I have written extensively over the years about the evangelistic darling of American Evangelicalism: “friendship evangelism.” I have very little positive to say about friendship evangelism, as it is most commonly practiced. I am not opposed to establishing friendships with unbelievers. If I repeated the last sentence a dozen times in this article, there would still be Christians who would accuse me of the contrary. That’s easier than dealing with the reality that friendship evangelism, as it is most commonly practiced, is neither friendship nor evangelism. The result of most friendship evangelism efforts is an unintended bait and switch. And I want to emphasize that word “unintended.” I do not believe Christians who have been convinced that friendship evangelism is biblical and effective (when it is neither), and who are committed to its application, intentionally seek to deceive anyone. I believe Christians who engage in friendship evangelism, who have accepted the tradition as canonical, want to see lost people saved. Christians who engage in friendship evangelism, as it is most commonly practiced, are not my enemies. But friendship evangelism, again, as it is most commonly practiced, is an enemy of the gospel.
C.S. Lewis, if he were alive today, would see the above paragraph as a literary train wreck. He despised the overuse of italicization as a means of providing greater emphasis to an author’s written arguments. In fact, in the preface of his classic work, Mere Christianity, Lewis had this to say:
“The contents of this book were first given on the air, and then published in three separate parts as The Case for Christianity (1943), Christian Behaviour (1943), and Beyond Personality (1945). In the printed versions I made a few additions to what I had said at the microphone, but otherwise left the text much as it had been. A “talk” on the radio should, I think, be as like real talk as possible, and should not sound like an essay being read aloud. In my talks I had therefore used all the contractions and colloquialisms I ordinarily use in conversation. In the printed version I reproduced this, putting don’t and we’ve for do not and we have. And wherever, in the talks, I had made the importance of a word clear by the emphasis of my voice, I printed it in italics.
“I am now inclined to think that this was a mistake—an undesirable hybrid between the art of speaking and the art of writing. A talker ought to use variations of voice for emphasis because his medium naturally lends itself to that method: but a writer ought not to use italics for the same purpose. He has his own, different, means of bringing out the key words and ought to use them. In this edition I have expanded the contractions and replaced most of the italics by recasting the sentences in which they occurred: but without altering, I hope, the ‘popular’ or ‘familiar’ tone which I had all along intended. I have also added and deleted where I thought I understood any part of my subject better now than ten years ago or where I knew that the original version had been misunderstood by others.”
The reason I thought it necessary to put so much emphasis on words and phrases in my opening paragraph is because people read not only with their eyes and their minds, but also with their emotions, and emotions can sometimes blur one’s vision. I graffitied my opening paragraph with bold and italicized type in an attempt to say, I love my brothers and sisters in Christ who engage in friendship evangelism. I do not think you are evil. I do not think you are maniacal. I do not think you are treacherous. I do not think you have sinful, ulterior motives. I do not think you want to deceive anyone. I simply think your preferred and chosen method of evangelism is wrong and without biblical support. I think you are unintentionally and unwittingly engaged in a bait and switch when you engage in friendship evangelism, as it is most commonly practiced.
Before I explain the bait and switch components of friendship evangelism, I need to spend some time removing the bell from around the neck of a sacred cow. Jesus’s relationship to The Twelve is not an example of friendship evangelism. It is an example of God’s sovereignty in election and salvation.
Jesus Chose the Twelve; He Didn’t Befriend Them
Many Christians, both pastors/elders and laypeople, will point to Jesus’s relationship to His twelve disciples as a textbook example of friendship or relationship evangelism. It was nothing of the kind.
Many of the pastors and laypeople who ascribe to friendship evangelism are men and women who would also firmly assert that God is sovereign in salvation. They would be the first to say that salvation is a monergistic work of God and not a synergistic cooperative effort between God and man. They would rightly assert that God chooses whom He will save. Man in his fallen, sinful state cannot choose to be saved and to follow Jesus because to do so would be to act outside of his fallen, sinful nature. Yet these same Christians who hold to a biblical soteriology apply synergism to Jesus’s relationship with His disciples, by eisegetically asserting that it was through friendship, through relationship, that His evangelism of them took place. Not so! It was through friendship and relationship that The Twelve’s discipleship took place. Friendship discipleship is biblical; friendship evangelism is not.
“Jesus did not befriend the disciples with the hope of winning them to Himself. He chose The Twelve. They didn’t choose Him. He sought them out. They didn’t seek Him. He called them. They didn’t call Him. He called them, and they followed Him. Prior to His calling of them, the disciples did not know Him. They had no relationship with Him. The Word of God makes this abundantly clear.
“While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him” (Matthew 4:18-22).
“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him” (Matthew 9:9).
“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said to you, “I saw you under the fig tree,” do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man'” (John 1:43-51).
Jesus called, and the disciples followed. For the next 3+ years, Jesus discipled them in the context of close, intimate, 24/7 relationship. He didn’t spend 3+ years getting to know them before proclaiming gospel truth to them. Today, American Evangelicalism has it backwards. Christians take forever to get around to sharing the gospel (if they ever get around to the gospel), but spend nowhere near the time and energy then discipling new converts. By and large, at the point of conversion, the Christian turns the disciple over to the church, to the elders and pastors, to disciple them. “My work here is done.” Sadly, most American Evangelicals, if surveyed, would likely say, “I don’t feel I’m equipped (mature enough) to disciple someone.” That’s a whole different article.
The Bait and Switch
The term “Bait and Switch” is defined as follows:
“A sales tactic in which a bargain-priced item is used to attract customers who are then encouraged to purchase a more expensive similar item.”
My Christian friend, in the friendship evangelism bait and switch you are the bait. You are the bargain-priced item used to attract customers. You have been told over the years that you have to earn the right to share the gospel. You have been told over the years that you must establish a relationship with a person to show that person you care before you can share the gospel with them. You have been told over the years that people won’t care what you have to say until they see that you care. You have been told over the years that people must first see Jesus in you (after all, you might be the only Jesus some people will ever see) before you can tell them about Jesus. But here’s the problem.
None of these traditional American Evangelical mantras can be supported with Scripture. Modern evangelical tradition holds that the Christian has to do a great deal to make the gospel more palatable, to cushion the blow of the truth, before the truth can and should be shared with lost people. The Bible says otherwise. But, American evangelicals are convinced that the gospel needs their help. The gospel can’t be simply, honestly, and lovingly shared up front. The gospel has to be eased into a conversation, after the Christian has eased into the unbeliever’s life.
So, how does this make the Christian friendship evangelist bait? The customer, the lost person, is offered the bargain-priced, no strings attached, no contract or commitment required relationship with the well-intentioned Christian friendship evangelist. So alluring is the bait and so scant is the information given by the salesman, the customer has no idea that while the Christian friendship evangelist offers his friendship, what he really wants is for the lost person to receive Christ. It might be years before the customer discovers the salesman’s real intent.
Then comes the “switch.” While this doesn’t always happen (because most Christians will admit, if they’re honest, that they don’t share the gospel with their friends), eventually the Christian friendship evangelist gets around to either trying to share the gospel with his lost friend or inviting him to church, with the hope that the pastor, on that particular Sunday morning, will do the Christian’s work for him and preach the gospel. If the lost person (the customer) is smart, he will realize that this is what the Christian friendship evangelist was hoping for all along. While the Christian friendship evangelist advertised friendship, what he really wanted the lost person to buy was Christianity. And when/if the ulterior motive is discovered, the lost person is left wondering if the friendship was little more to the Christian than a deceptive means to a religious end. Ultimately, the all-too-often and unwanted result of friendship evangelism is that it causes the unbeliever to be even more wary of Christianity due to the deceptive devices used in the process. In other words, this type of evangelism seems to actually produce an effect which is opposite of the goal–winning the person to Christ!
And why would the unbeliever think such a thing? Why? Well, for one, he might draw such unflattering conclusions about the Christian because the unbeliever is not looking for Jesus in the first place (Romans 3:11). He wants friendship with the world, not with God (James 4:4). He couldn’t see Jesus in the Christian friendship evangelist if he tried (1 Corinthians 2:14). The unbeliever is spiritually dead in his sin (Ephesians 2:1-3) and, consistent with his nature and preferences, he suppresses the truth by his unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).
Has the Christian friendship evangelist ever stopped to think how dishonest he might appear to his unbelieving friend? That is, of course, if the Christian friendship evangelist ever actually gets around to…..evangelism.
Friendship Built on an Honest and Biblical Foundation
There is one very biblical, very honest way to avoid the unintended bait and switch of friendship evangelism. There is a biblical way to engage in friendship evangelism. There is a way for the Christian to build every friendship with lost people in a manner that shows true love and concern for lost people. But it’s not popular. It might not be easy. And it might end the friendship before it starts.
Begin the friendship with the gospel.
Yes, you read that correctly. I will give you a moment to go grab a brown paper bag so you can control the sudden onset of hyperventilation……
Better, now? Are you okay?
Do you really believe the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16)? Do you really believe God is sovereign (John 6:44; Romans 9:14-18; 1 Peter 1:3)? Are you really willing to deny yourself and follow Christ (Matthew 16:24-26)? Or is your friendship with the unbeliever more important to you than the soul of your friend (John 15:13; James 4:4)? Or, tragically, do you believe the gospel is somehow less effective, less powerful, less relevant, less palatable, less meaningful, or less loving without the assistance of your personality, kindness, generosity, and charity?
Once you’ve honestly dealt with the above paragraph, allow me to encourage you to begin your friendships with unsaved people with the gospel. Doing so should remove any thought in the unbeliever’s spiritually-twisted, unconverted, unregenerate mind of a bait and switch. Be honest. Don’t try to lure the unbeliever to church or to the faith (they are not one and the same) with your friendly demeanor and a track record of years of Christ-less, gospel-less conversations. Love lost people more than that!
The gift of your friendship is not the most loving thing you can give to an unbeliever. You will never do anything more loving than share the gospel of Jesus Christ. You cannot give your friend/coworker/acquaintance a better gift than telling them of the life, death, burial and resurrection of your Lord. Spoken in love, even your words that hurt as you confront your friend with his or her sin are the most caring words they’ll ever hear. While, like a two-year-old child, the unbeliever might more enjoy the cardboard box that is your friendship, you, like a loving parent, should point the spiritual toddler to the real gift, that which the box contains, the love of Jesus Christ as articulated in the gospel.
“Okay, Tony. I hear what you’re saying. But what if I take a plate of cookies over to my new neighbors’ home, I try to share the gospel with them, and they tell me they’re not interested and look at me as if I’m some kind of freak?”
Sadly, much of American Evangelicalism will tell you that you failed and that you likely drove the person farther away from Jesus. So deep have unbiblical traditions taken root in American Evangelicalism that many Christians believe such sentiments and conclusions can be supported by Scripture.
Don’t believe the lies!
Dear Christian friend: the only time we fail in evangelism, if our evangelism is both biblical and loving, is when we fail to evangelize. And as to this ridiculous notion that there is something a Christian can do to drive an already hell-bound lost person farther away from Jesus: how can you drive someone who is not seeking Jesus away from Jesus? How can you cause a hater of God (whether the hate is passive or aggressive) to hate God more? Do you truly believe God is sovereign? Or is that little more than a Christian cliche in your heart and mind that you utter from time to time to let your Christian friends know how spiritually mature you are?
So, worst case scenario, your unsaved, prospective friend closes the door in your face, or hangs up the phone, or (the coup de grace) drops you from his Facebook friends list, His Google+ circle of life, and his Twitter follow list. Now what?
Continue to cultivate the friendship as the Lord gives opportunity to do so. Invite your neighbor over for that no-strings-attached barbecue and pool party. Invite the guy who now sits uncomfortably in the cubicle next to you at work to a Dodgers game (or an Angels game, if that’s the best you can do). Invite him to your church’s Christmas dinner. Offer to mow his lawn. Invite him to the annual men’s retreat.
Be there for your unsaved neighbor, co-worker, fellow student, or family member. Be his friend. And share the gospel again, as the Lord gives opportunity. And the Lord will present the opportunities. Conversations will turn to issues of morality and/or spirituality. It’s inevitable. Why? Because your lost friend knows where you stand; knows who you are; knows Who you worship. He knows these things because your friendship with him began with the gospel.
I am a vocal opponent of friendship evangelism, as it is most commonly practiced. But I am vocal proponent of biblical friendship evangelism. I am a proponent of being upfront and honest with people. I am a proponent of loving people with the gospel, regardless of the personal cost.
Please, initiate relationships with lost people. Please, befriend those who do not know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. But do so in a way that brings glory to Jesus Christ and not to yourself. Begin your friendships with the gospel. Love people, regardless of their response. Be a true friend–one of whom the Lord can one-day say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”