationships. This relational evangelism is contrasted by Darrin’s former life as a “tract boy” who was “obsessed with evangelism.”

As it turns out, last year I designed a new gospel tract, “The Greatest Words Ever Spoken.” I have also recently returned from my third evangelism trip to New Orleans where I handed out gospel tracts on Bourbon Street. Darrin said that he made this same trip one time during his “tract boy” era. He set up his comments with a compare-contrast of what he was before and what he now is in evangelism. With this before-after narrative, he shared how he is no longer “that way”. He recommended his opinion to his readers, writing, “You don’t want to be that guy or that girl.”

However, as professor of evangelism at Midwestern, I am “that guy.” And I attempt to try to encourage and convince students to consider reasons for being “that guy” or “that girl.” I have also developed 1,200 pages of notes on evangelism to make “that” point (see http://www.evangelismunlimited.com/notes.php).

So, while I am not in my early 20s anymore, I still go to Bourbon Street in New Orleans to hand out tracts and share the gospel. In fact, just this morning I was knocking on apartment doors in Grandview, Missouri, seeking to share the gospel with anyone who would come to their door. Whereas Darrin wrote about his past, “I was obsessed with evangelism.” For myself, I would wish that I were more obsessed with evangelism!

I must assume that Darrin is not espousing raw pragmatism or cultural accommodation. So I will answer his arguments from a biblical perspective, assuming that most of his audience comprises of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed.” First of all, God explained that His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isa 55:8-9). Clearly in the area of gospel proclamation, a “hearing of faith”, repentance, confession, and conversion, God’s ways are far above our ways. And fortunately God has not left Himself without a witness. The Bible provides a storehouse of helpful material to assist us in navigating the difficult questions related to a philosophy of evangelism.

I cut my teeth on a biblical philosophy of evangelism in the mid-1980s when I was teaching the Bible and evangelism in Quebec. Then popular American Evangelical books on evangelism were being translated into French and were sold to French Evangelicals. Popular books on evangelism at that time taught friendship and lifestyle evangelism. These books were greatly debilitating to French Evangelicalism in Quebec. The human-centered American philosophies of evangelism in that era were unhelpful to the struggling French Evangelical churches in Quebec. Theirs was a long history ostracism and outright persecution for the gospel. Their context was far more in keeping with what Jesus taught in Matthew 10 when He sent out His disciples to evangelize. I struggled with the clear disconnect between the teachings of the Bible and that of the American literature on evangelism.

This conflict between the shallow American methods of the 1980s and French antagonism to the gospel led me into a deeper study of what the Bible has to say about the practice of evangelism—a study that continues to this day. May the reader then consider several comments in response to Darrin’s thought-provoking article.

  1. Equating initiative evangelism with being unfriendly or weird is an unfair caricature of all evangelists (ad hominem) and encourages the fallacy of composition (grouping unlike people into one category).
  2. It is easy to overemphasize one aspect of the ministry of Jesus (His relational evangelism) while underreporting other aspects of His evangelism ministry (e.g. His street evangelism, for example His conversation with the Woman at the Well in John 4).
  3. An emphasis on the incarnational elements of Jesus’ evangelism ministry, can overlook that only Jesus was God incarnate, leading us to observe and imitate Paul’s example, who said, “Imitate me even as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
  4. Of the 52 personal evangelism conversations in the Gospels and the Book of Acts, all were stranger-to-stranger evangelism with the exception of two conversations in John 1.
  5. The title of the article, “Make Friends, Not Just Converts,” highlights human interaction while downplaying the more important spiritual dimension of the Holy Spirit’s work in instantaneously converting a soul.
  6. One’s view of conversion comes at the intersection of one’s view of evangelism and justification by faith. A dim view of conversion leads to several questions: how does justification by faith happen? Is it a long process or is it point-in-time, as when Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7) or as exemplified with Lydia from Thyatira (Acts 16:13-14)? If conversion is truly instantaneous, then what triggers biblical regeneration? Is it not hearing the glorious gospel with a “hearing of faith” and then believing?
  7. It is theologically confusing to infuse irresistible grace with the human work of befriending people, that is, believing that God irresistibly works divine election, predestination, or eternal salvation in and through our efforts in building friendships with those whom we seek to befriend. Even the wife of the unsaved husband cannot be assured of her husband’s ultimate salvation (1 Cor 7:16).
  8. Rather than our friendship, it is the gospel of Christ that remains the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). Our cogent arguments, our friendship, our lifestyle, or our service, important as they are, are not God’s power unto anyone’s salvation.
  9. Jesus Himself went city-by-city evangelizing, and He also sent out His disciples on evangelistic city-to-city mission trips on several different occasions (Matt 9-10, Mark 6, and Luke 9, 10).
  10. As to the power of human relationships, Jesus Himself was notably rejected by His own hometown people (Mark 6:1-6; Luke 4:28-30), by those people living in His ministry center towns (Luke 10:13-15), as well as by His own brothers (John 7:3-5)—surely we are not greater than our Master (John 15:20)?
  11. Just as in the ministries of Jesus and the apostles, all evangelism methodologies will and do result in the seed of the gospel being sown into the four soil types mentioned in the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13; Mark 4; Luke 8)—there’s no way around this sovereign design of God’s grace!

For these reasons, and perhaps others also, it is my contention that there is a positive place for initiative evangelism in the life of all believers. I am not advocating that God cannot and does not use relationship, friendship, service, lifestyle, and the home to play a role in evangelism. However, it is my contention that expectant evangelism should not be maligned or scorned. While practices can always be sharpened and gospel presentations can and should constantly be improved, initiative evangelism methodologies do have a positive place in God’s sovereign economy of His saving grace.