Not long ago I was invited to inform the discussion of a group of church leaders concerning the always controversial subject of evangelism.
As the conjecture began flying fast and furious, the following statement was unanimously agreed upon by all but yours truly: “We can never share the Gospel until we’ve first established a long-term relationship with that person. Effective evangelism only happens after a friendship is made.”
I pray that this posting will serve as food for thought for all those who hold this position.
Is personal witnessing synonymous with “friendship evangelism”? For those not up on your modern church terms, “friendship evangelism” carries 3 basic connotations:
To some, friendship evangelism is a method of leading people to Christ where you become their friend first, and then and only then should you share the Gospel with them.
Others believe that friendship evangelism means living such a good life that people will be prompted to ask you: “what’s different about you?” and then you share the Gospel with them.
There’s yet another group of people who believe that friendship evangelism means leading people to Christ strictly by living a life that’s a good example without ever verbally sharing the Gospel. These people usually say: “I let my life be my testimony.”
But are any of these ideas biblical? No, they’re not.
A basis for biblical evangelism
Here are 3 reasons why these forms of so-called “friendship evangelism” are not biblical:
1. Only God determines “effect”
Let’s look briefly at what the Bible says about God and salvation.
God says: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
God says: “…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…and this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23 & 25).
So, what’s the only way that spiritually dead people are born again? By the Gospel. And at the core, the Gospel is not a friendship, it’s not a testimony, and it’s not a church invitation. The Gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ – nothing more, nothing less (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
That means when it comes to all “types” of evangelism, the question to ask is not: “is what we’re saying and doing effective?” – why? – because we don’t determine effect, God determines effect. Rather, the question to ask when we’re saying and doing evangelism is: “was it biblical?” Because if we’re being biblical then God will always make evangelism effective, but not on our terms…on His!
2. An unsown seed can’t be watered or grown
Imagine a farmer pouring buckets of water on ground without first sowing seed. Wouldn’t that be ridiculous? Well, this is in effect what we’re doing when we try to “water” with relationship before sowing the seed of the Gospel.
However, if we will commit to loving the lost in our lives enough to share Christ with them first, then we can water the seed with more Gospel and good works, all the while giving Christ all the glory!
3. Friendship evangelism presumes on God’s grace
Of the length of his life, David prayed to God: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16). Who determines the number of our days? God.
The point here is that committing to establish a “long-term” relationship with a lost sinner bound for hell is presuming upon God’s grace because we really don’t know how “long” they have to live. Again, HE has numbered their days…not us.
Over the past several months I have been reaching out to a young, terminally ill friend on Facebook. Thankfully, I front-end loaded our online friendship with the Good News first. Because last night…he died. I pray that God granted Him repentance and faith unto salvation in his last days.
But what if I hadn’t known that he was terminally ill and chose to put myself sovereign over God by determining to build a long-term friendship with him before sharing the Gospel? Scary thought. Further, aren’t ALL those whom God has placed in our lives “terminally ill” with a disease called sin?
Obviously, we all want our family and friends to receive Christ. However, we must always make sure that the eternal concern of evangelism always takes priority over the temporal concern of friendship.
Evangelism in the New Testament
I have a ministry peer named Jon Speed who wrote a fantastic little biblical handbook called “Evangelism in the New Testament: A Plea for Biblically Relevant Evangelism“. In it, Jon distinguishes “friendship evangelism” from what he calls “contact evangelism”, which is sharing the Gospel in direct contact with strangers.
Here are a few very telling quotes that reveal the results of his biblical research:
“There are at least 89 instances of Christ and His associates doing evangelism in the four Gospels. Of these 89 instances, 77 took place in the context of contact evangelism.”
“There are at least 46 instances of the early church engaging in evangelism (both contact and friendship) in the book of Acts. Of these 46 instances, 38 took place in the context of contact evangelism.”
So…it seems that 87% of Jesus’ evangelism on record was with total strangers, and 83% of the early churches’ evangelism on record was with total strangers.
Let the record show that if we base our theology and methodology of evangelism purely on the Bible, it’s really not the often marginalized street evangelist who seems to be “evangelizing against the grain”. Rather, it’s the vast majority of modern Christ-followers who have embraced what’s become known as “friendship evangelism”.
So…when to sow?
I want to conclude by trying to tackle this popular question of when – when is it appropriate to share the Gospel with a lost loved one? Is it as the “friendship evangelists” say or is it as the “contact evangelists” say? When?
Well, after thoroughly searching the Scriptures and consulting the teaching of several prominent proponents of friendship evangelism, I could only find three possible examples of anything even resembling “friendship evangelism”:
- Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4
- Andrew and his brother in John 1
- Matthew and his “friends” in Matthew 9
While I could mention at length how Jesus wasted no time in confronting sin in all evangelistic encounters, for the purposes of this posting, even in those examples the evangelists did not delay in sharing the truth with family and friends – the Gospel was prioritized right away!
In closing, please know that I am not suggesting that Christ-followers should go around recklessly confronting all their lost loved ones about their sin like some sort of religious wackos! Rather, I am encouraging us all to base our life and witness entirely on God’s Word alone…our preaching in the power of His Gospel alone…and to not delay in sharing Christ while there is still time!
Let’s pray and preach like there’s no tomorrow…because there truly may not be.