In this article, I will answer the question: Is social distancing American Evangelicalism’s new gospel-less way to “love your neighbor?”
The Blight that is “Friendship Evangelism”
For 40 years, Satan has maniacally rubbed his hands and smiled (metaphorically speaking) as a generation of American Evangelical Christians has bought into the lies of “Friendship/Servant Evangelism.” At least one early church father would roll over in his grave if he could because an untold number of Christians have ascribed an unbiblical mantra to him as a battle cry for “Friendship/Servant Evangelism.” It goes like this: “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
I’ve written extensively on this methodological blight that has poisoned American Evangelicalism. Here are some articles on the topic of “Friendship Evangelism,” for further study and consideration:
For years, many Christians have used a commitment to engage in “Friendship Evangelism” as an excuse to not engage in evangelism at all. Allow me to briefly explain. The following is taken from the above-linked article “Friendship Evangelism is Neither Friendship nor Evangelism.”
“The tragic result of ‘Friendship Evangelism,’ as Christians most often practice it, is that friendships often become more important than the souls of friends. Christians have been wrongly convinced that they must take time (often lots of time) to cultivate relationships with people so that, someday, they may gain the lost person’s permission — to ‘earn the right’ — to share the gospel with them. So the Christian invests time, energy, and resources sincerely trying to establish loving and caring relationships with people. Is it wrong to do that? No. But the all-too-often tragic result of the practice is that if the Christian ever feels the desire to share the gospel with his lost friend, he won’t. Why? The Christian doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the relationship he has worked so hard to build. So, again, the friendship becomes more important than the soul of the friend.
“Upon closer inspection, this is really selfish behavior. Does the Christian believe that he is so valuable that his lost friend can’t live without him? Or is it that the Christian derives so much pleasure out of the relationship, from what his lost friend does for him, that he doesn’t want to ruin a “good thing”?
“Jesus said, ‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). If Christians truly love their lost friends they will give up everything, even their very lives and certainly their relationships, so that those same lost friends might have eternal life. Or do Christians really want their friends to be with them in this life more than they want them to be with Jesus having received eternal life?”
While “Friendship Evangelism” remains a blight on American Evangelicalism’s efforts to further the gospel, another may have arisen as a result of the Coronavirus Pandemic: “Social Distancing.”
What is “Social Distancing?”
The following is taken from the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website.
“Social distancing, also called ‘physical distancing,’ means keeping space between yourself and other people outside of your home. To practice social or physical distancing:
- Stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from other people
- Do not gather in groups
- Stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings
“In addition to everyday steps to prevent COVID-19, keeping space between you and others is one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to this virus and slowing its spread locally and across the country and world.
“When COVID-19 is spreading in your area, everyone should limit close contact with individuals outside your household in indoor and outdoor spaces. Since people can spread the virus before they know they are sick, it is important to stay away from others when possible, even if you have no symptoms. Social distancing is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.”
“Social Distancing,” for the unforeseeable future, is the “new normal.” It is a woefully inconsistent practice, but it may help reduce or slow the rate of infection. How is it inconsistent, at least in its application? Consider the following, realistic scenario.
You stand dutifully in line at Walmart, making sure your feet do not leave the strip of bright orange tape on the dirty floor, which has been nonverbally assigned to you, until it is your turn to move forward in line to the next piece of tape. You fumble with your phone, checking Facebook, while you wait in line. You drop your phone on the floor and quickly pick it up just as a call comes in. You answer the call by putting the phone to your face–the phone that was just on the floor.
It’s now your turn at the register. You adjust your face mask with the same hand that picked up the phone off the dirty floor. You’re careful not to cough, sneeze, clear your throat, or look cross-eyed at the cashier who is also wearing a mask. Once the cashier finishes ringing up your purchase, you slide your debit card into the card reader–the same card reader used by the last 300 non-glove wearing customers–and punch in your PIN. While you wait for the transaction to be approved, you instinctively scratch your itchy nose and adjust your face mask, all with the index finger of your dominant hand–the index finger you used on the card reader keypad.
You exit the store, breathing a sigh of relief. You may even take a deep breath of fresh air because you kept your breathing shallow while in the store. You walk to your car, feeling pretty confident you neither spread or picked up any germs while in the store. You have no reason to be confident, but you are.
The inconsistency is found in the unusual, even extraordinary steps we will take to keep a “safe” distance from people while having secondary contact with people (and their germs) throughout the day.
Let’s Not Throw Caution to the Wind
Social distancing is one potential, even though not a fool-proof way, to minimize risk. And social distancing is nothing new. The Coronavirus Pandemic is not the first time the world has enacted social distancing protocols. Testimonies are easy to find for the practice of social distancing during the Plague of the 1600s and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.
I’m not suggesting throwing caution to the wind. There’s nothing wrong with taking reasonable steps to protect one’s self and to protect others from infection, during a pandemic. It’s certainly not “loving your neighbor” to wantonly and willfully come in contact with people, with little actual care for the health of others, knowing that you’re sick. I see it as depraved indifference. Whether you have a bad cold or a deadly communicable disease, if you truly love your neighbor you will do what you can to keep from infecting others. Maybe there are times and circumstances when you can’t do much, but you will do what you can.
Equally important: While Christians should take reasonable steps to protect themselves and others, Christians shouldn’t use social distancing, under the auspices of loving their neighbors, as an excuse for not communicating the gospel to others. The gospel must be communicated even when a communicable disease is in the air.
Is Social Distancing the New Friendship Evangelism?
Municipal, county, and state governments, as well as the United States federal government, like other governments around the world, have instituted various types of social distancing policies, protocols, and orders. These “rules” are not uniform from place to place. The draconian regulations in California and New York are far more obtrusive and intrusive than the guidelines under which I live, here, in Iowa.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, the apparent suspension of the Constitution (yep, it’s happening) and governance by fiat, all in the name of “public health,” has led to many instances of abuse of power by law enforcement and the judiciary. At present, it’s another “new normal” I never thought I would see in my lifetime. The Body of Christ has been swept up in the unprecedented red, white, and blue wave of laws that aren’t actually laws.
Some churches have chosen to submit to their governing authorities by either temporarily closing the doors to the church or meeting in such a way that allows the church to continue meeting while maintaining compliance with government edicts. Other churches have chosen to defy the governing authorities and continue meeting as usual. Debating that important issue isn’t the purpose of this article. Eternity will tell if any given church has behaved during this time of crisis like David with the consecrated bread or Uzza with the Ark of the Covenant.
Christians have very impassioned feelings and opinions about the pandemic-related issues facing the world. Some take social distancing very seriously. Others simply joke about it. Still, others are found somewhere between the two amplitudes of the social distancing pendulum.
My concern is Christians using social distancing as an excuse to keep from sharing the gospel with the lost.
Social distancing may be the “new normal” in society, but it need not and should not be the final arbiter for how Christians determine to interact with people, regardless of locale, especially as that interaction pertains to the proclamation of the gospel.
I can see social distancing becoming the new, vogue excuse for not sharing the gospel with lost people, particularly strangers. For 40 years “friendship evangelism” has been the “new normal” for American Evangelicalism. Satan has effectively used it to make the American Church mostly impotent in the area of evangelism.
This bears repeating. Christians have been taught that they first have to develop relationships with people, or worse, “earn the right to speak,” before communicating the gospel to people. So, Christians dutifully follow the evangelical, social construct–the “new normal” if you will–and get so wrapped up in building friendships that they never get to the gospel. Why? They don’t want to do anything to damage the friendship they worked so hard to build. So, in the end, the friendship becomes more important than the soul of the friend.
“Friendship Evangelism” is ultimately an exercise in self-love.
I can see “social distancing” becoming the very same thing.
Many Christians, so fearful of getting sick or making someone else sick, or the fear of being seen as a societal pariah for not playing by social distancing rules, will begin to focus so much effort on maintaining society’s acceptable personal contact rules that they lose sight of the gospel and a lost world’s need for it. They simply add social distancing to the cadre of vehicles (e.g. feeding the hungry, clothing the destitute, building water treatment systems in Africa, social distancing) for practicing the unbiblical notion of “preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”
Many Christians, if they haven’t already, will start to believe and tout as biblical the unbiblical notion of letting people see Jesus in them by wearing a mask, maintaining at least 6′ distance from people in the store, and/or, what a dead-in-sin society and Satan both hope for, just staying home altogether.
What’s the Antidote?
The antidote for keeping social distancing from becoming an excuse for not engaging in evangelism is the same antidote for the blight of Friendship Evangelism.
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:1-4).
Love God and love people. Love others more than you love yourself.
“But I’m doing that by practicing social distancing,” you might respond.
If you are practicing social distancing at the expense of the gospel, if your practice of social distancing becomes an excuse for not communicating the gospel, then you are likely loving yourself more than anyone else.
If you feed people, clothe people, house people, and in any other way physically care for people, but you withhold from them the eternal life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, then, in the end, what you are accomplishing is making people more comfortable on their way to hell. Likewise, if you engage in social distancing, if you show such care for the physical health of friends, family, and the person standing in line behind you at Walmart, but you intentionally withhold from them the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ, then, in the end, what you are accomplishing is making people more comfortable on their way to hell.
The elderly woman in front of you in line at Walmart, the college student standing behind you in line at Walmart needs more from you than the temporal comfort of knowing you are practicing social distancing. They need more than the warm feeling they may have as they walk out of the store–more than the temporal sense of safety they may have–because the Christian standing in front or behind them in line worked hard to maintain the “new normal.” They need the gospel. They need Jesus. They need their sins forgiven and they need to be reconciled to the God they have spent their entire life offending with their sin.
It is you, Christian, who has that gospel. They need the gospel you’ve been commanded to bring to a lost and dying world. Don’t allow social distancing to become the excuse that keeps the gospel from them.
In My Next Article
In my next article, I will offer practical ways to engage in public evangelism while complying with social distancing guidelines.